Who: Elon (1-0)
When: Monday, November 16th, at 7:00 p.m. ET (ESPN3)
Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.
Tonight, Michigan will get one last warm-up before it takes on the big boys of college basketball. After hosting two Division II programs in Le Moyne -- an exhibition -- and Northern Michigan, the Wolverines will face their first Division I team: the Elon Phoenix. Accordingly, Elon will provide a stiffer challenge, but this isn't a terrifying mid-major that should hang with high-majors. The Phoenix are 240th in KenPom's rankings and finished 6-12 in the CAA last season. Michigan is expected to win this comfortably.
What this contest is for is to work out the kinks and get everyone on the same page before Michigan enters the most difficult stretch of its non-conference slate. After Elon, Michigan squares off against Xavier in the inaugural Gavitt Games this Friday, flies to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament -- in which it'll compete against No. 20 Connecticut and a bevy of high-major programs -- the following week, and travels to NC State for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge the week thereafter. There are no breathers for the next two weeks after tonight. Therefore, tonight is the night for John Beilein to select the starting lineup and rotations he wants to use, Zak Irvin to play if he is available and shake off some of that rust, and the Wolverines to build more chemistry on offense.
Elon is a program that still is adjusting to its new home in the CAA after spending 11 seasons in the Southern Conference. Last season was Elon's first in the CAA, and the Phoenix were eighth in the 10-team league. It's not supposed to get much better this year. In fact, it's supposed to be worse. In the preseason, CAA coaches, media relations directors, and media members voted that Elon would finish in last place in the conference. And no Phoenix players made the preseason All-CAA first or second teams.
However, that didn't guarantee that Elon would get off to a poor start. The Phoenix opened their season last Friday with a road date with Charlotte and walked away with an 85-74 victory. Charlotte isn't very good, ranking 287th in KenPom, but it was a laudable road win for Elon because the Phoenix led by a whopping 27 points at halftime (53-26).
Also, I should note that Elon almost upset Northwestern last season. Elon controlled things for most of the game. The Phoenix held a 10-point lead at two separate instances and even had an eight-point advantage with 3:51 left. However, Northwestern scored the final eight points of regulation to force overtime, and Tre Demps drained a jumper with 48 ticks left in overtime to help the Wildcats escape with a 68-67 win despite that NU never led by more than two points. This season's Elon team isn't the same as last's and Welsh Ryan Arena isn't the Crisler Center, but Michigan shouldn't expect Elon to be overwhelmed and roll over. Elon has come close to tasting victory against a Big Ten team.
In term's of Elon's style, the Phoenix moved at a fast tempo and played aggressive defense. Last season, Elon was 29th in adjusted tempo and owned the 22nd-shortest average length of possession on offense. The Phoenix weren't a team that liked to move the ball around in search of the open guy. Instead, they would shoot faster than Doc Holliday in a duel with Johnny Ringo, but, unlike Holliday, they would miss. Often. On the other end of the floor, Elon's defense solely was predicated on pressure and forcing turnovers. The Phoenix were 48th in defensive turnover rate, while ranking outside the top 200 in the other three defensive factors. If offenses held onto the ball, they'd score.
This year's style could be different than last year's, but, given that Elon and Charlotte just played a scorching 81-possession game, I think that it's safe to assume that's not the case.
Due to its up-tempo style, Elon uses a deep bench and substitutes frequently to keep players fresh. Last season, no Phoenix player averaged more than 30 minutes per game, while nine averaged more than 15 minutes per game and 11 averaged more than 10 minutes per game. It was the same in Elon's opener against Charlotte, in which nine players earned more than 10 minutes but only one played for more than 23 minutes.
Nonetheless, even with a large rotation, Elon is seeking to replace the contributions of a few key players, and none bigger than Elijah Bryant, who transferred to BYU after he averaged 14.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game and was named the CAA Rookie of the Year last season. Even though Bryant played only 25 minutes per game, he posted such high averages because he dominated the ball on offense, posting the third-highest usage rate in the nation (35.5 pct.). And you thought Terran Petteway was a ball hog. Bryant wasn't very efficient, owning an offensive rating of 92.0 because he made less than 40 percent of his two-pointers and turned the ball over a ton. However, his exit meant that Elon needed to find someone that could handle the ball and run the offense.
That player most likely is 6-foot-1 junior guard Luke Eddy, who was on pace to have an excellent sophomore campaign until he tore his ACL in the 11th game. In the prior 10 games, Eddy averaged 13.8 points and 2.3 assists in only 21.2 minutes per game. That doesn't seem excellent until you realize that he had an offensive rating of 120.6 and a usage rate of 28.1 percent. That's the kind of thing Frank Kaminsky did last season, except no one knew about Eddy because he plays for Elon and was on the court for only half the game. Eddy is a fantastic scorer and can do it from all over court. He made 63 percent of his twos (!) and 50 percent of his threes (!!). He also is a great distributor -- eight assists in 22 minutes against Charlotte -- and generates lots of steals, though he has turnover spells from time to time. Eddy had a rough shooting performance in the opener -- 2-of-9 (0-of-2 3FG) -- and one must wonder how much his knee injury will affect his play this year. But, if the answer is not at all or not much, Eddy will terrorize opponents.
Also, that Eddy wasn't selected to any preseason All-CAA team makes me think that no one knows about him because he hasn't participated in a single CAA game in his career.
Elon's starting wings will be 6-foot-4 senior Tanner Samson and 6-foot-4 sophomore Dmitri Thompson. Samson does one thing on offense: shoot threes. Over four-fifths of his field-goal attempts were from downtown, and he made 35.8 percent of them, which is respectable but not fear-inducing. And almost all of those were catch-and-shoot threes. He's also an 84-percent free-throw shooter on the rare occasion that he steps up to the charity stripe. Defensively, he's a fine rebounder and a key cog in Elon's aggressive, steal-generating defense. Conversely, Thompson rarely shoots threes and gets his points inside the arc, though he was a substandard shooter as a freshman. However, Thompson had a strong debut against Charlotte, recording 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting and eight boards in 21 minutes. Though, I must note that all but two of those made field goals were layups or shots in the paint. It remains to be seen if Thompson's shooting actually has improved.
In the opener, Elon's starting front court consisted of 6-foot-8 freshman Tyler Seibring and 6-foot-8 redshirt sophomore Brian Dawkins. Seibring was a two-star prospect and had no big-time offers. He was perceived as a shooter in high school and sought to add more tools to his game. It's too early to tell as he's played only one collegiate game in his career, though scoring 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in 21 minutes is a good start. Dawkins redshirted last season with a knee injury after a freshman campaign in which he earned minimal minutes. Because of that, there's not much I can say about him. Dawkins could be a good rebounder -- had six boards in eight minutes against Charlotte -- but he also seems like a hacker on defense -- had four fouls in those eight minutes. That's all I have.
As I mentioned, Elon will use lots of reserves and play them about the same amount of time as the starters. One is 6-foot-7 junior wing Christian Hairston, who essentially only shoots twos -- and made a superb 62 percent of them -- coughs up the ball often when he dribbles, and rebounds well on the defensive glass. Two is six-foot freshman guard Dainan Swoope, who's an unknown recruit but had 11 points -- knocking down three triples -- and three assists in 23 minutes against Charlotte. Three is 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Jack Anton, who barely played as a freshman and, when he did, had little impact on either end of the court. But he did score nine points on 4-of-6 shooting and grabbed three rebounds in 19 minutes in the opener. And four and five are 6-foot-4 freshman guard Steven Santa Ana and 6-foot-6 sophomore wing Collin Luther, both of which played 12 minutes against Charlotte and made minimal marks on the box score.
Take Care of the Ball and Control the Tempo: This will be a contrast of styles. Elon likes to push the tempo and speed up the game, while Michigan likes to slow it down and use most of the shot clock. Though the Wolverines likely would be fine if they decided to run because they have superior athletes, Michigan wants to force Elon to score in the half court. Almost one-third of Elon's initial field goals last season were in transition. That's where they thrive in getting layups and finding open shooters on the perimeter. If Michigan can cut those off, most of Elon's players should become ineffective on offense. To do that, Michigan must take care of the ball as Elon will try to pressure Michigan into turnovers. The good news for Michigan is few teams do that better than John Beilein's.
Lock Down Luke Eddy: He may play only 20 to 25 minutes tonight, but, if fully healthy, Luke Eddy is by far the best offensive player that Elon has. In fact, just based off his numbers, Eddy may be one of the nation's best college basketball players of whom no has heard. Of course, I haven't watched him play -- maybe he just flourishes in a system that relies on transition offense -- so I can't guarantee that. Nonetheless, Eddy seems to be an all-around player that can score from anywhere and create easy looks and layups for his teammates. No one else on Elon appears to have that ability, particularly the latter. Therefore, Michigan needs its point guards to defend well and harass Eddy. Derrick Walton is a fine defender, but Spike Albrecht struggles and likely will be a step slow as he still recovers from two offseason hip surgeries. This could be an opportunity for Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who may be the odd man out of the rotation this year -- to demonstrate that he's a lockdown defender and demonstrate his worth to the team.
Make Your Free Throws: A consequence of Elon's aggressive strategy on defense is that it fouls. A lot. Last season, the Phoenix's defensive free-throw rate was 306th, and, in the opener this season, they fouled Charlotte 26 times, sending the 49ers to the line for 34 freebies. The guards foul. The wings foul. The bigs foul. Everyone on Elon fouls. So even Michigan -- a team that has a severe aversion to shooting free throws -- should find itself at the charity stripe often tonight. And it's imperative Michigan makes Elon pay for it.
Use Your New-Found Depth: Not only will John Beilein want to do this because he wants to experiment with his rotation, Michigan's depth will benefit in a game in which Elon wants to push the pace. Michigan isn't the healthiest team at the moment with Zak Irvin and Spike Albrecht still recuperating from offseason surgeries and other players dinged up. Though Michigan wants this to be a low-possession game, it won't hurt that Michigan can keep players fresh by going deep into the bench without a big drop-off.
This should be a comfortable win for Michigan, but, as I researched Elon, I found things that made me think that the Phoenix are better than their initial KenPom ranking suggests. Elijah Bryant, who may have scored a bunch but wasted too many possessions, transferred to BYU. Elon's best player, Luke Eddy, who missed the final two-thirds of last season with a torn ACL, is back. And the Phoenix crushed Charlotte on the road in their season-opener, though the 49ers seemed to push the tempo and played into Elon's hands.
I'm not saying that Michigan is on upset alert because the Wolverines usually handle up-tempo teams well. But Michigan can't afford to start sloppy like it did against Le Moyne and Northern Michigan. Otherwise, Elon could seize control of the pace and make things interesting. Ultimately, though, I think John Belien will know how to dissect Elon's defense with ease, and Michigan will take care of the ball, which should lead to lots of layups and Aubrey Dawkins high-flying highlights and hinder Elon's transition offense.
Michigan 77, Elon 56