This has not been the season the Michigan Wolverines expected, to say the least. A top-10 preseason ranking gave way to early losses, underperformance from top recruits, an unfortunate Covid pause, a lengthy head coach suspension, and now a second time in three games without a crucial piece available. By any account this season has been a disappointment...and yet, the team’s ultimate goals still lie ahead of it.
The No. 11 Wolverines head back to Indianapolis — the site of last week’s epic collapse, last year’s entire tournament, and the football team’s recent heroics — with every opportunity to erase months’ worth of disappointment. Up first is a date with the No. 6 Colorado State Rams, which happens to be about as favorable of a draw as the maize and blue could have asked for.
Colorado State is no pushover, as this squad earned its seed with solid wins and a good offense. However, Vegas, Kenpom, and Torvik all see this game as a tossup at worst, and Michigan lean in many cases, so given the tumultuous season both on and off the court, the Wolverines should feel fairly positive heading into Thursday’s opener. Nothing is guaranteed, but this is a perfect spot for an early “upset.”
No. 6 Colorado State Rams (25-5) vs. No. 11 Michigan Wolverines (17-14)
WLWLWLWLWL aside, the Michigan offense has been pretty strong to close out the year. It has to be said that much of this can be attributed to DeVante Jones, who is sadly out for Thursday’s contest. While it definitely hurts to miss arguably the team’s second-best player, the burden will fall to Eli Brooks, who has more experience than anyone, and Frankie Collins and Kobe Bufkin, top-50 recruits with loads of talent. These players cannot replace Jones fully, but they should be productive against a team like Colorado State who offense a modest defense.
Without Jones, Michigan is really going to need to have one of its good games from behind the arc. The Rams are average against threes, but allow opponents to shoot a ton of them (only about 20 teams in the country allow them more often). The Wolverines have not always taken advantage of unimpressive defenses, but now is the time for Caleb Houstan, Terrance Williams, Brooks, and Bufkin to drill their shots. The team has been making 37.4 percent of its attempts over the past five games, and doing so again would be huge.
Defensively, the storylines start and stop with forward David Roddy, who by some metrics is one of the best players in the entire nation. Roddy can score from all over, including a 45.4 percent clip from behind the arc. The goal here is to contain, not eliminate, as Michigan has unfortunately seen individual players go off against them far too often. If Colorado State is going to win, it will be because their star is hitting shots at every level, so at least making life difficult for him is imperative.
As for the Rams offense as a whole, while the Mountain West is a solid conference and this is not a bad team by any means, but the Wolverines really need to rely on their superior athleticism in this type of matchup. Colorado State does not have the size in the backcourt or frontcourt to match up well outside of Roddy, and Michigan highlighted this discrepancy in wins over San Diego State and UNLV, teams the Rams went just 1-4 against this season.
So while it may feel cliché to point at the major program and say the bigger team is going to win, Colorado State just does not have an answer for Hunter Dickinson. He should at least make life in the paint difficult for the Rams’ offense, while opening up basically everything for Michigan with the ball. If he gets doubled in the post, the big man has shown time and again his great passing ability, and that will give the shooters open looks from deep. When the defense plays him straight up, Dickinson needs to at least get a touch every possession, as this should easily be another 20+ point game for him. Watch the offensive rebounds as well, as Colorado State has been willing to let opponents clean up their own glass.
Roddy is going to score, but Michigan has plenty of ways to try and stop him. Moussa Diabate will get the first crack, and on paper the dynamic freshman looks like a good match. However, his defensive play has been lacking at times, so do not be surprised to see both Brandon Johns and Williams try to body him as well. Point guard Isaiah Stevens is a steady player, and he will now see Collins (and some Brooks) instead of Jones, but really this offense is wholly dependent on Roddy. Juwan Howard needs to throw the kitchen sink at him until Michigan finds a way to minimize his impact. Limit Roddy and there is not enough offense left for the Rams to keep pace.