Purdue is in desperate need of a win, but they have to face the hottest team in the entire Big Ten on Thursday night in their home arena. The Wolverines are on top of the conference at 7-0 and just reeled off victories against contenders Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan State. Will they look past Purdue on Thursday? As usual, Zach Travis of Maize N' Brew is here with answer to my questions.
T-Mill: First, an apology. Coming into the Big Ten season I thought Michigan would struggle to make the NCAAs. Now they are in first place all alone. How are they doing this without Mitch McGary?
Zach: I don't think you were alone. I didn't worry that Michigan would struggled to make the NCAAs, but I won't say there wasn't a sliver of doubt there up until somewhere in January. Michigan lost two NBA players to the draft and probably a third to a back injury less than halfway through the season. You simply don't take those kind of personnel losses and continue to produce at a high level unless you happen to be Kentucky or something.
Not to say that Michigan is Kentucky, just that the Wolverines still had a nice mix of wing talent that with another year to grow has blossomed into a really strong trio of diverse offensive threats, and John Beilein has done a masterful job tweaking his offense to maximize these players' talent. The Wolverines started the season looking rough for stretches on offense, but at this point MIchigan has the third best Adj Offensive Eff. number in Kenpom's rankings and a potential KPOTY in Nik Stauskas. Add in the two freshman who are emerging into solid role players, and things are certainly trending upward for Michigan. There are still some concerns about defense and what Michigan does on the nights its shots aren't falling, but you don't beat three top ten teams with two of those wins coming in the Kohl and Breslin unless you're for real.
T-Mill: Nik Stauskas is absolutely on fire and Canadian. Does he realize this not hockey? What's the deal?
Zach: I'm glad you asked me this, because it takes me back to that first moment I really fell for Stuaskas (who has been my favorite player on the team - behind Trey Burke of course - since early last year. Stuaskas is Canadian, but he is a basketball player through and through. He lays that out pretty well in this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?
- He likes Justin Beiber. Also Lebron.
- He doesn't know who Alanis Morrisette is.
- Spike Albrecht won't ever dunk.
I'm sure that this will be some mighty fine HATEFUEL for everyone else around the conference, but his frankness and "aw shucks" Canadian attitude endear me to him. Also, he is pretty good at basketball.
T-Mill: John Beilien has been dipping into Indiana with Little Dog and Zak Irvin. Who is he looking at stealing from us now?
Zach: That is a good question. Hopefully he has his eye on someone, because Michigan's trips into Indiana have been very fruitful. First there was Stu Douglass and Zack Novak, but strangely Beilein stayed out of Indiana until the 2012 class which netted quite the haul. Mitch McGary originally hails from the Hoosier state and was AAU teammates with Glenn Robinson III and Spike Albrecht. Those three are a big part of Michigan's success the last two years. Zak Irvin has also been showing some flashes lately. He had a big stretch against Michigan State that helped turn the tide in the game, and his shooting has been a positive for the Wolverines.
I don't think Beilein has anyone on his recruiting radar in Indiana right now (although I don't follow recruiting very well), but if he does offer a kid it might be in Purdue's best interest to do the same.
T-Mill: How much did Michigan's tricky non-conference slate prepare them for this impressive run they are on?
Zach: I think if anything it was just enough to force Michigan to grow up a little faster than a weaker non-conference slate would. Michigan didn't look great early in the year and while it showed flashes of being the team it is now, a lot of the half court offense looked worse and Michigan was using a lot more of Mitch McGary's ability to create chaos on both ends of the court to generate extra possessions and scoring opportunities.
Of course, Michigan also had to deal with a few games that were either tight or went the wrong way. The trip to Iowa State is a good example of a young team being thrown into a tough road environment and not responding. Michigan started the game well but wilted down the stretch as it failed to answer Iowa State's runs. Later against Florida State the Wolverines looked to be out of it early but clawed back to force overtime and steal the win. Of course, the Charlotte game also happened right after, so it wasn't all sunshine and lollipops out of Puerto Rico.
Duke was the nadir of the non conference season. The Blue Devils abused Michigan's offense and never let the Wolverines sustain enough of a run to make the game interesting. Stauskas was hobbled on a bad ankle and GRIII almost completely disappeared. Caris LeVert was about the only thing keeping Michigan in that game, as he took the ball to the basket time after time in the second half. Finally, the Arizona game happened, when Michigan had a good chance to steal a win against the top team in the country, but couldn't hold on late.
All of these games were different versions of the same song and dance. Michigan was put in a bunch of close games in some hostile environments and told "sink or swim". The Wolverines mostly sunk, but along the way the team developed a little more confidence and made the right adjustments, and that experience has helped Michigan hold off both Wisconsin and Michigan State on the road (not to mention pulling out wins at Minnesota and Nebraska). Michigan doesn't look so easily shaken in January, and I think a lot can be said for the ups and downs the team faced in November and December readying the Wolverines for tough road games.
T-Mill: A prediction?
Zach: I think Michigan probably wins this game. The return trip to Purdue scares me a little because of last year's close call late in the season and really any Big Ten game on the road should scare you. However, Michigan is playing too well on offense and has so many options at its disposal. I would imagine the game is close in the beginning but a handful of Michigan runs in the middle 20 minutes of the game push the lead out to double digits and the Wolverines win by 12-15.