Michigan got back to basics on Wednesday, brushing off an overtime scare against Oakland to beat Ball State, 84-65. The Cardinals project to be one of the better teams in the MAC this season, so for the Wolverines to beat them by 19 is taking care of business.
Next up is a Sunday matinee against Central Florida. Similarly to Ball State, this isn’t a guarantee game, but it isn’t a game Michigan should struggle too much with.
The Knights, coached by Johnny Dawkins, aren’t quite who they were 2019, when a squad led by Tacko Fall and former Wolverine Aubrey Dawkins nearly upset Zion Williamson and Duke in the NCAA Tournament. They haven’t fallen off completely, though. They went 16-14 overall and 7-11 in the American Athletic Conference last year, finishing the year ranked 117th in KenPom. They beat Auburn 63-55 in their first and so far only game this season.
In UCF’s first game, it went with a starting five of Dre Fuller, Brandon Mahan and Darin Green in the backcourt and Sean Mobley and Jamille Reynolds down low. Michigan should be focusing on those first three guys. Fuller had 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists against Auburn. Mahan scored 12 points, all in the second half, and had three steals. Green, its leading returning (active) scorer from a year ago, scored 10 points on 4-of-13 shooting.
Graduate transfer Darius Perry averaged 5.2 points and 2.5 assists per game last season at Louisville. He’s a capable outside shooter as well, and appears to be the most “pure” point guard on the roster. He missed the Auburn game with an undisclosed injury, but if he’s healthy, Michigan will see quite a bit of him.
UCF’s guards are big — Fuller, Mahan and Green are all 6-foot-4 and taller — and forced seven steals in the opener. As a team, the Knights had 12 steals and forced 22 turnovers. They could certainly force enough Michigan giveaways to hang around for a while, especially against a smallish backcourt of Mike Smith (5-foot-11) and Eli Brooks (6-foot-1).
Like many non-conference games of this sort, Sunday will likely come down to a notable height disparity, especially with the 7-foot-1 Hunter Dickinson (14.0 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 62.5 percent from the floor) playing as well as he is. UCF’s best player last year was Collin Smith, a 6-foot-11 center who averaged 12.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, but he opted out of the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 because of an underlying health condition.
In Smith’s place, UCF has a number of large bodies, but none of them are as big as Dickinson or Austin Davis, and none of them got a ton of tick in the opener. The 6-foot-8 Mobley committed four fouls and didn’t score in 24 minutes, while Reynolds, who has plenty of bulk at 285 pounds, played just seven minutes (picking up three fouls in the meantime). CJ Walker, a 6-foot-8 forward, came off the bench and was more impactful, coming close to a double-double in 31 minutes.
The Knights do have a 6-foot-11 center in Avery Diggs, but he didn’t play in the opener. Neither did 7-foot-1 redshirt junior center Moses Bol (a cousin of Manute Bol). But they are on the roster.
Other players to watch for on UCF are Isaiah Adams, Florida’s Mr. Basketball in 2020 and a 6-foot-6 forward who scored nine points in 14 minutes against Auburn, and Tony Johnson Jr., who hit two three-pointers on four tries before leaving with an undisclosed injury.
This game could be semi-close, but the Wolverines should win by doing the same things they’ve done in their first three games: staying the course and going to work inside. It’d be nice to see Franz Wagner (9.7 PPG) really, truly break out in the scoring column. Or Brooks (8.0 PPG), for that matter. It’d be nice to see Michigan hit three-pointers higher than its current 31.9 percent clip.
But those things don’t necessarily have to happen Sunday. If Isaiah Livers (20.0 PPG) keeps popping in his steady stream of jumpers, and Wagner, Brooks, Smith, Chaundee Brown and others keep doing their thing, that’s all Michigan should need. The Knights’ bigs are young and foul-prone — hardly a good recipe for success against the Wolverines — and a strong game down low should lead to a Michigan win.