Ordinarily, I use this section to set the stage for the coming game: what has happened in the recent past, relevant story arcs, trends, initial fleeting thoughts before the hard numbers and bold predictions come rolling down the mountain. On a long journey such as this, you need to pull out your map from time to time to make sure you know where you are. We've reached the point where maps do you no good. There's no turning back, no time for recalibration, no recourse.
As things were leading up to the Indiana game at Crisler, the stakes are similar in form but greater in scope: win or it's nothing. Michigan lost to Indiana at home after a put-back danced off the rim with impudence, and left Michigan without a share of the title for a team that for much of the season appeared to be much better than last year's iteration.
But, better or worse, the Big Dance doesn't care. In 2011, Connecticut lost seven of its last 11 games to close out the regular season. They went on to win the Big East Tournament, dispatching Georgetown, Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville along the way. Then, of course, they strung together six more wins after that, with Kemba Walker leading them to national championship. That squad certainly wasn't the best UConn team in the past 10 years or so, and yet they pulled it off with a little bit of Kemba Walker and some tournament magic.
I'm not saying Michigan is set to reprise that UConn run, but I'm saying there's a chance. A small chance, to be fair, but a chance nonetheless.
Of course, if Michigan doesn't win Thursday, then the above retroactively becomes a sad tale of wishful thinking.
The South Dakota State Jackrabbits come in at 25-9 (13-3), Summit League champions after defeating North Dakota State, 73-67 in the final last Tuesday. This team is a 13-seed for a reason, and yet they are just the sort of squad that can give Michigan a run for its money.
After all, we've seen that story before.
It seems a little ridiculous to break down a squad that I hadn't seen at all before casually taking in the aforementioned Summit League final. However, as you probably know by now, six foot four inch senior guard Nate Wolters is the guy who makes it go. Earlier today, Seth Greenberg and Jay Bilas used the names Jimmer Fredette and Steve Nash when attempting to pin down what Wolters brings to the floor.
Obviously, Wolters is neither of those guys, but he won't have to be to beat Michigan. Not to beat a dead horse, but being D.J. Cooper is more than enough to beat Michigan when it is off its game.
Wolters is the sharpshooter who will likely be giving John Beilein et al nightmares tonight. SDSU will space the floor and, as we've found to be the case all season, get the ball moving and Michigan becomes all sorts of discombobulated. All it takes is one failed rotation and it's lights out. Wolters averages 22.7 ppg and is no scrub when it comes to dishing to his teammates (5.8 apg). He shoots 39% from three, but against Michigan you can expect most guys like him to outshoot their season average.
Based on the scant highlights I've seen and things I've read/heard in the past couple of days, Wolters is a legitimate NBA prospect (albeit a fringe prospect, but he's getting looked at, which is a big deal given the number of players occupying NBA rosters vis-a-vis the NFL).
Six foot eight inch Jordan Dykstra is the second-leading scorer for the Jackrabbits, pitching in 12.5 ppg. Naturally, he only shoots 45% from the field overall but is hitting 43% of his treys. That is going to be a problem.
Six foot seven inch junior forward Tony Fiegen and six foot six inch senior guard Chad White both pitch in 10 ppg apiece. Yes, Wolters is the clear headliner on this team, but it's certainly not as if some other guys can't hurt you, especially when you're keying on him heavily and generally sloppy with your rotations. Also of note: White is shooting 43% from downtown as well.
Six foot four inch junior guard Brayden Carlson pitches in 8.7 ppg of his own, shooting a respectable 35.6% from three.
Rounding out the eight man rotation are 6'3''ish guard Taevaunn Prince and Jake Bittle. At 6'9'', Marcus Heemstra is the tallest guy on the roster but comes off of the bench. He averages just under 12 minutes per game but shoots 56% from the floor and a cool 78% from the line, pretty good for a big man.
- SWITCH EVERYTHING FERGODSAKES. Save Fiegen, SDSU's starting five can shoot the three, and they're all between 6'4'' and 6'8''. The fear of a mismatch shouldn't much of one at all, or, at least, not as much as a defender getting caught on the screen and leaving an open three or a simple pass to one.
- More LeVert, please. Michigan's defense has failed it for some time now, but a salient sub-point here that separates Michigan from teams like Ohio State and Indiana is the lack of a true defensive stopper. Now, I'm not saying LeVert is like my Bulls' Jimmy Butler just yet, but he gives Michigan a little more length and agility, which will be the name of this game on the defensive end. When anyone other than Wolters puts it on the floor, Michigan should be okay. But, when he does, someone needs to check him and prevent those deadly drive and kicks. If it's not Burke, who has upped his defensive game in a huge way this season, it might have to be LeVert. He's shown flashes of defensive ability throughout the season. If Stauskas is not getting it done from outside, LeVert should get a little more run.
- Play the three-point line. This is always easier said than done, especially when a team is full of three-point shooters and a guy like Wolters who can do it all. If only you could just face guard everybody, things would be just great. Alas, that would be as disastrous as trotting out a starting five of penguins with sprained flippers. SDSU was first in the Summit and 59th in the nation in three-pointers attempted. So, maybe, let's not let them do that.
- Pace. I'm completely disregarding the possessions per game stat for this one considering the two conferences from which these teams hail. Athletically, when SDSU does miss and/or produce long rebounds, Michigan needs to run. The fewer sets that gradually become Trey Burke "save us" moments, the better. The Jackrabbits won't be able to hang with Michigan in the open floor, and Michigan should be able to do some work on the offensive glass as well.
- The Jackrabbits are 255th in the country in free throw rate (32.8%).
- Wolters, nationally, is: 4th in minutes per game, 5th in field goals made, 4th in points per game and 8th in free throws made. Needless to say, he fills it up like Denard Robinson makes fast people look incredibly slow.
- SDSU is 7th nationally in free throw percentage and points per possession. They are 59th in 3PA and 55th in 3P%. When they get to the free throw line, they've hit 76.3% as a team, but they don't get there too often. Additionally, they are 244th in offensive rebounding percentage.