Who: 1-9 (0-2, MEAC) Coppin State Eagles
When: 8 ET (BTN)
Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.
How quickly things can change.
Almost three weeks ago, the Wolverines defeated Syracuse, a week after dispatching a solid Oregon squad and very nearly edging a top 15 Villanova squad. Sitting at 6-1, with the Big Three firing on all cylinders and Ricky Doyle flashing some encouraging play, the Wolverines appeared destined to cruise through the rest of the nonconference slate (notwithstanding the Arizona game, of course, which would probably have still been a loss even if the Wolverines were playing well) and enter league play with good vibes.
Then NJIT happened -- but that was just a blip on the radar, right? College basketball upsets of that magnitude happen all the time, so while disheartening, the loss didn't feel like a harbinger of anything so much as it was a singular, albeit stinging, defeat.
Then, Michigan looked utterly helpless against Eastern Michigan's zone, got doored by Arizona and couldn't defeat SMU at home. Clearly, NJIT was no outlier.
In that four-game slide, the Wolverines have shot a staggeringly poor 28 percent from three as a team (30-for-107). As bad as that percentage is, the volume of three-point attempts is perhaps more concerning. Yes, Michigan has always taken a lot of threes, and it's worked out, because they've always had good shooters. With Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton and Caris LeVert (and Spike Albrecht off of the bench), Michigan still has plenty of shooters.
But, for whatever reason, the shots have stopped falling, and Michigan hasn't been able to take advantage of defenses by putting the ball on the floor and making plays inside the arc, which players like Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas excelled at in their time playing college ball.
Irvin et al didn't just forget how to shoot, but when you consistently get nothing in the paint, it's a heavy burden to bear for those shooters, none of whom have been The Guy before. Mark Donnal had an encouraging performance against SMU, Doyle showed flashes early in the season and Kam Chatman has done some things well (namely, rebounding), even if his shot simply has looked ugly more often than not.
Walton, Irvin and LeVert will find their shooting stroke, but any real improvement to come will happen when the aforementioned trio of freshmen start taking real steps forward. Unfortunately, that takes time, and Michigan doesn't have too much more time to wait on them if they are to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
So, right -- Coppin State.
The Eagles are not a tough non-major conference team -- they're a 1-9 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference outfit that is already 0-2 in league play. The Eagles started their season with 42- and 58-point thrashings at Oregon and Illinois, followed by thumpings at Notre Dame and Denver.
They've played eight of 10 games on the road, with their lone win coming against Goldey-Beacom on Dec. 1. Most recently, the Eagles scored 85 in a losing effort at UConn Dec. 14. They've played a tough schedule, but the haven't even fared well against non-major foes.
Coppin State head coach Michael Grant is in his first season in Baltimore, coming to CSU after six years at Division II's Stillman College.
Grant has a pretty cool Michigan connection, via his official profile:
Grant began his coaching career at his alma mater, Malone College in Ohio, where he first studied under Hal Smith as a student assistant. Grant then served on Smith's staff in 1985 as a full-time assistant before heading to the University of Michigan as a graduate assistant where he helped coach and develop his younger brother Gary Grant, who eventually became the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1988. Gary Grant was the 14th overall player chosen in the 1988 NBA draft.
Seniors F Arnold Fripp and G Taarik Cephas lead the way for the Eagles, with 13.0 and 10.8 ppg, respectively. In the aforementioned UConn loss, Fripp hit up the Huskies for 25 points on 9-for-13 shooting, 6-for-8 from beyond the arc. He's a true stretch-4, and should pose a challenging matchup for Chatman (or whoever happens to be checking him). Fripp is a 37.5 percent shooter from three-point land on a team-high 48 attempts i.e. he's a real threat out there.
Behind them, guards Christian Kessee (8.5 ppg) and Sterling Smith (8.3 ppg) pitch in some scoring, with Kessee shooting a team-high 44 percent from three.
The exquisitely named Daquan Brickhouse comes off the bench but gets starter minutes. He averages 6.8 ppg, and at 5-foot-8, one would think he'd be a defensive liability -- he very well might be (I'm not operating from a position of authority vis-a-vis Coppin State basketball), but he does boast a team-high 1.6 steals per game. He might be small, but he's quick, and Michigan has been uncharacteristically sloppy of late.
Center Lawrence Fejokwu is a starter, I believe, but only plays 13.9 minutes per game. At 6-foot-9, 260 pounds, he's an imposing figure, but doesn't seem to get much run. If he does, however, Michigan's bigs must be ready to be physical.
- No Fripp-ery. The 6-foot-7 Brooklyn native can step out and knock down the three, and is coming off of his best game of the season against UConn. I'm not saying he's the second coming of Andrew Wiggins or anything, but, then again, it's not like anyone expected NJIT to shoot 65 percent from three against the Wolverines (still an insane statistic, in retrospect).
- Fast start. As always, let a bad team hang around and things can get dicey. Michigan's recent struggles notwithstanding, there's no reason for Michigan to not be up by double digits by the halfway point of the first half. This isn't a sneaky good under-the-radar team -- Coppin State is just bad.
- Don't settle. This is especially true for LeVert, but Michigan needs to find a way to gain some confidence in its shot-making ability inside the arc (the stroke outside the arc will follow). There's no reason for Michigan to shoot 20+ triples in this game (let alone 30+). If they are, that's not a good sign.
- Irvin. This means nothing, but Irvin dropped 24 points during last year's Michigan victory against Coppin State, an 87-45 rout on Nov. 29 that Stauskas sat out. Maybe another tilt with the Eagles is just what the doctor ordered for Irvin? It's a cliche, to be sure, but sometimes the opportunity to knock in some open jumpers during a real game is just what a shooter like Irvin needs to get back on track. The same, of course, applies to Irvin and Walton, good shooters in their own rights.
Simply put, this is one the Wolverines should knock out of the park. If they struggle, or worse, lose, might as well cancel the rest of the season.
Kidding aside, Coppin State is not very good, which makes them a perfect final nonconference opponent for a squad of Wolverines severely wanting of confidence. A blowout win won't "mean" anything, other than the fact that the losing streak will be over. That, in and of itself, is enough right now. It's something to feel good about, and that's an important thing for a squad of youngsters.
I just can't see disaster striking again against an opponent like this. The Wolverines win big, and begin their preparations for the conference opener against an Illinois squad that just defeated Missouri in dramatic fashion.