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No. 3 Virginia vs. Michigan Preview: At least match the competition

Five games into the season and Michigan is still trying to get things going.

NCAA Basketball: Legends Classic-Michigan at Pittsburgh Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Five games into the season, there are no illusions as to who the Michigan Wolverines are. There is plenty of time for growth, and that is the expectation, but as of this moment, this team would struggle against most Power Six opponents. The Wolverines are lucky to own a 5-1 record, and both Kenpom (No. 55) and Torvik (No. 68) are far from impressed thus far.

The schedule is about to heat up dramatically with a visit from the Virginia Cavaliers on Tuesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, followed by a trip to London to face Kentucky on Sunday. Both teams sit in the top five of the Kenpom rankings, and efforts like Michigan has put together recently will result in embarrassing blowouts.

That means that the biggest hope for Tuesday is that the team steps up when the lights get bright. Aside from the inexplicable performance by Arizona State, it is plausible (though not excusable) that the Wolverines were just not putting forward the right effort and energy levels against low-level competition. Should that be the case, that issue should not be a problem for this one.

No. 3 Virginia Cavaliers (5-0) at Michigan Wolverines (5-1)

Date & Time: Tuesdday, Nov. 29, 9:30 p.m.
Location: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, MI
TV/Streaming: ESPN

Controlled aggression

Michigan does have the talent to put up points, but that has not come easily so far this season, and it is unlikely to become any simpler. Virginia owns a very solid defense that held Illinois to just 0.93 PPP earlier this month and is traditionally very disciplined, though Tony Bennett’s squad has slipped a little bit the past couple years.

If there is one way the Wolverines could score points it would be from behind the arc. While everyone not named Jett Howard or Joey Baker has started the season pretty cold, there is reason to think that Kobe Bufkin, Terrance Williams, and Jaelin Llewellyn are all due for some positive regression given their talent levels.

The other option is to try to force the action at the rim. Hunter Dickinson has not yet looked like the All-American many expected him to be, but few teams are equipped to effectively contain him. Though Virginia does not commit a ton of fouls or give up many easy buckets, the Wolverines need to find a way to attack when the right opportunities arise — and to make the smart decision when they are not there.

The Cavaliers got by a good Baylor team but did surrender 1.19 PPP thanks to a 57.8 percent eFG rate and an 11-for-26 effort from deep. It might seem lofty to replicate this sort of output, but the potential is certainly there if some of the better looks start falling, which has not always been the case. Having those shots go in will only help the rest of the offense open up as well.

Long-range liability

Virginia is notorious for lengthy possessions, consistently sitting near the bottom of the country in tempo. This makes the defensive task extremely difficult, having to stay engaged for nearly the entire shot clock without suffering any sort of breakdown. The Cavaliers are once again very efficient on offense, as this style has been perfected to a T.

The issues for the Michigan defense are abundant, mostly due to mental collapses and poor chemistry. Against a team known for intelligent basketball, this could be a disaster waiting to happen. Indeed, the Cavaliers are near the top of the nation in both three-point percentage and free throw rate, making this a nightmare for poorly organized defenses which the Wolverines have looked like for much of the first month of the season.

Literally all of Virginia’s non-center starters are shooting above 40 percent from deep, though the team has connected at just 31 percent over the past two outings. For the Wolverines to have any chance on this end of the floor, they must not get beaten by screens and need to try to run shooters off the line, hoping to force jumpers and secure defensive rebounds. This is not the most attainable plan, but the one thing Michigan cannot do is die from the three.