The only Big Ten team that walked into the 2012-13 season with more national hype than Michigan, was the Indiana Hoosiers. It was a team that brought back plenty of experience at the top, including Cody Zeller, a probable lottery pick a year ago and one of the best big men in the country. Tom Crean's squad had the top to bottom talent to stake an impressive claim to number one.
It almost worked out that way. Indiana has largely lived up to its billing as the most talented team in the nation, but the slip ups have been unavoidable. First, Indiana dropped a game against Butler in overtime. Not an inexcusable loss by any means. Indiana would return to waxing pretty much all comers until two weeks ago, when a visit from Bo Ryan and everyone's favorite Wisconsin team led to loss number two. It was a strange game that included just 59 possessions for each team and an uncharacteristically poor shooting day from Indiana (just 25 percent from deep and 40 percent from two).
Although, when discussing college basketball, one has to remember to take results against Wisconsin with a grain of salt. Those games might as well be played in a vacuum given the way Wisconsin plays.
So Michigan will get to face what is perhaps the most talented team in the country, led by arguably the best big man and best wing defender, all while playing on the road and in the spotlight of College Gameday's broadcast.
Welcome to the big time.
Any discussion of Indiana begins with Cody Zeller. He has the highest usage rate and takes the largest share of the offenses' shots. He is also: A) an efficient scorer, holding an eFG% in the top 100 nationally, B) one of the best players in the nation at getting to the line, drawing seven fouls per forty minutes, C) a good rebounder, especially on the offensive glass (top 100 in OR% as well. Cody Zeller is, more of less, exactly what you want to see in a center. Big, efficient, and aggressive.
The rest of the team feeds off of his presence in the middle. Swingman Victor Oladipo is Zeller's righthand man, and could give the big man a run for his money when it comes to "best player on the team". Oladipo is having himself a ridiculously effective year offensively. He currently sits 19th in the nation with a 127.8 ORating, and his eFG% is second in the nation (70.8). He is hitting over half of his three point shots and is a strong offensive rebounder. If all that wasn't enough, Oladipo is also an absolute lockdown defender who sports the 12th highest steam percentage in the country.
The rest of the backcourt is made up of Kevin Ferrell and Jordan Hulls, both six-foot tall guards. Hulls is the shooter, connecting on nearly half of his 104 three-point attempts this year. Ferrell, a freshman, handles duties at the point, but isn't as good a shooter as Hulls or Oladipo. Indiana is rounded out up front by 6'9 PF Christain Watford, who will shoot from outside (47.9 percent) and rebound. Will Sheehy, a 6'7 wing is the first player off the bench.
What to watch for
You can imagine that given the level of talent Indiana has, that there aren't a whole lot of things that the Hoosiers aren't good at. You'd be right.
According to Kenpom, Indiana has the third best offense in the country and the 16th best defense. Indiana's offense is so good because the Hoosiers shoot the ball well (the fifth best eFG%), pull in offensive boards (an OR% over 40, good for 6th nationally), and get to the line (there is nearly one FT attempt for every two FG attempts Indiana takes). In fact, the only one of the four factors that Indiana isn't ranked in the top ten nationally in is TO%, in which Indiana is only slightly above the national average.
The Hoosiers are the one team on Michigan's schedule that can absolutely hang with the Wolverines on offense. Earlier this week against Purdue, Indiana put together a monster performance on offense, racking up an insane 1.5 points per possession while rebounding over half of the available misses, barely turning the ball over, and connecting on 12 of 25 three point attempts. It turned into a 37-point victory, or more appropriately, a 37-point bludgeoning.
Indiana also has a strong defense that can give Michigan fits. Whoever Victor Oladipo ends up guarding will basically be taking the night off on the offensive side, while Cody Zeller should make life tough on Michigan's post players. Michigan is going to need a complete effort in this one, including a few valuable contributions from bench players, and a big game from Trey Burke and whatever wing Oladipo isn't covering.
Michigan's keys to win
Keep avoiding fouls - The Wolverines have been good at this so far this year, but things aren't going to get any easier against a team that gets to the free throw line better that almost everyone else in college basketball. Cody Zeller particularly should thrive against two of Michigan's more foul-prone big men. Without the steady and experienced hand of Jordan Morgan on defense for 20 minutes in this one, expect at least one or two dumb fouls from the McGary-Horford combo down low. If Zeller can really go to town on whoever is down there, Michigan could be in trouble.
Exploit the mismatch outside - This one has been widely discussed, so I'm not breaking any new ground. But still, Victor Oladipo is going to guard someone. That person isn't going to do much. There aren't two more Oladipos -- at least we hope -- so that means that Indiana is going to have to roll with Hulls and Ferrell on the other two Michigan backcourt players. If things fall as most expect -- Oladipo on Hardaway Jr., Ferrell on Burke, Hulls on Stauskas -- then Michigan absolutely needs to get a lot out of Nik while Hulls is out there.
Don't get caught in a footrace - Despite what has looked like a more wide open style, Michigan actually plays at one of the slower paces in the conference. Who else plays a slow pace in the conference and just recently beat Indiana? That's right, Wisconsin. Yes, I know I said all that stuff about Wisconsin games happening in a vacuum, but Michigan needs to keep this one from turning into a track meet. The Wolverines need the game to unfold at a controlled pace, get quality shots, and don't let Indiana push tempo to levels it is comfortable at.
I can't in good conscience pick Michigan to win this one. This is a game against the most talented team in the country on the road in a tough environment to try and win. Michigan is also most likely without its most level-headed and experience post player. Indiana, meanwhile, thrives on on three point shooting (Michigan allows a lot), getting to the foul line (Michigan doesn't allow much at all), and offensive rebounding (Michigan has had some success).
I think this is a good game until the end, but Michigan will most likely be a step behind the whole way. Indiana wins this one by four.