Who: #18 Connecticut Huskies (3-0)
When: Wednesday, November 25th, at 9:30 p.m. ET (AXS TV)
Where: Imperial Arena -- Paradise Island, Bahamas
The week of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament always was the most important of Michigan's non-conference slate, and that's even more of the case now after Michigan suffered an 86-70 home loss to No. 23 Xavier last Friday. The Battle 4 Atlantis is a three-day tournament that begins on Wednesday, ends on Friday, and is stocked with high-major programs. Joining Michigan in the tournament is No. 10 Gonzaga, No. 18 UConn, No. 25 Texas A&M, Washington, Texas, Syracuse, and Charlotte. Here is the bracket:
The Battle 4 Atlantis is so important for Michigan because it's a chance for Michigan to earn some resume-boosting wins. For Michigan, this season is about showing that last's was an injury-riddled fluke, and that means getting back to the NCAA Tournament. However, while playing quality competition in the Big Ten will help, Michigan must add some respected non-conference wins. However, after the Battle 4 Atlantis, Michigan faces only two more non-Big Ten foes that are in the KenPom Top 250 -- No. 22 SMU and No. 51 NC State -- and they're both on the road. So Michigan's trip to the Bahamas must be a successful one. If it's not, things could start looking really dicey for the Wolverines.
UConn is 3-0 and thumped each of the three opponents that it has faced, beating Maine, New Hampshire, and Furman by an average of 29.3 points. Of course, Maine (No. 312 on KenPom), New Hampshire (No. 147), and Furman (No. 212) are not near the level of competition, for example, Xavier is. Michigan will be UConn's first true test this year.
Offensively, the Huskies have shot the ball very well in their first three games. They have made 61.1 percent of their twos (12th) and 36.7 percent of their threes (106th) for a 58.6 eFG% (18th). I wonder how much of that should be attributed to facing overmatched opponents because UConn hasn't been a top-50 shooting team since 2003. Despite how efficient UConn has been inside the arc, 41.1 percent of its field goals have been outside of it. This indicates UConn has a perimeter-oriented offense that hopes to knock down threes, which, in turn, extends the defense and creates easier looks inside. UConn also seems to be perimeter-oriented based on how well the the Huskies hold onto the basketball. Their turnover rate is 11.7 percent, which is the seventh-best in the country.
However, despite starting a seven-foot center, UConn doesn't have nearly as much of a scoring presence inside as Xavier. The Huskies have grabbed their own miss 33.7 percent of the time (107th) and have shot only 29.2 free throws for every 100 field goals taken (295th). This falls in line with the previous two editions of UConn basketball, which finished no better than 192nd in offensive rebounding or free throw rates. This isn't a team that attacks the rim frequently, which should cause Michigan to sigh in relief.
Defensively, UConn's strength is in the interior thanks to the presence of seven-foot center Amida Brimah. The Huskies possess the nation's best shot-blocking rate, swatting away almost a quarter of their opponent's shots (23.5 pct.). As a result, teams have made only 35.7 percent of their twos against UConn. That's the 12th-best two-point defense in the country. Though opponents haven't shot much better from three (30.9 pct.), they have found open looks on the perimeter against UConn as 45.3 percent of their field goals have been from downtown. However, opponents may be shooting that often from behind the three-point line because they fear challenging Brimah in the paint. Other than that, there is nothing else that stands out about UConn's defense. The Huskies force very few turnovers, and they're only average on the defensive glass and keeping their hands off of their opponent. But good luck trying to score over or around Brimah when he is inside.
UConn's starting point guard is 6-foot-2 graduate student Sterling Gibbs, who played at Texas as a freshman and at Seton Hall the past two seasons. Gibbs was an excellent point guard for the Pirates last year, averaging 16.3 PPG and 3.8 APG. And Gibbs was efficient, too, registering a 115.0 offensive rating despite being Seton Hall's go-to player. This season, Gibbs still is scoring at a high rate. He leads UConn with 15.7 PPG thanks to his 8-of-20 shooting (40.0 pct.) from behind the three-point line. Gibbs also has finished well around the rim through three games this season, but I don't expect that to persist given that he's missed more than half of those looks in each of the past two years. However, Gibbs has not been the distributor he was at Seton Hall. His assist rate has dipped from 26 percent to 12 percent. It seems the Huskies want him to assume more of a scoring role.
The Huskies are relying on 6-foot-7 sophomore wing Daniel Hamilton to be their distributor. Through three games, he has tallied 19 assists and has claim to a top-50 assist rate (38.2 pct.). In addition, Hamilton can be a triple-double threat on any night as he's averaging 8.7 PPG and 8.3 RPG. Most of Hamilton's rebounds come on the defensive end, where he owns a 26.1 rebounding rate. However, of those three areas, scoring is Hamilton's biggest weakness. He is average at best around the rim and struggles with his mid-range jumper. Hamilton has shown ability to knock down some threes (34.3 3P% last season), but he's made only 2-of-8 triples this season. Nonetheless, Hamilton is versatile.
The guard that will join Gibbs in the backcourt is fellow transfer Rodney Purvis. The 6-foot-4 redshirt junior transferred from NC State after his freshman season, during which he scored six points in a 79-72 loss against a Trey Burke-led Michigan squad, to UConn, where he started 24 of 33 games played last season. Purvis came on strong in his final six starts, averaging 17.8 PPG on 58.0 eFG%, and has picked up where he left off last season. In his first three games, he has posted 14.3 PPG while connecting on 63.6 percent of his twos and 47.4 percent of his threes. Additionally, Purvis has been much better at creating offense for others; his assist rate has soared from 10.1 percent to 25.6 percent this year.
UConn's starting power forward is 6-foot-7 Cornell transfer Shonn Miller. Miller is the Huskies' third-leading scorer (12.7 PPG) and does most of his work around the rim. Of the 22 shots that he has taken, only one has been behind the three-point line, and he has converted a whopping 76.2 percent of his twos. Miller is a force on the defensive end, too. In his last two seasons at Cornell, he recorded some of the best defensive rebounding and shot-blocking rates in the nation. He won't quite do that this year (19.2 DR%, 7.0 Blk%), but that's only because he has a defensive monster standing by his side in the paint.
That defensive monster is seven-foot junior center Amida Brimah. Brimah has the nation's second-best block rate (25.3 pct.), which is a title he also had last season (15.0 pct.). Brimah will go after any shot that is in his vicinity, which likely explains why his defensive rebounding rate is more modest (14.2 pct.). On the other end, Brimah isn't as skilled around the rim as Xavier's Jalen Reynolds, but he still finishes almost 80 percent of shots inside five feet. Many of those are the result of offensive rebounds, which he grabs frequently (11.0 OR%). Also, Brimah is willing to attempt the occasional mid-range jumper, and he makes those at a decent enough rate that defenses can't leave him open.
UConn has gone deep into its bench through the first three games, but I wonder if that has been only because the Huskies have played in three straight blowouts. I have a feeling that Kevin Ollie will keep the rotation shorter tonight. The reserves Ollie will go to are 6-foot-3 freshman guard Jalen Adams, 6-foot-6 senior wing Omar Calhoun, and 6-foot-10 junior forward Kentan Facey. As a five-star prospect in the 2015 class, Adams is the player to watch. He is the first Husky of the bench and has averaged 7.3 PPG, 3.0 APG, and 2.0 RPG. He's shooting the ball well, having drained 54.5 percent of his twos and 42.9 percent of his threes. Adams turns it over a bit but compensates with steals.
Run the Pick and Roll with the 5: Though Michigan is an excellent three-point shooting team and should find open looks against UConn, it can't rely solely on outside jumpers. The Wolverines will need to find ways to score inside against Amida Brimah, Shonn Miller, and the rest of the Huskies gang. The best way to do this is to run the pick and roll with Michigan's center, whether it be Ricky Doyle, D.J. Wilson, Moritz Wagner, or Mark Donnal. By doing so, it should draw Brimah away from the rim and create better looks inside. And, if Brimah chooses to remain in the paint rather than defend the screen, Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton, etc. will have open threes and mid-range jumpers all game.
Force Turnovers: Michigan was exposed defensively against Xavier inside and out. Michigan's centers couldn't keep the Musketeers away from the rim, and the Wolverines' rotations were painfully slow on the perimeter, particularly when Michigan hedged hard on pick and rolls. It seems unlikely that Michigan will resolve all of these problems in just a few days of practice. Therefore, Michigan will need to rely on steals to get stops. Of course, the problem is that UConn takes care of the basketball more than most teams. This will be a battle of strength versus strength, and the matchup will have a big impact.
Find a Second Scorer: Caris LeVert looked amazing against Xavier, recording 29 points on 8-of-16 (5-of-8 3P) shooting, seven boards, three assists, and two steals. He did it all for Michigan and kept them in the game until the final eight minutes. Everyone else, though, was absent. No other Wolverine scored in double digits, and the rest of the team made only 13-of-36 shots (36.1 pct). As Michigan learned last year, LeVert can't do it alone. He needs help, and Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin, Aubrey Dawkins, and Duncan Robinson need to be that for him. If they're not, Michigan will be in serious trouble.
Clean Up the Defensive Glass: This may be a key in every game this season.
It's easy to be down on the Wolverines after their last performance. They were worked over down low by Xavier, and now they must face an opponent that has a seven-foot center and intimidating interior defense. Further, both Vegas and KenPom believe that UConn is the better team and have the Huskies as the favorite. However, this isn't the same matchup as last Friday. Michigan's biggest weakness is its defense around the rim, and UConn isn't a team that attacks the rim, grabs lots of offensive rebounds, or gets to the free-throw line often. I think Michigan will have some success defensively. But will Michigan be able to score down low, which is a must because it can't rely solely on the three-point ball? I don't think so, and that will be the difference in what's a close game.
UConn 64, Michigan 58