Perhaps it was a moral victory, but the Michigan Wolverines wound up falling short against No. 3 Virginia on Tuesday in what can only be described as a huge missed opportunity. The nature of college basketball allows for early-season losses, but the Wolverines let a solid resume piece slip through their fingers in the second half.
To try to forget about this collapse, Michigan travels across the pond to face the Kentucky Wildcats in London. This is the second of three big matchups in the non-conference slate, so a win on Sunday seems even more important now to make sure the Wolverines can at least grab one solid victory this fall.
This home-home-and-London series was a cool idea, but it unfortunately comes at the worst possible time as Sunday’s tip is set just one hour before England and Harry Kane (COYS!) face Senegal in the Round of 16. What might have been a unique atmosphere could end up a little lighter because of the timing. Should still be a good one for viewers in the States though!
Michigan Wolverines (5-2) vs. No. 19 Kentucky Wildcats (5-2)
Date & Time: Sunday, Dec. 4, 1:00 p.m.
Location: O2 Arena, London, England
Seeking a third musketeer
Hunter Dickinson and Jett Howard have both had a couple minor bumps on the young season, but at this point it is clear that these two NBA-caliber players are the core of this team. Dickinson’s 23 points (on 53 percent shooting) and five (!!) blocks against Virginia was a prime example of a superstar showing up against top competition, and Michigan needs him to repeat this against the Wildcats.
Meanwhile, Howard is clearly the real deal. The freshman is averaging 15.1 PPG and has reached double digits all but once. Howard’s emergence has been essential for the Wolverines, as no one else on the roster has been close to consistent. Kobe Bufkin is probably the third-best option right now, but he is definitely a step down from the two cornerstones.
Kentucky has solid defensive numbers this season, but much of that has come from wins against much lesser competition. Both Gonzaga and Michigan State scored over a point per possession, and while those teams might be operating a little better than the Wolverines right now, Tuesday’s performance against a solid Virginia squad should provide some optimism.
On the whole, Kenpom has this as a top-10 defense, so someone is going to have to step up for the Wolverines in London beside the aforementioned duo. Bufkin is an obvious candidate to keep progressing, but Jaelin Llewellyn and Terrance Williams’s flaws and hesitations were very concerning in Tuesday’s defeat. Both starters need to find ways to contribute more significantly, even if their shots are not falling.
The Wildcats are nearly as dangerous on offense, headlined by Naismith winner Oscar Tshiebwe. While the big man is still getting up to speed following a knee injury, he has shown up when it matters most, posting 22 points against Gonzaga and 20 against the Spartans. He and Dickinson will be going at it on both ends of the floor.
This is not a team that typically shoots lights-out, but one player to watch is Antonio Reeves, who has been a weapon from deep but somewhat mild inside the arc. The Illinois State transfer has been lethal from three (47 percent) and is going to be a tough matchup on the wing.
Kentucky does a great job taking care of the ball, and Michigan traditionally does not force a ton of turnovers, so the defense needs to find a way to protect the rim and grab the rebounds like against Virginia. The Wildcats like to play fast, so good fundamentals and communication on defense will be as important as ever. It feels like this game could have an element on chaos, so smart play could become a needed advantage for the Wolverines.