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Hoops Talk Part Two: Zach and Fouad Discuss GRIII's Improvement, the Morgan/Horford Combo, and what the Big Ten Season Holds

With the regular season just about halfway over, Fouad and I decided to take some time and discuss what we've learned about Michigan's hoops squad this year and what it means for the future.

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Fouad: Keeping it on the offensive side of things, do you think GRIII's play of late is a short-lived thing, or is this the GRIII Michigan fans can expect to see the rest of the way?

Zach: I tentatively expect that this is the GRIII that we will see over the rest of the season, but I'd be lying if I said I was sure about that. The talent and athleticism is certainly there and has been all throughout his college career. Last year was tantalizing when you consider that Robinson III was one of the most efficient players in the conference while being somewhere around 4th or 5th in terms of scoring options for the Wolverines. He fed off Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. dominating the ball and provided all the little things that Michigan needed in its run to the championship game.

Of course, it was obvious last year that Robinson was also pretty helpless with the ball in his hands in the half court. He wasn't particularly good at getting into the lane off the dribble and he struggled to be the kind of offensive threat that opens things up for others. The hope was that he would get there over the off season, but early season struggles tempered expectations for good reason. He wasn't all that good when he needed to be. His ORtg in Michigan's two biggest early season games (Iowa State and Duke) was horrendous (80 and 84), his shooting percentages lagged — and still lag, although they are improving — from a year ago when he was consistently fed better opportunities, and his free throw rate barely nudged upwards despite his larger role in the offense.

Thankfully, the last month or so has seen Robinson shake off some of those early season struggles. Michigan made a conscious effort to set him up with good one-on-one matchups against Arizona and he delivered big with a huge first half and an overall ORtg of 151 with 20 points on seven shots. Since then he has only made less than two-thirds of his 2pt shots in one game (2/4 against Minnesota after an injury shortened his game) and has generally been a more assertive player within the offense while also converting more of his shots. The road certainly gets harder and it remains to be seen how he handles the increased perimeter pressure defense that teams like Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State can bring, but the diversification of Michigan's offense has benefitted GRIII as much as it has everyone else. He is able to concentrate more on the things he is really good at while not having to be a distributor — something Stauskas and to a lesser extent LeVert are better at anyway.

With Michigan's wings rounding into form it seems like the biggest question mark going forward is how much production the Wolverines can get our of the frontcourt combination of Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford. Against the lesser Big Ten teams these two have done well, but can Michigan win against the top of the conference with these two logging major offensive minutes? Conversely, can they handle the increased defensive load when matched up against guys like Adreian Payne and Amir Williams?

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Fouad: Any time Jordan Morgan has scored in the double-digits, like he did against Nebraska, it's an indicator of the overall health of the offense. By that I mean that most of Morgan's points come from being in the right place at the right time, whether on the pick and roll or in transition. He's excelled at the latter throughout his career, simply running by opposing bigs en route to a transition dunk. When Morgan scores 15, it means the offense is really humming.

Can Michigan fans expect that every game? Obviously not. Can Michigan beat Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa without McGary in the frontcourt? This is kind of a copout answer, but I think the answer is the Crisler Center, at least. I will be fairly surprised if Michigan beats even one of those teams on the road.

Defensively, I think Michigan can make do, assuming Horford can avoid foul trouble (something he's been unable to do at times). With that said, Adreian Payne hasn't been incredibly productive against the Wolverines, at least by the box score. In the last four matchups against Michigan, Payne has averaged 7.5 ppg and and 5.0 rpg, and that includes last year's 17-point, 12-rebound performance in Ann Arbor. Then again, Payne only played a combined 29 minutes in two matchups against Michigan in 2011-12, and last year's game in East Lansing was a complete blowout, so it's not as if they needed Payne to play out of his mind.

I always look to that one game when Morgan kind of shut down Jared Sullinger as the shining example of his defensive prowess; unfortunately for both Morgan and Michigan, I don't think Payne nor Amir Williams play very much like Sullinger did.

Williams and LaQuinton Ross should worry Michigan fans; I remember last year's home victory being somewhat of a disaster for Michigan on the defensive glass. A look at the box score sort of confirms that, since Ross grabbed five offensive boards (OSU boasted a team ORB% of 32%). Williams reeled in 11 boards against the Spartans last week, four of the offensive variety. I shudder to think what he can do against Michigan, especially if Horford picks up a couple early fouls.

With all of that said, it all starts with perimeter defense. If Michigan's perimeter defenders continue to play turnstile D, the posts will get left out to dry. But, if the Wolverines can tighten things up on the perimeter, Morgan/Horford will have a fighting chance...

...that is, until the shot goes up. If it's a miss, and Michigan is forced to snag a rebound against teams like MSU, OSU, UW and Iowa, that's a different story entirely.

Michigan is 3-0 in the Big Ten, and most people feel a lot better about this team than they did a few weeks ago. Most people seem to think a 10-8 conference record, plus a B1G tourney win will be enough to make the tournament. What do you think Michigan's record will be in its seven matchups against the Iowa-MSU-OSU-UW quartet?

Zach: I tend to agree with the idea that 10-8 in this conference with at least a win in the Big Ten tournament being sufficient to push Michigan into the tournament. That means seven more wins. I think that is certainly do-able as long as Michigan avoids the kind of play-down-to-your-opponent-on-the-road type losses that last Thursday almost happened and also were issues last year.

On the bright side, Michigan has two games against Purdue, one game against Penn State (at home), and a return date against Minnesota that is also at home. Also, those two games against Indiana don't look as imposing as they once did.

On the not so bright side, Michigan's two other single plays in the Big Ten are Ohio State and Illinois, and both of those are road games. Splitting that pair of games would be a pretty nice accomplishment, methinks.

I think Michigan is capable of at least bringing the fight to the upper-tier of the Big Ten (Iowa, OSU, MSU, Wisc), but the biggest thing that worries me is that the schedule does Michigan no favors. Starting this Saturday the Wolverines have three games: @UW, vs. Iowa, and @MSU, all within the course of one week. In the beginning of February Michigan has road games against Iowa and Ohio State followed directly by home games against Wisconsin and Michigan State, all in two weeks. If you want to look at one particular stretch last year that really seemed to break that team, it was that early February slog through three away games and one home game against the other top-four Big Ten teams in which Michigan went 1-3 and 1-1 in OT games. This year Michigan gets to basically do that same thing twice, and do it all without Burke/Hardaway (who won Michigan that OSU game almost by themselves) and McGary, who is the one player you can point to as a game changer against these types of teams.

If these games were spread out evenly through the season I would give Michigan a much better chance to inch toward .500 in those seven key matchups. The way the schedule sets up I find it hard to go any farther than to say Michigan wins one of those seven games. Even then, 1-6 when looking at the circumstances doesn't even feel like its all that bad (granted, we haven't lived through that yet, so talk to me again in a month and a half). If Michigan does suffer this worst case scenario and lose six — or even all seven — of these games, that cuts the Wolverines' margin for error in the rest of the Big Ten season to almost razor thin if Michigan still wants to make the tournament. Ten Big Ten wins is enough to get you into the tournament when two or three of them come against the unquestioned top four in the conference. The same can't be said when your best wins are up for debate between a slumping Indiana team or the Gophers.

The optimistic side of me says that Michigan gets two wins out of those seven games, ends the Big Ten season with 11 wins total, and isn't really considered a bubble team on the way into a middling seed in the tournament. Given the injury to McGary and factoring in some of the youth on this team, I'd take that any day of the week.