2013-14 Hoops Preview: Non-Conference Opponents

Streeter Lecka

Michigan will test its mettle early this season with road games against Duke and Iowa State, a home contest against Arizona, will head to Brooklyn to play against Stanford, and could potentially face VCU, Georgetown, or Kansas State in a tricky Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

*Number in parentheses is the opponent's 2013 Kenpom Rank.

Nov. 8: UMass-Lowell (Division II)

Nov. 12: South Carolina State (341)

Nov. 17: @ Iowa State (27)

Michigan completes the second leg of a home-and-home series with a trip to Ames to face the Cyclones (UM won the first contest in Ann Arbor two years ago, 76-66). This is Fred Hoiberg's fourth season at the helm -- he grew up in Ames, starred for Iowa State in the early nineties, and played in the NBA for a decade (and his success so far at Iowa State -- two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances -- has drawn interest from the league). Last year, the Cyclones rode an excellent offense and mediocre defense to the second round of the tournament, where they lost on an Aaron Craft buzzer-beater to Ohio State.

Unfortunately for Iowa State, they're tasked with replacing a lot of key parts from last year's team; seniors Will Clyburn, Korie Lucious, Tyrus McGee and Anthony Booker are all gone, and much of ISU's rotation seems to be in flux. Hoiberg typically features an aesthetically pleasing small-ball, three-point reliant offense, but the strength of this year's squad may lie in the frontcourt -- senior Melvin Ejim is a ferocious rebounder (quite possibly the best in the Big 12), and Georges Niang is an intriguing blend of size and skill with the ability to really space the floor at the five. Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane could be tasked with running the offense from the point guard position -- he's big and had a top-ten assist rate nationally for the Thundering Herd last year. On the perimeter, unproven guys like JUCO transfer K.J. Bluford, sophomore Naz Long, redshirt freshman Sherron Dorsey-Walker, and four-star freshmen Monte Morris and Matt Thomas will have the opportunity for big roles. Interestingly, Hoiberg has created somewhat of a recruiting pipeline to Michigan -- Dorsey-Walker and reserve big man Percy Gibson are from Detroit, and Morris -- from Flint Beecher -- won Mr. Basketball over Derrick Walton, James Young and others.

Iowa State is a tough opponent, and early games on the road are typically tricky, especially when Michigan will still probably be figuring out which sets and lineups gel together well. It will be interesting to see who Michigan puts on Ejim -- potentially the Wolverine's own rebounding machine, Mitch McGary (if he's healthy). Jordan Morgan could be a great defensive matchup to put on Niang. Michigan's lack of size in the backcourt could be an issue against Iowa State's bigger guards. On the other hand though, Michigan's offense could really thrive -- Iowa State loses some of its best defenders from a relatively bad defense last year. This game should be somewhat instructive -- it's the first real data point against a quality opponent (with Iowa State's collection of talent, and with Hoiberg at the helm, they should make the NCAA Tournament) but if Michigan is really an elite team, this should be a fairly winnable game. If it takes a while for the Wolverines to put things together, and with McGary potentially dealing with injury issues, it could easily be a loss as well.

Nov. 21-24: Puerto Rico Tip-Off

First Round: Long Beach State (159)

Long Beach State has gained a reputation across college basketball for their typically murderous non-conference schedules and this year is no exception -- the 49ers face Arizona, Kansas State, Washington, Creighton, North Carolina State, USC and Missouri. With James Ennis gone (the senior was drafted by the Miami Heat), Michigan should be able to handle Long Beach State without much difficulty.

Second Round: VCU (20) / Florida State (121)

If Michigan wins, they'll face the winner of the VCU vs. Florida State. In all likelihood (and assuming Michigan dispatches LBSU in the first round), that will be VCU -- Florida State projects to be a bottom-third ACC squad and despite the characteristically stingy defenses of Leonard Hamilton squads, any program momentum for the Seminoles seems to have halted. VCU should beat Florida State and that would potentially set up a rematch of Michigan's 78-53 romp over the Rams in the NCAA Tournament.

VCU is a program with a solid, well-defined identity; head coach Shaka Smart's hyper-aggressive and complex trapping full-court press defense is the backbone of the program. Smart is rightfully considered to be an elite coaching prospect, but right now he's content to manage one of the top-tier mid-major programs in the country. His "Havoc" defense forced the most turnovers in the country in each of the last two seasons, and with VCU's ever-increasing recruiting prowess, there's a deep bench to provide enough depth to keep people fresh. Turnovers are the key to VCU's success: without them, their half-court defense is rather average, and their best form of offense is generated from backcourt steals. If you don't turn it over against VCU, you'll win most of the time, but it's incredibly difficult to avoid turning it over on a lot of possessions.

Not a whole lot has changed from the squad that Michigan easily dispatched a year ago. Darius Theus, an elite perimeter defender, and Troy Davis, a 40% three-point specialist, have graduated, but a lot of the rotation stays the same: Treveon Graham -- a jack-of-all-trades wing who led the Rams in scoring last year -- and Juvonte Reddic -- a solid, two-way big who led the team in rebounding a year ago -- are NBA prospects and complementary pieces like Briante Webber (who had the highest steal rate in the country last year), Rob Bradenburg, Melvin Johnson, and Jordan Burgess make for impressive depth. Altogether, VCU could very well be better than they were last year, and that makes for a potential top-15 type opponent early in the season.

This will be a massive test for point guards Spike Albrecht -- who played well against VCU in March -- and Derrick Walton (I previewed the two point guards last week). If they can both be viable options against a chaotic and intimidating defense, Michigan will probably win, but that's a lot to ask of guys with little experience thus far. Michigan's turnover-aversion was good enough in the last meeting to enable the Wolverines to dissect VCU's half-court defense. Mitch McGary was utterly dominant -- he scored 21 points on 11 field goal attempts and pulled down 14 rebounds, and Michigan could potentially dominate Reddic and the Rams inside with its size. Still, it will almost certainly come down to how well Walton and/or Albrecht handle the pressure; the Wolverines turn to their most inexperienced position group against a potentially top-tier opponent, and Trey Burke isn't here this time. This will likely be one of Michigan's toughest non-conference games, so having a healthy McGary and composed point guard play is vital.

Third Round: Georgetown (12) / Kansas State (21) / Charlotte (128) / Northeastern (179)

It's hard to project who Michigan would face in this game, but if the Wolverines beat Long Beach State in the first round, it will likely be Georgetown or Kansas State in this game. Like Michigan, Georgetown is tasked with replacing its best player by far -- Otto Porter was a tremendous college wing and his production was often the only thing carrying a stagnant Georgetown offense. The Hoyas suffered one of the worst upsets in the tournament last year to Florida Gulf Coast, but they were a two-seed in the first place. They'll challenge for the rehauled Big East: Georgetown had the second-most efficient defense in the country last year and they'll probably have another elite defense again this year. Markel Starks is a very good, if turnover-prone, senior point guard; D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera was a very good backcourt-mate as an undersized two-guard; Nate Lubick is a solid senior five who acts as the fulcrum of their offense. The Hoyas project to be an elite defense -- or pretty close to it -- but their offense will be a huge question mark, as it was average even with Porter.

Michigan beat Kansas State in the final game of the 2K Classic last year -- Tim Hardaway had a huge game and the Wolverines coasted to a 71-57 win. The Wildcats lose Rodney McGruder to graduation and Angel Rodriguez, their other star, transferred to Miami. Bruce Weber succeeded in his first year in Manhattan, but losing his top two scorers will make it a difficult year. Kansas State tied for the Big Twelve conference title a year ago, but they're a huge question mark right now; Thomas Gipson, Shane Southwell and Will Spradling are decent rotational guys but they haven't shown the ability to be consistent go-to guys (although Southwell has had some really good individual games). Kansas State is very good on the offensive glass -- Michigan could benefit from a front-court pairing of McGary and Jordan Morgan or Jon Horford in a potential matchup -- and that's their biggest strength. Other than that though, the Wildcats look to be an average-at-best squad unless they get a very surprising breakout year.

Dec. 3: @ Duke (6)

This is perhaps the marquee matchup of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge -- Michigan is coming off of a Final Four appearance, has two potential lottery picks, and sits in the top ten nationally; Duke boasts one of the best of an elite freshman class (Jabari Parker), had a very good squad last year, and is in the top five. Duke had a veteran-laden team that struggled with injuries during ACC play, but they still finished as a two-seed and eventually lost to Louisville in the Elite Eight. With seniors Mason Plumlee (an athletic, and often dominant two-way five), Ryan Kelly (an effective and integral sharpshooting stretch four) and Seth Curry (another sharpshooter and the best scoring guard on the team) gone to the NBA, new faces will need to step up for Duke.

Parker committed to Duke over Michigan State, and projects to be taken in the top half of a lottery littered with potentially franchise-level prospects. Parker's known for his all-around skill; he has great size for the three but could be forced to a stretch four position because of a lack of quickness to compensate. Parker has a great shot, has a developing post game (which is great for a player coming out of high school), is an elite passer for his size, and rebounds quite well. The biggest knock on him as a prospect is the seeming lack of top-level athleticism necessary to be an elite pro player. He will be a matchup nightmare against Michigan regardless though -- it stands to reason that Glenn Robinson will be forced to defend him, although Parker reportedly could play anywhere from a jumbo two-guard to a stretch-five depending on how good the rest of Duke's personnel is. There typically is quite a bit of variance in the game-to-game performance of freshmen, but Parker seems to be a sure bet and he'll be the most dangerous weapon the Blue Devils have.

Plumlee, Kelly, and Curry are tough losses, but Duke still has a solid amount of returning talent. Quinn Cook, Rasheed Suliamon, and Tyler Thornton can provide a formidable trio of guards with a variable collection of skill-sets. Rodney Hood is a big unknown after transferring from Mississippi State; the athletic and efficient wing had a solid freshman season for the Bulldogs and could grow into Duke's best player. Regardless, he forms a formidable pairing on the wings with Jabari Parker, and those two figure to carry the scoring burden for the Blue Devils. The five spot is a question mark in the wake of Plumlee's departure; Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee will compete for the spot.

This will be one of Michigan's most talented opponents, and it's going to be tough to face the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor. Parker and Hood are going to be difficult to handle, and Michigan's lack of perimeter defense could be exposed very badly. It will be another test for the young point guards, tasked with running the team in a very difficult environment. Duke's man-to-man defense should be formidable again, and it might fall to Mitch McGary to exploit Duke's weakness at the five. Michigan will need to be able to generate good looks to keep up with the Blue Devils, and if guys like Robinson and Nik Stauskas (or Zak Irvin, Caris LeVert, etc.) don't step up, it could be a long night. If McGary can stay on the floor between his propensity for fouling,  and potential health and conditioning issues, Michigan will have a chance, but it's going to be a very difficult game to steal on the road with Duke's talent level and phenomenal coaching.

Dec. 7: Houston Baptist (321)

Dec. 14: Arizona (15)

Michigan's other elite opponent will travel to Ann Arbor, and it's really hard what to make of them. Arizona went undefeated out-of-conference last year (with wins over Florida and Miami), but scuffled in-conference and failed to win even a share of a down Pac-12 and eventually bowed out to Ohio State in a tight Sweet Sixteen contest. Gone from that team are the enigmatic, high-volume point guard transfer, Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill, a wing glue guy who was the Wildcats' best defender, Kevin Parrom, a scoring wing, and Grant Jerrett, a stretch four who unexpectedly declared for the NBA Draft.

Sean Miller is recruiting at an elite level for Arizona, and despite losing a lot of talent and production, the Wildcats are reloading and might be better than they were a year ago. Seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski was a five-star freshman last year and while he wasn't immediately dominant at the college level, he could have a breakout year and be stellar on the offensive and defensive ends. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is an elite recruit who projects to be the starting three for Arizona, but Aaron Gordon is the gem of Miller's excellent recruiting class. The five-star freshman could play anywhere from the three to the five and has drawn decent comparisons to Blake Griffin because of his athleticism and dunking ability. Matching Gordon -- perhaps another top-five pick in this loaded draft -- next to Tarczewski could eventually be the best frontcourt in the country. Brandon Ashley provides frontcourt depth, and Nick Johnson and Duquesne transfer T. J. McConnell form a good enough backcourt. Arizona might not be very deep, but the talent there is immense.

It's not that often that home-and-home series like this happen, but it's going to be a very intriguing first leg. Michigan and Arizona both have a blend of talent and inexperience that makes this game very difficult to project. Guarding Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson will be a challenge, and Tarczewski could get McGary into foul trouble quickly. Michigan does have an offense that could give Arizona plenty of problems as well, especially if McGary can handle the Wildcats down low. This, along with the Duke game, will be indicative of how good Michigan can be without Trey Burke -- big performances from McGary, Robinson, and others will need to be more frequent to win games like these, and these sorts of games parse out who will be the go-to options offensively at critical junctures. Fortunately this game is at home, which will favor Michigan greatly in a game between two roughly equivalent -- and inexperienced -- teams.

Dec. 21: Stanford (44)*

*Game is in Brooklyn

It's Johnny Dawkins's sixth season at the helm for Stanford and he still hasn't made it to the NCAA Tournament, so his days are likely numbered if there isn't progress on that end soon. The Cardinal do return a lot of the squad that tied for sixth in the PAC-12 at 9-9 and this provides an interesting matchup at a neutral site. Stanford does once again project to be a middle-of-the-pack PAC-12 team, and lack top-flight, NBA talent, but they're a veteran squad. Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis are a solid frontcourt -- Huestis is an aggressive rebounder and defender while Powell is a high-volume scorer. Chasson Randle is a scoring combo guard, and Aaron Bright and Anthony Brown flesh out the rest of the guard rotation. All five are either juniors or seniors. Freshmen Marcus and Michael Allen are the future of the backcourt and could compete for playing time early.

This seems to be a game where Michigan should be a decided favorite. By now, any issues with how the pieces fit together should be resolved (or conversely, if they still persist, it will be very alarming) and Albrecht or Walton should take over the point guard spot by the end of December. Stanford wasn't a great defensive team last year, and outside of turnover-aversion, their offense wasn't especially good at anything either. It's a major-conference opponent that shouldn't be taken lightly, but Michigan should handle teams like Stanford pretty easily if  they're to be considered a Final Four contender.

Dec. 28: Holy Cross (236)

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