Date: Saturday December 14th
#1 Arizona Wildcats (10-0)
Schedule so far: The WIldcats remain unbeaten midway through December and already have a couple quality wins on the resume. Early in the season Arizona beat San Diego State on the road by nine points. A few days before Michigan played Duke, Arizona won a game against the Blue Devils on a neutral court. Both teams are Kenpom top-40 squads
The closest calls this season came against Drexel and UNLV. In the first, Arizona was down at the half and used a furious second half comeback to sneak out the four point win. In the second, UNLV kept pace with Arizona until late before the Wildcats hung on to win.
The thing that really jumps out here is rebounding. Arizona is in the top 12 nationally in both OR% and OR% allowed. Michigan is 13th in OR% allowed (24.8%), but it wouldn't be unfair to expect Michigan to struggle rebounding in this game — Michigan did struggle against Duke, a less proficient rebounding team.
Thankfully, it looks like Arizona doesn't possess the kind of defense capable of generating turnovers against Michigan, which is once again one of the best teams in the nation at holding on to the ball.
Shooting guard Nick Johnson (6'3 Jr.) has been the main offensive weapon, currently leading the team in usage rate and doing so with a 57.7 eFG% while hitting 35% of his 45 3PA. Johnson won't help much on the boards or defense, but he is an effective scorer from all over the floor.
He works well as a pure scorer because Arizona has freshman phenom Aaron Gordon (6'9, Fr.) to do most everything else. Gordon is one of the best freshman prospects in the nation and is a surefire one-and-done candidate. He has been a good rebounder, defender, and "five-star jawdropping play" guy for Arizona this year. His weaknesses so far are passing (8.6 ARate) and FT shooting (45% on 47 attempts).
Beside Gordon in the front court are center Kaleb Tarczewski (7'0, So) and forward Brandon Ashley (6'8, So). Both have had very efficient starts to the year offensively. Ashley is leading the team in ORtg at 119.3 while shooting a team high 65.6 eFG%. Tarczewski has been very effective at creating points as a ancilliary optoin to his high profile teammates. He is hitting 60% of his shots from the floor and has a FT Rate of 56.7. He hits 73% from the line. Both players sport good rebounding rates on both sides of the court.
The final starter is point guard TJ McConnell (6'1 Jr.). He boasts a high assist rate (36.8, 21st nationally) and steal rate and shoots the ball at an okay 54.3 eFG% — he is also the least relied upon offensive player. Arizona will also rely heavily on sixth man Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (6'7 Fr.), an energy guy that leads the team in OR% and Blk%.
Game Keys: Michigan's offense is still looking for a consistent spark, and against the long, athletic Wildcats, generating those opportunities in transition could be an issue. If Arizona can win an advantage on the glass, Michigan won't be able to get out and run and find ways to attack Arizona before its defense is set.
Michigan is also going to have to find a way to deal with the tallest team it has faced all season. A front court that measures 6'8, 6'9, 7'0 is imposing, and while Michigan has more length on the wings, it is giving up some size against Arizona — a team that ranks 13th in Kenpom's effective height metric. It will be interesting to see if Michigan goes to its two-big lineup very often in this one. That lineup hasn't shown the same offensive effectiveness as Michigan's wing-heavy lineups, which is saying something.
One thing Michigan could try is the 1-3-1 which has been deployed at strategic spots. Arizona doesn't attempt a lot of shots from outside normally — just 27% of all Arizona shots come from three — but the team hits at a 37.7% rate. With Arizona on the road, Michigan could catch the Wildcats on a bad shooting night, adding a little bit more effectiveness to the zone. Although that could be massively outweighed by Arizona's offensive rebounding ability against a zone that practically screams "here, take all of these second chance bounces".
Also, it will most likely be Glenn Robinson III tasked with covering Aaron Gordon, another unlucky defensive draw after having to guard Jabari Parker two weeks ago. Parker had 15 on 14 shots in that one and no offensive rebounds. That isn't a bad stat line considering Parker's averages.
Outlook: Kenpom gives Michigan a one point edge in this game, and while I think the Wolverines can give Arizona a game, I don't like how some of the matchups come down. Michigan might have a hard time generating the transition opportunities that its offense has relied upon because of the rebounding advantages Arizona has, and unless Michigan can use more pick-and-roll sets to get the ball into the lane, it seems likely that the half court offense stagnates and settles for bad shots.
This will also be perhaps the best test Mitch McGary sees in all of the non-conference season. He is going to be dealing with the biggest, most skilled front court Michigan has faced, and as he nears full health it is imperative that he continues to add the kinds of chaotic defensive plays, transition opportunities, and second chance points to spark the rest of Michigan's offense. Trey Burke isn't around anymore, and someone has to be the difference maker for Michigan's offense.
Michigan has enough talent to compete in this one, but the Wolverines have been too inconsistent yet this year to lend any confidence to the idea of them pulling off an upset over the number one team in the nation. The talent is there, but it has yet to be on full display. Saturday would be a good time to start that.
Also, we will be having an open threat tomorrow to talk about the game as it is going on. Stop by and join us.