Hoops Talk Part Two: Michigan's Toughest Remaining Games and What Can Caris And GRIII Provide Down The Stretch

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan is at the top of the conference after a terrific three game win streak over top-10 teams. Given how unlikely this was, Fouad and I sat down to discuss how this has changed Michigan's season outlook and why the Wolverines were able to have so much success.

(Be sure to check out part one of our conversation.)

Fouad: Speaking of potential letdowns, Michigan has a manageable three-game stretch coming up. The Wolverines get Purdue at home, go to Indiana, then get Nebraska at home. Can Michigan fans expect to go 3-0 there, or will Assembly Hall once again send the Wolverines away with a loss (even though the Hoosiers haven't looked too great)? Considering Michigan follows this stretch up with the ridiculous four-game stretch of @Iowa, @OSU, Wisconsin and MSU, you would think that winning the next three games then going .500 the rest of the way will be enough to win a title.

Zach: Of the remaining clumps of games, this one seems to be the one that favors Michigan the most when it comes to the possibility of going undefeated, so I think the expectation has to be for Michigan to push through and make it to the next stretch of doom at 10-0.

That being said, I don't see any of those games as gimmes. When people talk about the strength of the Big Ten as a conference, I don't think they spend enough time talking about how the bottom and middle tiers of the conference are actually pretty capable. Michigan struggled late last year against Purdue when the Boilermakers got a hot hand to start, and if Michigan doesn't outscore Purdue 35-21 over the last ten minutes, that game goes the other way for Michigan.

Similarly, Nebraska took Michigan to within an inch of its life in Lincoln earlier this season, and if the Wolverines can't come up with a way to slow down Nebraska's offense, there is a chance that the Huskers can keep the game close and pull off the upset. Neither of these results are all that expected. Michigan has the home court advantage, and in college basketball that is a huge deal. Still, stranger things have happened.

The real worrisome game is, as you mentioned, the trip to Assembly Hall sandwiched in between those two games. Indiana isn't the same team as last year, and that makes Michigan's great start to Big Ten play look even more impressive when you remember that both teams lost multiple first rounders in last year's NBA draft. However, Indiana's weaknesses on offense (a high TO% and so-so 3pt%) aren't necessarily things Michigan can look to exploit, as the Wolverines aren't a high turnover generating defense and Indiana doesn't rely much on the 3pt shot. Yogi "Don't Call Me Kevin" Ferrell and Noah Vonleh are both going to present matchup problems for Michigan. Ultimately I think the Wolverines can win because I like Michigan's ability to control the tempo of the game by limiting turnovers and getting good shots more than I like Indiana to go ballistic and outshoot a hot Michigan team. But Assembly Hall could be a great equalizer.

Whether Michigan makes it through that stretch undefeated or not, the biggest four games come after as Michigan has trips to Iowa and Ohio State followed by home games vs. Wisconsin and Michigan State. Of those three teams Michigan has already beat, which do you think the Wolverines have the best chance to sweep this season, and which do you think is most likely to even the series at 1-1. Also, are you afraid of the Big Bad Buckeyes?

Fouad: Given that Iowa is on the road, I'm mentally chalking that one up as a loss--Michigan might win, but Iowa is too good to allow Michigan to stifle them in transition a second time, let alone at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. So, that leaves Michigan State and Wisconsin. Both will be incredibly tough outs, but I think Michigan's best chance at a sweep might be against the Badgers (and that is no disrespect at all to them). Assuming that Adreian Payne is back for the Feb. 23 matchup in Ann Arbor (Dawson might be ready by then, but I doubt it), Michigan will once again have to really bring it. On the bright side for the Wolverines, it's at home, so the officiating should be a little more in their favor. Even with the home court advantage, though, if they don't attack the basket then Michigan might not be able to 58-percent-from-three its way to victory the next time.

As for Ohio State, yes, they are still very much a team to be concerned about, especially in Columbus; after all, John Beilein has yet to win there. Like Michigan State, the Buckeyes will play stifling perimeter defense and they're third in the conference in points per possession allowed during Big Ten play (0.97). Now, you can argue until you're blue in the face that some of that tough defense should result in a whistle. That's fine, but it doesn't change the reality of playing on the road. Like Saturday night's game in East Lansing, Michigan will just have to adapt and Win The Game.

I think Ohio State's four-game losing streak has people a little more down on the Buckeyes than they should be--let's not forget that three of those losses came on the road. The Breslin Center and The Barn are obviously really tough places to play, and even though the Cornhuskers aren't a top tier Big Ten squad, Pinnacle Bank Arena seems like a difficult venue to play in (at least from what I can tell by watching on TV).

When things break down, like they did often against MSU, Michigan often has to resort to Caris LeVert pounding the rock. After a tremendous start to the season and then some rough patches, how are you feeling about Mr. LeVert going forward?

Zach: My major worry about Caris is that he just doesn't play physical enough for Michigan to depend on him in those situations. The whole joke about LeVert gaining 20 lbs to get to 180 has been played out at this point, but he is still incredibly wiry (which is a nice way of saying he isn't going to move anyone). That is fine when his first step is enough to get the edge on a defender, but teams as talented at perimeter defense as Michigan State don't easily cede that corner and I think that LeVert is going to continue to struggle against really good defenses.

Against Michigan State he was still able to make a solid contribution because he hit 3/5 from 3pt and 6/7 from the line, but once you look at his numbers inside the arc it becomes a bit worrisome. He hit just one shot out of five and had three turnovers to cancel out his three assists. There was one particular drive to the basket that never had a chance because he crumpled up as soon as there was any contact from Costello. Now, I know, I know, "foul" and all, but the fact of the matter is that unless the offensive player does a little something extra to get the defender off balance, simply running into a guy's chest and outstretched arms in the post won't draw a foul.

However, LeVert is able to really add value in other places (see: eight rebounds and three assists), so his tendency to get bullied with the ball in his hands isn't all that worrisome as long as his presence on the court is a net positive. That being said, there is one glaring problem that Michigan had against Michigan State: Glenn Robinson III did what I like to call a "Tim Hardaway Jr. in the Breslin Center" impression. GRIII was nearly invisible the entire game. He was 2/6 from the floor and added just a single rebound and assist while committing three turnovers. This is despite him having an easier matchup against Kaminski/Byrd instead of the injured Branden Dawson. This was supposed to be GRIII's game to take over, but instead it was perhaps his worst disappearing act of the season. How can a kid with that much physical talent disappear to that extent in a game like this, and is GRIII turning into the second coming of THJ?

Fouad: GRIII's performance was definitely a bit of a disappointment, especially after all of the progress he'd seemingly made. That, plus the absence of Dawson, and most people figured he'd be able to have himself a game. Well, when you get swatted by Russell Byrd, that's just plain bad.

On the one hand, talented guys like THJ have "THJ in the Breslin Center" games because the Breslin Center is: a) a tough place to play and b) MSU is always very good. I don't want to disparage the guy, especially not with any pop sports psychology gibberish, but Michigan has guys on the team who raise it up a level in these sorts of environments. Stauskas is obviously one of those guys, and while LeVert doesn't always make the perfect play, he is completely unafraid to put himself in the thick of things. After Saturday, you can even throw in the freshman point guard, who knocked down shots, made plays and showed no signs of being shaken or nervous.

GRIII just does not seem to be one of those guys. That might even explain why even his second halves during his solid Arizona-and-onward stretch have been less productive than the first halves. I'm not too concerned that he had one bad night after a long stretch of good to very good games. He is what he is: an excellent athlete, transition monster and a guy who can create his own shot when he wants to play with an aggressive edge. If GRIII were Michigan's No. 1 offensive option, Michigan fans should definitely be concerned. However, he isn't, especially not in crunch time. Remember, although GRIII has played a decent amount of college ball, he's not some grizzled junior or senior. There's still a lot he can learn.

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