Come on in and sit down. It is time for another basketball guest Q&A, so crack open a cold one as we talk hoops with Drew Hallett of Maize N' Brew.
T-Mill: What is the situation with Caris LeVert and will he play on Thursday?
Drew: In the second half of the Big Ten opener against Illinois, Caris LeVert was dribbling when he stepped on an Illini defender's foot with his left foot. On replay, it appeared LeVert may have tweaked his ankle, but it didn't seem serious because LeVert walked it off and continued to play. However, just prior to tip-off against Penn State, Michigan announced that LeVert would sit out with a "lower left leg" injury, and, after the game, John Beilein opted not to reveal any specifics about LeVert's injury and said more information was needed. This was concerning because it suggested something worse than an ankle sprain had occurred and reminded us that it was his left foot that LeVert fractured last season. Then, on Monday, Beilein told the media that LeVert still is in slight pain and there's as much of a chance that this is a long-term issue as a one-day issue. These are not comforting words whatsoever for the Michigan faithful. Because Beilein hasn't revealed details, LeVert's status is unclear at the moment. He's a game-time decision, it seems. If I had to guess, I don't think we'll see LeVert on Thursday.
T-Mill: What have you learned about the Wolverines from conference play so far?
Drew: The most important thing I've learned from Big Ten play is that Michigan may have a solid option at center. Entering the season, whether Michigan would have a reliable frontcourt was one of the biggest questions hanging over its head, and, through the non-conference slate, no one had stepped up. Ricky Doyle earned the majority of the starts and averaged 5.4 PPG and 3.3 RPG in 16.8 MPG. He shot well around the rim (65.1 2P%), but his biggest problem was that he couldn't catch passes or hold onto the ball, resulting in a whopping turnover rate of 24.6 percent. Most Michigan fans resigned to the fact that Michigan didn't have a big that could do the little things that U-M needed it to do.
Until Mark Donnal stunned everyone last week. Before the Big Ten season, Donnal had been demoted from starter to scout team and posted only 3.9 PPG and 2.1 RPG in 9.8 MPG. He had developed a reputation for being soft and timid inside the paint, preferring to be more of a pick-and-pop option. But that wasn't the Donnal that took the State Farm Center court against Illinois. The new Donnal was active, going strong to the tin, muscling for rebounds, and speeding out to contest perimeter shots. As he continued to perform, he looked as if he was shedding the self-doubt minute by minute. By the game's end, he had recorded 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting, nine rebounds, three blocks, and two steals. Then, he followed it up with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting and eight rebounds against Penn State, who has 7-foot-1 Jordan Dickerson. I'm still not 100-percent sure this is the Donnal we'll see every game because most of his offense benefits from guards penetrating and dishing. Nonetheless, it's a positive sign for Michigan that it may have a center that can elevate the team's performance.
And Thursday will be an enormous litmus test for Donnal, challenging A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas.
T-Mill: I was surprised to see walk-on Andrew Dakich playing extensive minutes on Saturday. Is this a new wrinkle?
Drew: Injuries have thrust walk-on Andrew Dakich onto the court. Initially, the plan was for him to redshirt, but, once Spike Albrecht was forced to retire mid-season with bad hips -- though, he hasn't ruled out taking a redshirt and returning next season -- and Derrick Walton sprained his ankle, the only scholarship guards Michigan had available were Caris LeVert and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. Once Walton returned from his ankle injury, Dakich was moved back to the bench and would be used sparingly at most. That was until LeVert hurt his lower left leg, which means Michigan is back to just two healthy scholarship guards. If LeVert is absent on Thursday, Dakich will see minutes as the third guard off the bench. Though Dakich has been more in control this season than last, him earning extensive minutes is an ominous sign.
T-Mill: Is this a typical Belien team that is going to take a ton of threes and hope to get hot?
Drew: Yes. With or without Caris LeVert, Michigan will start a four-guard lineup with a center in Mark Donnal that has no issue firing threes if left open. Accordingly, the Wolverines are 15th in three-point rate with 45.6 percent of their field goals being from behind the arc. And there's a good chance that they will get hot, too, because they are sixth in three-point shooting (43.0 pct.). What makes Michigan such a difficult team to stop behind the three-point line is that there are too many snipers to shut down. D-III transfer Duncan Robinson (57.1 pct.) and Derrick Walton (53.7 pct.) have drained more than half of their threes, and each have attempted at least 40. LeVert and Aubrey Dawkins each make about 45 percent of their triples, while Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has improved and knocked down 37.5 percent of his threes. Even Zak Irvin, who opened the season by making only 7-of-41 threes (17.1 pct.), has drilled 8-of-15 (53.3 pct.) in his last three games. It's rare for all of these shooters to have an off game on the same night, but it's possible if an opponent has a stingy perimeter defense ... like Purdue.
T-Mill: How has Michigan's defense been so far?
Drew: Michigan's defense is 64th in adjusted efficiency, which suggest it's fine, but there are serious concerns. One is that Michigan's perimeter defense can be porous. Opponents have been able to dribble past a defender into the lane or blow by a closeout with too much ease. Once those ball-handlers are inside, they usually are able to finish at the rim because Michigan doesn't have a true rim protector -- though, Mark Donnal has four blocks in the last two games -- or dump it off underneath for a layup. However, the bigger one pops up when Michigan faces offenses that like to work on the block and crash the glass. U-M's four-guard lineup hasn't fared well against those teams whatsoever, and it usually ends with Michigan getting bullied all game. This is what happened in losses to Xavier, UConn, and SMU, all three of which do one of those things very well. The small sliver of hope is that Donnal's increased activity will help on defense, but we'll learn more on Thursday.
T-Mill: Do you have a prediction for Thursday?
Drew: I do, and it's one that Purdue fans will love. Simply, the Boilermakers are an awful matchup for Michigan. On offense, the Wolverines will challenge the nation's best defense and one that is second in two-point defense and 10th in three-point defense. So how does an offense that relies almost solely on making its first shot combat that? Michigan will try to run some pick and roll on the perimeter to bring Isaac Haas or A.J. Hammons away from the basket, but their length still should compel U-M to pause before it attacks the hoop. Further, Raphael Davis leads one of the best perimeter defenses in the country, which is why offenses have had such a difficult time shooting threes (36th in 3PA%), let alone making them. And that's with Caris LeVert. If Michigan doesn't have LeVert, its best creator, it could be a serious struggle.
On defense, Michigan has to handle Purdue's seven-foot skyscrapers and 6-foot-9 Caleb Swanigan. Those three will be trying to score against 6-foot-10 Mark Donnal and 6-foot-6 Zak Irvin. Given Michigan struggles against teams that can grab its misses and all three of those Boilermakers are nationally ranked in offensive rebounding percentage, that doesn't look promising for U-M. Plus, though outside shooting hasn't been consistent for the Boilermakers recently, they still are enough of a threat that Michigan can't ignore them to help down low.
The only way I see Michigan winning this game is if it can replicate the success that Iowa had with its trapping press. What that did for the Hawkeyes was force turnovers and speed up the pace of the game, so they wouldn't have to face a set Purdue defense on every trip. That's what Michigan needs to do because it will struggle to score against Purdue's half-court defense and stop the Boilermakers on the block on defense. Since Michigan had a couple of extra days to prepare for this matchup, I wouldn't be surprised if John Beilein had his team practice some 1-3-1 zone this week. The Wolverines have struggled with it all season -- SMU shredded their zones -- but, if they can figure it out and cause Purdue's point guards to panic, maybe they can pull off an upset in Mackey Arena. Maybe. But I don't expect it to. I expect pain.