With Indiana losing at Illinois last night the Big Ten Dance Card still only has to guests for five seats. Michigan has a great chance tonight to not only stake a claim to one of those seats, but to grab one with a view of the dance floor.
As it stands, Michigan (4-1) is currently 3rd in the Big Ten behind front running #2 Wisconsin (5-0) and #5 Ohio State (4-1). Everyone else in conference has at least 2 losses. Michigan's is 37th in the RPI, ranking 6th in the Big Ten (in part because of a home-home split with #34 RPI Purdue). Again, tonight is a tremendous opportunity to change not only their RPI, but the Big Ten standings as well.
It's going to be a tough task. Michigan has never fared well on the road under Amaker, going 18-39 away from Crisler Arena. None of those victories are against Wisconsin. In fact Michigan hasn't won in Madison since 1999.
This trip to Madison will probably be the toughest in recent memory. The Badgers are #2 in the country, have a single loss (by 2 points to Missouri State [RPI #32 by the way]), sport two of the best players in the country in G/F/Gazelle/Nightmare Alando Tucker (20 ppg) and G Kammron Taylor (13.6 ppg), and are 41-2 at home under head coach Bo Ryan.
Cam' Ron and Lando, Keepin' it smooth in Mad Town
And it's not as though it's just Wisconsin's stars that are winning game for them. It seems every night someone new steps up for the Badgers, whether it's Jason Chappell or Greg Stiemsma there's someone there to pick up any slack for the Badgers.
So where is there any room for optimism?
If you know where to look, you'll find it. Specifically, look to Big Ten Wonk's incredible work on the Big Ten this season. Michigan is 3rd in the Big Ten in points per possession (behind Indiana and OSU), 1st in offensive rebounding percentage, 3rd in opponents points per possession, 1st in limiting an opponent's effective FG%, 4th in 3point defense percentage (27%!), and has shown the ability to limit the other team's offensive possessions.
The response to these numbers is "yeah, but they're doing it against the dregs of the conference and they suck on the road." Fair enough. However, Michigan has shown signs it is beginning to turn the corner. One indicator is Michigan's improved defense from last year to today. As Nathan Fenno points out, Michigan is holding its opponents to 5.4 points per game less than it allowed last year. Another is the improved play of Jerret Smith. Whether you're looking at the addition of King Udoh, the smothering defense Brent Petway has played all year, or the returning shooting touches of Lester Abram and Dion Harris, this is a better team than last year. And because of that, they always have a chance to win.
Looking at Wisconsin, match ups will be key. I would expect Ron Coleman and Brent Petway to share the burden of covering Tucker depending on what type of offense Wisconsin puts on the floor. Inside, Petway's got him. Outside, Coleman. The last time the two teams met, even though Michigan upset Wisconsin at Crisler, Tucker put up 21 on Michigan. Though Tucker is one of the early favorites for Big Ten and National player of the year, it's not scaring Ron Coleman, he's looking forward to the challenge.
Wisconsin is a team built on penetration, but it possesses a decent big man in Sims-esque Brian Butch. Butch is averaging about 10ppg and 6rbpg. Sims ability to control Butch will be a determining factor in whether Michigan gets the win. Uncharacteristically, Sims played surprisingly good defense against Purdue swatting 3 shots and keeping Carl Landry relatively at bay.
Though Wisconsin shoots relatively well from the floor, their numbers are deceiving. Wisconsin misses a lot of shots (4th most in the conference) and makes a good chunk of their change on the offensive glass (3rd in Big Ten). It will be imperative that Michigan replicates their 35 rebound performance against Purdue (21 DRB) and cut the offensive boards allowed in half (19 last game, ugh). Similar to the Purdue game, Michigan will see some bad shooting, so tonight they have to be able to keep Tucker, Butch and Krabbenhoft off the glass. This is where Michigan matches up relatively well against Wisconsin. Michigan has both the size and athleticism to keep the Badgers off the boards. Udoh, Petway, and Abram are all outstanding rebounders, and Sims is more than serviceable. The boards will be where Michigan keeps the game close.
If Michigan can control the boards, the rest will be up to Harris, Abram, and Sims to provide the offensive punch. In their last match up Courtney Sims was huge, pumping in 18 points (8-10) in only 15 minutes of playing time. This time he gets the start with spark-plug King Udoh coming off the bench to spell him. Sims has been faced with a vicious pair of undersized, muscle bound power forwards in the last two games. Quizzically, he's had no success against shorter stronger opponents but always seems to fair well against men more his size. He put 26 and 10 on Terrence Dials last year and 15 on Paul Davis in the last MSU/UM match up. Tonight Sims has two 6-11 C/F's to play against. We'll have to see how he responds. Despite his history, I'm not picking him to succeed.
Harris and Abram will likely contribute the bulk of Michigan's scoring. Both have been hot of late and it will be up to them to bury their chances when they have them. Whether they get those open looks will depend, finally, on the play of Jerret Smith and Ron Coleman. Smith was the star on Saturday dishing 7 assists, and leading Michigan to its most complete win of the year. Whether it was just a fluke or a sign of things to come, Smith finally looked like the floor leader Amaker's been telling us he will be. He found the open man, drove the lane when he saw opportunity, attacked the defense's weakest point, and hit his outside shots. More importantly, he didn't let his momentary failures eat him up as they have in the past. Tonight can either be his true coming out party or confirm to many of us that Saturday was a fluke. I may be praying for the former, but I'm expecting the latter.
If Michigan reverts to its old self, the Badgers blow them out. If they play well, they keep it close but Wisconsin wins late.
If Smith and Sims play like they can Michigan can win.
I'm keeping my fingers crossed.