It's officially time for the ACC / Big Ten Challenge! For today's tilt against the No. 14/15 Michigan Wolverines, I sat down with Alex Cook, our SB Nation colleague over at MaizenBrew.com and asked each other a few questions on Michigan and Virginia because, well, we were both too lazy to do our own research. Here are five questions I asked Alex, and I will link over when he posts the questions he threw back our way. (Edit: My answers are here.)
1. In the interest of full disclosure, I haven't followed Michigan as closely as I probably should have so far this season. How is Michigan's defense, and where are the holes?
Through the first three games against very weak opponents, Michigan's defense looked excellent and held each of its opponents in check defensively. Heading into the Memphis game, I was very concerned with our prospects defensively. Like Virginia, Michigan really likes to slow down the game on offense and defense, so the speed, athleticism and up-tempo of Memphis was pretty frightening. Fortunately for us, Michigan held on through a rough first half and really put the clamps down in the second half; it wound up being a pretty high-paced game with 67 possessions, but Michigan held Memphis to 61 points with a packed-in 2-3 zone that forced Memphis out of their comfort zone and into low-percentage three point shots. Following up on this stellar defensive performance against a top ten foe, Michigan's defense struggled against Duke. The Blue Devils really exploited our defense, principally by hitting a ton of shots from the inside and outside and getting to the free throw line a lot. Duke's one of the most disciplined teams in the country, and they were able to move the ball around the perimeter extremely well to get wide open shots. Michigan handled UCLA well in their last game. It's principally a man-to-man defense with 2-3 and a trapping 1-3-1 zone thrown in.
The keys to getting through the Michigan defense are getting good looks from outside, taking advantage of our four position, and getting our fives in foul trouble. Michigan's lack of size will give you plenty of opportunity to get good looks inside, but to beat the Wolverines, you'll need to hit from the outside. We've done fairly well with contesting shots, making good rotations, and closing out on open shooters, but Duke provided a blueprint of good ball movement and knocking down open shots. 6'4" Zack Novak deserves pretty much every generic compliment -- he's tough and I've never seen anybody be such a tenacious rebounder with his size, but he's still physically limited -- and Evan Smotrycz is a highly-touted work-in-progress who's very slow guarding the perimeter. Take Novak inside, take Smotrycz outside, and you should get a variety of good looks. Smotrycz is also incredibly foul-prone, and getting him off of his game on defense will hurt his offensive game. For our centers, if you can get Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford to at least two fouls each in the first half, you're in great shape and we're throwing out our bench warmers. We're thin up front and pretty small to begin with, so take the ball right at us and you should do well.
2. Michigan is returning just about everyone from last year's NCAA Second Round team, except for Darius Morris, who declared early. That's a pretty big loss though, as Morris led the team in scoring and was fifth in the nation in assists per game. Is this loss big enough to have a real effect on the team, and who steps up in his place?
Losing Darius was pretty rough on our team. He was a tremendous creator, both for himself and for his teammates, and his size (Darius was in the 6'5" range) created a ton of mismatches and gave him a huge rebounding advantage. He dominated the ball and was the center of our offense, so we were pretty concerned for our offensive production after he left. Add in the fact that we didn't have any true point guards on our roster other than the true freshman Trey Burke, the loss of Morris looked like it could drop us from the Big Ten title hunt to the NCAA bubble. Fortunately for us, Trey has been phenomenal. He's averaged 11 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists per game so far this year, and he's done his best against the best competition (17 points and 9 assists against Duke). He's the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week for his performance in Maui. Trey is incredibly poised for a freshman, he penetrates and hits pull-up shots really well, and while he hasn't been hitting well as of late, he's known as a fantastic outside shooter. The best part of his game -- to me at least -- is his passing: he's getting the ball to the block, drawing defenders and kicking, and looking every bit as creative as Darius Morris did. Burke has proved to be more than adequate in replacing Morris, so it looks like losing him is less severe than initially thought. Trey isn't better than Morris is yet, but he's looked pretty close so far.
3. Tim Hardaway, Jr. averages over 17 points a game, is shooting nearly 50% from the field, and does not appear susceptible to turnovers. What's Virginia's best shot at defending him?
Well, for how good Hardaway's been this year, it looks like he could be even better. He still hasn't really put a full forty minutes together yet -- he's a pretty streaky offensive threat. Hardaway was a great three-point shooter last year and he's shooting just over 30% this year from behind the arc. Tim has added a far more diverse offensive repertoire to his skill-set: he's getting to the rim, hitting long twos, runners, and pull up shots on the baseline with ease. Tim's looked so much more confident than he did last year, and if he can start clicking from long range, he'll be lethal. Duke provided a blue-print to stopping Hardaway -- they face guarded him for the entire first half and shut him out. He didn't get any good looks in the first half against the Blue Devils and he didn't score at all. John Beilein made an excellent adjustment at halftime, made Hardaway the focal point on offense and gave him the ball on every possession. He finished with 19 points. Virginia's best shot at defending Hardaway is guarding him really closely (his handle isn't great) and preventing him from stringing too many buckets together. If he gets in a groove, he's one of the best players in the country, but if UVA can try to contain him and have other players beat them, Hardaway's impact will be minimized. He'll still get his, but you have to prevent the big performance.
4. This is John Beilein's fifth year at the helm of Michigan Basketball, so it's his first year of all his own recruits. So far, it seems like his results have been a little inconsistent -- exceeding expectations at times (2009 and 2011) and coming up short at others (2010). What has the fan feedback been like?
I think at this point, Michigan fans are behind John Beilein 99.9%. There still might be a small deluded faction of fans that clamor for the glory days of the late eighties / early nineties and think that Michigan is an elite basketball program and deserves an elite coach, but every rational fan loves Beilein and thinks he's great for the program. Admittedly, the swoon in 2010 and the slow start to the 2011 season led to some grumblings, but Michigan exceeded extremely low expectations by a mile. The foundation for the program is excellent -- we're still young, Hardaway is a sophomore and Burke is a freshman -- and we have some great assistant coaches and support for one of the best basketball minds in the game. Michigan's also bringing in an elite recruiting class for 2012: a consensus top five player in Mitch McGary, a top thirty type in Glenn Robinson III (The Little Big Dog) and Nik Stauskas -- a four star Canadian sharpshooter. I think it's fairly safe to say that we collectively think that Michigan is definitely a program on the upswing, we have a great foundation and a promising future, and I personally would like to keep Beilein around for however long he wants to be here. He said that he "wouldn't have come to Michigan if he didn't think he could win a national title here" and while that seems ambitious, Michigan's on the way back to the glory days. Oh, and Beilein is a very ethical coach and a great all-around guy, so any on-court success won't be vacated this time.
5. Prediction time. Who takes the ACC / Big Ten Challenge, and who wins this contest?
Well, the Big Ten was the best basketball conference in the country last year (don't let the lack of truly elite teams fool you, even though OSU was the best team in the country, the Big Ten was stellar from top to bottom), and it looks like it could be the case again this year. The B1G has won each of the last two challenges, and should now be in better shape now that the ACC has have its worst team play. Add in the fact that the Big Ten technically wins the challenge if it's a 6-6 tie, and I think it's a safe bet that the Big Ten wins again. Of course, I'm biased, so yeah.
Northwestern at Georgia Tech: Northwestern is actually good and their offense gives unfamiliar teams fits all of the time.
Illinois at Maryland: I'm not really sold on either team, so I'll take the Terps at home.
Miami at Purdue: The Boilermakers haven't been playing great, but they're still very talented and incredibly tough to beat at home.
Clemson at Iowa: Iowa is slowly evolving into a solid program, but they're still a year away.
Duke at Ohio State: I still think the Buckeyes are part of that elite upper tier of UK and UNC with Sullinger, Buford, and Craft.
Penn State at Boston College: Penn State is bad, Boston College is awful.
Indiana at NC State: Tom Crean is still rebuilding and Cody Zeller might be the guy to turn the corner for IU.
Florida State at Michigan State: The Over/Under should be set at like 100 points for this one.
Virginia Tech at Minnesota: The Gophers would probably win if Trevor Mbakwe hadn't torn his ACL the other day.
Wake Forest at Nebraska: I guess Nebraska gets a easy game to acclimate itself to this series.
Wisconsin at North Carolina: This is the best game of the challenge, and I think UNC rebounds for the win.
So that puts us at 7-4 for the Big Ten not including the Michigan-Virginia game, but I think that Michigan will win in Charlottesville. Virginia's defense sounds like it preys on unsound teams and takes away two point shots, but Michigan is excellent at passing the ball around the perimeter and hitting from the outside. Not many gave UM a chance when they headed to Clemson for the challenge last year, but Michigan ran away with it for the biggest surprise for the Big Ten. I don't think it will be that easy this year, but Michigan has proved that it can win in tough environments. Ken Pomeroy predicts a 7-5 win for the Big Ten, but I'll one-up that with a decisive 8-4 win over the ACC.