Who: Southern Methodist Mustangs (6-0)
When: Tuesday, December 8th, at 9:00 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Where: Moody Coliseum -- University Park, Tex.
This will be Michigan's last test before the Big Ten season begins at the end of the month. After tonight, Michigan has four more non-conference games, all of which are at home and none of which are against a team in KenPom's top 250. Those games will do nothing for Michigan's resume. Their purpose will be to allow the Wolverines' wounded to heal.
But tonight can do something for Michigan's resume. SMU is undefeated, ranked #24 on KenPom, and hosting the Wolverines. Michigan owns two top-75 wins over Texas and North Carolina State, but U-M wasn't competitive in its two losses, both of which were by double digits, to top-25 teams in Xavier and UConn. This will be a chance to prove Michigan can beat a team of this caliber and deserve consideration to rejoin the top 25.
And Michigan likely will have to try and do it without the services of Derrick Walton:
Beilein said that Walton tried to practice yesterday and couldn't go. Will try again today.— Matt Pargoff (@MaizeBlueNews) December 7, 2015
What's most noteworthy about this SMU team is the sanctions that have been imposed on it after, in September, the NCAA found in its investigation that former assistant Ulric Maligi and his secretary aided current Mustangs player Keith Frazier with academic coursework to meet initial eligibility requirements. The NCAA determined that there was a lack of "head coach control," banned SMU from the 2015-16 postseason, suspended head coach Larry Brown for nine games, and took away nine scholarships for the next three seasons. The Mustangs appealed the NCAA's decision but not the postseason ban or suspension, which means Brown, who coached the Detroit Pistons to the 2003-04 NBA title, will not be on the sideline tonight as he serves his sentence.
Nonetheless, even with no postseason to which to look forward or Hall of Fame coach on the bench, SMU is 6-0 and has looked good in most of its wins, beating three of its opponents by at least 15 points. But none of the Mustangs' wins are remarkable. The best team they've faced is #86 Yale, whom they trailed by 10 points in the second half before eking past the Bulldogs by two at home. Michigan will be their toughest competition yet.
On offense, SMU has been excellent, ranking 12th in adjusted offensive efficiency (113.8). The Mustangs don't shoot many threes (322nd in 3PA%), but they can knock down their field goals from anywhere on the court (11th in eFG%). They have made 55.5 percent of their twos (31st) and 44.1 percent of their threes (ninth), and many of these shots are open thanks to the great movement and flow their offense has (21st in ast%). Even if SMU can't connect on its first shot of the possession, there is a very strong chance that it'll have a second and third crack at points because SMU is sixth in offensive rebounding rate (42.2 pct.). Further, the Mustangs hold onto the ball at a decent rate (85th in TO%). If there is one area where they have a weakness on offense, it's at the free-throw line. Despite how much they like to get the ball inside, they don't draw many shooting fouls (193rd in FTR), and, when they do, they don't make them count often enough (67.2 FT%).
On defense, SMU has a profile that suggests that it plays zone, though I don't believe that's the case if my memory of last year's game is correct. The reason is that the Mustangs have terrible defensive three-point-attempt (333rd) and assist rates (320th) and a so-so turnover rate (149th). It seems that SMU doesn't press the perimeter, which allows opponents to stand behind and pass around the arc for lots of catch-and-shoot threes while cutting off dribble penetration. However, not one of SMU's six opponents is in the top 150 in three-point shooting, so they really haven't capitalized on the open outside looks, draining only 33.1 percent of their threes against SMU. And this is about the only way to beat SMU's defense because the Mustangs are solid in all other aspects, ranking 41st in two-point defense (42.2 pct.), 28th in block rate (14.6 pct.), 51st in free-throw rate (29.4 pct.), and 80th in defensive rebounding rate (72.9 pct.) this season.
SMU sticks with a tight eight-man rotation that consists of three seniors, three juniors, and two freshmen. All of them are at least 6-foot-5 except for the one that leads them: 5-foot-9 senior point guard Nic Moore, who averages a team-best 15.0 PPG after notching 14.5 PPG last season. Moore is a jump-shooter and a very good one, too. He's made 41.7 percent of his threes in his career -- he loves the right wing -- and has no problem knocking down mid-range jumpers as well. Because of his size, he won't try to drive to the rim often and for good reason -- he's missed more than 55 percent of his shots there in each of the past two seasons -- but his shiftiness helps him catch defenders out of position and draw shooting fouls. Moore also is a very good distributor, though his assists have dipped significantly this year. He posted assist rates above 30 percent as a sophomore and as a junior, but it's only 19.6 percent this season. Further, Moore usually takes good care of the ball (14.0 TO%), but he gave it up five times vs. Michigan last year.
The Mustangs have a pair of sharpshooters that will join Moore in the backcourt at shooting guard. The starter is 6-foot-5 junior Keith Frazier, who averages 13.2 PPG. Like Moore, Frazier shoots well from three (37.0 3P%) and mid-range, but he's much better than Moore when he's around the rim (67.0 pct.), even if that's not often. Frazier's length also permits him to have more of an impact on the defensive end in terms of rebounds, steals, and blocks. Behind Frazier is 6-foot-5 freshman Malik "Shake" Milton, who was a top-100 prospect in the 2015 class and has been a stud off the bench for the Mustangs in a smaller role (14.8 usg%). He has the sixth-best eFG% (75.8 pct.) in the nation because he's made 10-of-15 twos (66.7 pct.) and 10-of-18 threes (55.6 pct.). He doesn't miss very often.
At small forward, SMU will split the time between 6-foot-6 junior Sterling Brown and 6-foot-5 freshman Jarrey Foster. Brown is the starter, averaging 8.3 PPG in 21.3 MPG, while Foster, who was a three-star prospect, chips in 6.3 PPG in 17.7 MPG off the bench. Both are similar in that, though they can hit threes on the rare occasion when they attempt them, they do most of their offensive work close to the hoop. Brown is an excellent finisher, making 68.4 percent of his twos, and drastically has improved his free-throw shooting (57.1 pct. in 2013-14 and 85.7 pct. in 2015-16). Foster isn't as good at converting his chances within five feet (57.0 pct.), but he gets to the free-throw line more often (70.8 FTR), though he's shaky there (52.9 FT%), is a vacuum on the offensive glass (12.1 OR%), and doesn't turn over the ball (14.5 pct.) nearly as much as Brown does (25.3 pct.). Both also are good defensive rebounders, with Brown as the team's best (19.2 DR%).
The minutes at the 4 and 5 will belong to three Mustangs: 6-foot-9 senior Markus Kennedy (11.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 24.5 MPG, 125.8 ORtg, 22.8 usg%), 6-foot-8 junior Ben Moore (11.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 27.6 MPG, 116.9 ORtg, 22.1 usg%), and 6-foot-7 senior Jordan Tolbert (10.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 24.5 MPG, 124.8 ORtg, 22.6 usg%). As you can see from their numbers, they all are very similar players. They all know how to score down low and can step back and drill the 10-footer, though Kennedy is a bit more skilled with the ball given that he has the team's best assist rate (23.7 pct.) and a low turnover rate (12.6 pct.). They all are excellent rebounders on both ends and rim protectors, with Tolbert recording the fourth-best individual offensive rebounding rate in the country (20.9 pct.) and Kennedy as the best shot-blocker (8.5 pct.). And they all know how to defend without hacking because none of them commit more than 4.3 fouls per 40 minutes. Their weakness is free-throw shooting, but, otherwise, this trio of tall men give front-courts big problems.
Don't Be Ice Cold from Three Like Last Season: When Michigan hosted SMU in a 62-51 loss last season, 36 of the Wolverines' 54 field-goal attempts were threes. Seriously. And Michigan made only eight of them (22.2 pct.). Seriously. This season, SMU's biggest -- and maybe only -- defensive weakness is allowing bunches of looks from downtown. And, given how much Michigan relies on shooting from the outside (31st in 3PA%), my hunch is that Michigan will try to exploit that weakness by throwing up three after three after three. If Caris LeVert, Duncan Robinson, Aubrey Dawkins, and Zak Irvin can drain those shots, Michigan can pull out a huge road win. If not, the Wolverines won't have a chance.
MAAR Harasses Moore: It seems doubtful that Derrick Walton will participate tonight and Spike Albrecht isn't 100 percent, so Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman likely will get the start at point guard for the second straight game. Because Caris LeVert will be the lead guard on offense, MAAR's most important job is to defend Nic Moore, who is SMU's leading scorer and main distributor on most nights. Moore is a great shooter and quick enough to blow past defenders, so this will not be an easy matchup for MAAR despite having a major advantage in length. However, MAAR has earned himself a bit of a reputation as a tough on-ball defender after making things hard for D'Angelo Russell last season. If MAAR wants to maintain that reputation, he needs to do it against Moore.
Protect the Paint: SMU essentially has five forwards, all of whom are between 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-9, that score well around the rim and pound the boards for second-chance points. This is what fuels the Mustangs' offense, and Michigan can't let them own the paint like Xavier and UConn did. The Wolverines need big defensive performances from Ricky Doyle and Moritz Wagner and their wings to go after rebounds on every SMU shot. If this happens, it could force SMU to shoot jumpers, and Michigan will take that chance.
There will be lots of points. Each team's offensive strengths lie where the other's defensive faults are. Michigan's an elite three-point-shooting team that will face a defense that allows a larger share of threes than most teams, while SMU can dominate inside around the rim and on the boards against Michigan's underwhelming front-court. The question is which team will capitalize on its offensive strength the most. The simple answer is to pick SMU because scoring within five feet of the basket and rebounding misses do not have as much variance as outside shooting and the Mustangs will be at home. However, my gut tells me that Michigan will put on a shooting spectacle.
Michigan 75, SMU 69