For many Michigan Wolverines fans, it is a weird feeling to watch this team struggle so much at the start. The 2018-19 season opened with 17 straight wins, the next year featured wins in eight of the first nine games, and last season saw records of 11-0 and 18-1. The current squad is not anywhere close to there, however, as Wednesday’s collapse against North Carolina was another reminder of how much work this team needs to do.
The addition of a pair of Big Ten games in December has been a fun change to the college basketball schedule, but it does slightly elevate the stakes. From 2017-20, the Wolverines are just 4-2 in such contests, and in such a competitive league every single game matters, no matter when they are played. Life becomes real for this young roster next week, with a trip to Lincoln on Tuesday.
That makes Saturday’s game against San Diego State the last date on the calendar before conference play begins (though not the last non-conference game on the schedule, to be clear). This is not a tune-up game either, with the Aztecs coming into the season as Mountain West favorites and sitting 44th per Kenpom. Juwan Howard’s squad has a lot to figure out quickly and this is not the easiest way to go about it.
San Diego State Aztecs (5-2) vs. No. 24 Michigan Wolverines (4-3)
San Diego State may be a top-50 Kenpom team, but the underlying numbers are quite lopsided. The defense ranks seventh in the country, fueled by strong field goal percentage figures. The Aztecs have been great at limiting threes and do not give up a ton inside the arc either, which is not a good sign for the Wolverine offense. This is another team that does not force many turnovers, but at this point that may not even matter.
The recipe remains the same for Michigan. Hunter Dickinson is this team’s biggest weapon and the offense needs to run through him; his foul troubles against the Tar Heels furthered emphasized that. Getting Moussa Diabate more action as well would be great, and ultimately superior athletes will need to win individual battles. While this is a good defense, the Wolverines are definitely talented enough to score, even if it becomes a lower-possession, higher-efficiency type of game.
On the other end, the Aztecs are fairly average offensively, sitting just 114th. They do not shoot that well and are terrible from deep. San Diego State is led by guards Matt Bradley and Trey Pulliam, who are neither high volume nor high accuracy, but do lead the team in scoring. This is another interesting test for a defense that has now been picked apart on multiple occasions.
Simple enough, but Michigan really just needs to play a clean game on Saturday (suppose this is the case against Iowa too...). Turnovers have been a big issue, outside shooting has been below-average, and newcomers like DaVante Jones and Caleb Houstan have not quite found their consistency. In Big Ten play, mistakes will not go unpunished, even against the bottom-tier teams. A crisp win over the Aztecs would be a big confidence boost heading into next week.
While there is still some sloppiness on offense, Juwan Howard wants to be able to lean on his team’s defense when the going gets tough. That has not proven itself to be a steady foundation as of yet this season, but there is a great opportunity to do so against a tamable SDSU attack. This team has gone through some rough shooting stretches, and forcing the visitors into contested shots will end up well for the Wolverines.