Saturday's game against Indiana is bigger than any so far this year for the Wolverines. It's #1 Michigan vs. #3 Indiana in Assembly Hall in front of a Saturday night national audience and College Gameday. Not much more really needs to be said: this is going to be a fun one.
Look for Oladipo (left) to match up with Burke at key points tonight.
The Hoosiers: Indiana has no shortage of talent or star players, but two players rise above the rest: Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller. Zeller received much of the preseason hype and was nearly a unanimous selection as the preseason Player of the Year selection, but Oladipo has really been the one doing the work for this Hoosiers team so far this year. Not only has he been putting up 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game, but he has been deadly on the defensive end. He averages 2.5 steals and 0.8 blocks per game and has the ability to shut down players consistently. In fact, his defense has improved so much that he is even getting some discussion as the potential Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, an honor that appeared locked up last summer for Aaron Craft from Ohio State. Zeller hasn't been able to live up to his massive preseason hype, but he is still doing a lot of things to help the Hoosiers. He leads the team with 16.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game. Along with this, he has improved as a defender and has the ability to run the court in transition, which is not that common in big men, especially big men that are 7'0". Michigan will likely focus much of its efforts on minimizing the impact of Oladipo, but Horford and the big men are going to have a big challenge in attempting to slow down Zeller, especially in transition.
Outside of the big two, Indiana looks to several others to help get the job done. Jordan Hulls brings much experience to the backcourt and averages 11.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game. Alongside Hulls, Indiana uses freshman Yogi Ferrell. Ferrell averages 7.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. Hulls is a very gifted offensive player and though he has his limits on the defensive end, he can be deadly outside the arch (48.1% shooter). Stauskas is a different player of course, but he actually shares a lot of similarities with Hulls. Christian Watford finishes off the Hoosiers frontcourt and averages 12.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 47.9% from outside the arch. Needless to say, Glenn Robinson III is going to have his hands full guarding Watford. The good news for Michigan is that even though Watford connects on a very high percentage of shots outside the arch, he only attempts 3.4 per game. Essentially, even though he hits a lot of these, he probably won't shoot enough of them for it to be a major factor. "GR3" is going to have to defend well outside, but this is probably a good matchup for the Wolverines.
The final player that should be noted is Will Sheehey. He is the leader off the bench and averages 22 minutes, 10.2 points, and 3.7 rebounds per game. He is also solid on the defensive end and will likely be deployed at times to try and change things up on Michigan's offense. Overall, this is a very good Indiana team. Although they have two players that rise above the rest, they are not limited to these two players or even their starting lineup (9 players average 10+ minutes). This is as deep and as talented of a team as Michigan will see during the season and it is going to be a major challenge for what is still an improving defense.
Keys To The Game: Normally, only two things are highlighted here, but because these type of games are so rare, three things are being highlighted today. The first and perhaps the most important thing Michigan needs to do to win this game is adjust to Indiana's transition game. Indiana has playmakers at every position, lead the nation in points per game, have the #3 offense according to KenPom, and probably has the best transition big man in the country in Zeller. Michigan is very effective in transition itself, but if they attempt to use this over the course of a game, they will probably lose to Indiana. Michigan doesn't necessarily have to make this a slow paced game, but slowing it down would probably help the Wolverines. Of course, that's easier said than done.
In order to slow the game down effectively, Michigan will have to do a few things well. The first is not committing turnovers. Michigan has avoided the turnover bug this year and is one of the best teams in the country when it comes to not giving it away. With fewer possessions in the game, turnovers will be more significant and with a defender like Oladipo on the floor, preventing these is key. Plus, the home court will be amped and waiting for turnovers to create things like transition dunks. If Michigan is going to try and control a very hostile crowd, preventing these type of things will be key. Another way Michigan will look to slow down Indiana's transition game is avoiding fouls. One of the big ways the Hoosiers rattle up points so effectively is getting on the free throw line. Many of these fouls occur because Indiana gets in transition and defensive players foul as a last attempt to avoid an easy basket. It obviously isn't great to give up an uncontested basket, but Indiana gets to the line more than anybody in the Big Ten and hits 73.5% of their attempts, which means that preventing what many refer to as "dumb" fouls will be huge in this game. Even though Indiana is unlike any team Michigan has faced this season, the Wolverines have been great at avoiding turnovers and fouls throughout the season. So even if Michigan is a little worse in these categories, they should still do pretty well.
The final key to this game lies on Michigan's offense. Though nobody can be sure how Indiana will use Oladipo until Saturday night, it seems likely they will put him on Burke. Along with putting Oladipo on Burke, the Hoosiers will likely attempt to use their big men on the perimeter in order to slow down Burke's ball movement. Michigan can attack these moves in several ways, but one of the most effective could be targeting play inside the paint. Horford will have his hands full with Zeller, but if he can get some easy baskets because Zeller is on the outside attempting to slow down Burke, that could really help Michigan's chances. Along with this, Stauskas has been able to use some nice cuts to get to the basket in the past and this could be another opportunity for him to do so. Overall, this should be a hard fought game that comes down to a couple possessions near the end of the game.
Players To Watch: We wrote on Horford earlier this week, but McGary could also be key to this game. He is much better than he was earlier in the season at fouling, but against a team like Indiana, it could be an issue. If he gets into foul trouble quickly, it could mean Bielfeldt has to play more minutes, which won't not be good for this game. Bielfeldt is solid, but he doesn't matchup well against Zeller. The final player to watch for this game is Tim Hardaway, Jr. He has been great this year, but he still can play inconsistently in big games. Part of this is simply about whether his shots fall, but it's when his shots aren't falling and he starts taking contested jump shots that the problem arises. Even if he isn't shooting well tonight, he can still make a positive impact, as long as he's not wasting possessions for Michigan. Plus, he's going to have the challenging task of guarding Oladipo on the defensive end, which will be an interesting battle.
Prediction: Michigan 77-75