Wow, Tuesday was fun in East Lansing. I don't think anyone could have guessed Nebraska would be playing this well right now. Two weeks ago we were all looking forward to next year and now we are on the cusp of post season play. You've got to love Big Ten basketball.
Up next is the Michigan Wolverines who are currently 14-5 on the season. Drew Hallet from The SB Nation Site Maize N Brew able to give us some insight on the Wolverines and why he thinks they will take home the win in Lincoln on Saturday.
#1 - Last year was relatively disappointing for the Wolverines going 16-16 on the year. What were the expectations going into this season?
Michigan’s expectations for this season were the same as last season: a top-four Big Ten finish and Sweet 16 appearance. You may be wondering why the expectations would remain the same after Michigan was only .500 and missed the NIT, let alone the NCAA Tournament, last season, so I’ll explain. The Wolverines’ season was derailed by significant injuries to key players. Just five games into the year, Derrick Walton suffered a toe injury. He tried tough it out, but, as the season progressed, he hobbled more and more to the point where Michigan’s staff opted to sideline him for the rest of the season. And, speaking of season-ending injuries, Caris LeVert fractured his left foot in mid-January and missed the final 14 games. This forced Michigan to play freshmen and walk-ons that weren’t expected to be contributors just as U-M entered its toughest stretch of the season. Michigan lost seven of eight, and that was that.
However, in those final few games, Michigan began to play some excellent basketball, pounding Rutgers and Illinois before pushing future-national runner-up Wisconsin to the limit in the Big Ten Tournament. This and the fact that Michigan returned its entire roster except for Max Bielfeldt, who made a graduate transfer to Indiana, led many to believe that this team still could advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Thus, this season was viewed as a do-over or mulligan. It’s a chance to prove injuries were to blame last season.
Of course, injuries have made more than a cameo this season, too.
#2 - Michigan only has 5 losses on the year and they are all against pretty decent opponents. How have you felt the season has gone so far?
From a resume perspective, Michigan fans have had few complaints. The Wolverines have no bad losses -- their worst loss was to UConn, who is #28 on KenPom -- and they have earned a signature win thanks to a 70-67 victory over Maryland. But there are concerns. For starters, all five of Michigan’s losses are by double digits. That may be unfair because Michigan hung tight with Purdue and Iowa until the end, but fans wanted Michigan to be more competitive in its losses to top-tier teams. Further, as well as Michigan has performed, injuries have played a prominent role. Spike Albrecht will miss the rest of the season as he recovers from two hip surgeries, and Caris LeVert is out indefinitely after he hurt his "lower left leg" in the Big Ten opener against Illinois. At this point, Michigan still seems set to be an NCAA Tournament team, but, the longer LeVert sits out, the more and more this season can turn for the worst.
#3 - Having Caris LaVert coming back was huge for the Wolverines. Has Michigan missed him over the past few games? Could the Wolverines have beaten Iowa and Purdue?
Of course. Not only is Caris LeVert projected to be a mid-first round pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, he’s been one of the most efficient offensive players this season. Put aside that LeVert has averaged 17.6 PPG, 5.4 RPG, and 5.2 APG. His individual offensive rating is 129.6, which is the most in the nation among players that have a usage rate of at least 24 percent. He’s been that good. Would his presence have been enough to turn losses at Purdue and Iowa into wins? Most likely not because Michigan’s biggest issues lie on the defensive end. Nonetheless, there is no question that Michigan misses one of the nation’s best players. LeVert is that good.
#4 - Who are some of the players that Nebraska fans should keep an eye on for the game on Saturday?
There are three.
The first is Duncan Robinson, who is participating in his first season of D-I basketball after transferring from a D-III program. What has made Robinson’s transition so seamless has been his stroke. He’s an unbelievable three-point shooter, having drilled 64-of-124 triples (51.6 pct.) this season. And think about this: his 3-of-10 performance against Minnesota lowered his three-point percentage significantly. He’s been one of the best three-point shooters in the country. If Nebraska leaves him open on the perimeter, he should punish the Huskers badly.
The second is Zak Irvin, who has stepped up as Michigan’s go-to scorer in the absence of Caris LeVert. In his last five games without LeVert, Irvin has averaged 15.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, and 4.2 APG. He can score from the inside -- look for him to attack off the dribble for right-handed layups -- and the outside (15-of-32 threes in his last seven games). Irvin isn’t nearly as smooth as LeVert, but he’s learned how to handle the burden of being the go-to guy.
The third is Derrick Walton, who is Michigan’s point guard. This season, he’s registered 11.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, and 3.7 APG. He has trouble attacking the rim in half-court sets, but his aggressiveness in transition leads to easy twos. Plus, he’s an excellent three-point sniper (44.3 pct.). Also, in recent weeks, Walton has turned it on in the second half, knocking down some critical shots. He’s capable of going an entire first half without providing much before he makes the most important shot of the game. Then, defensively, there may not be a better defensive rebounding point guard than Walton. His defensive rebounding rate is 20.7 percent, which is the best on the roster. So look for him to sky for Nebraska’s misses throughout the contest.
#5 - What does Michigan do well and what do they need to work on?
To simplify things, Michigan is excellent on offense but struggles on defense. Michigan excels on offense because of its three-point shooting. Other than North Florida, there may not be another school that drills threes like the Wolverines. Not only have they made 41.5 percent of them (9th in 3P%), almost half of their shots are from beyond the arc (11th in 3PA%). That’s not Michigan’s only offensive strength, but Michigan’s ability to knock down jumpers carries them a long way. I mean, Michigan is on pace to break the Big Ten record for most made threes in a single season .On the other hand, offense can carry a team only so far. The Wolverines have many defensive red flags, ranging from defending the block to guarding the pick and roll to containing dribble penetration. At this point, the defense shouldn’t improve.
#6 - Okay, prediction time! What will happen on Saturday and what will the final score be?
I think this will come down to the wire. Michigan is on the road, but Michigan has fared well on the road much of this season. It really comes down to the fact that Michigan should be without LeVert while Nebraska is playing its best basketball of the season. However, given how both defenses have performed in Big Ten play, it seems it will come down to which offense is in rhythm. It’s hard to pick against the Wolverines in such a situation. U-M ekes it out. Barely.
Michigan 75, Nebraska 73
Thanks again to Drew and you can follow him on Twitter to get more info on the game this Saturday.