In their first step toward the Mordor at the end of this two-week stretch, the Wolverines head down to the Ozarks tomorrow to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks in the annual "which one of these is not like the others" game of the schedule. Although I'm sure UM researchers are busily at work as I speak, a portable photovoltaic cell for the capture of raw energy emitted by Denard Robinson hasn't been invented yet, so it would seem that the Wolverines will have to win this one solely on the back of grit and execution.
The End of the Road
Michigan, of course, is coming off of two divergent performances with respect to energy, fire, grit, general oomph, and whatever other descriptor you may prefer. The Iowa game was a disaster, and the MSU game wasn't necessarily pretty but the effort was clearly there from the very beginning. Arkansas, on the other hand, comes in at a somewhat underwhelming 13-5 (2-2), with losses coming to Houston, @Oklahoma, @UCONN, @Ole Miss, and Tuesday's dismantling at Rupp Arena. Houston is currently 9-9 overall, 1-4 in Conference USA play. The other four aren't terrible losses, particularly UCONN and UK, obviously. With that said, this is an Arkansas team that has played several teams with a pulse and come away victorious only once (against a ranked Mississippi State on January 7th). For what it's worth, the Razorbacks did dispatch a common opponent, Oakland, with relative ease, beating the Golden Grizzlies by 23.
With 12 games left for Arkansas after the Michigan game, splitting those would have Arkansas sitting at 19 wins; would a 20th be enough to push Arkansas off the bubble? I'm not sure, especially since my opinion of SEC basketball is about as high as my opinion of dubstep, "Whitney", and Skip Bayless...which is low indeed. A win against Michigan would be a solid feather in the cap of Arkansas's likely-to-be unimpressive (come March) resume. They will play accordingly, and Michigan players must be ready for a lively arena full of grown adults yelling "Woo Pig Sooie" with very little self-awareness or inhibition.
Mike Anderson, trying to make sure that the people in front of him are in fact chanting "Woo Pig Sooie" (HT: Beth Hall, AP)
This game is particularly dangerous simply for the fact that it forces Michigan to prepare for something different, which, in this case, is of course Mike Anderson's famous "40 minutes of hell" approach. It does no use to approach the press like some approach the spread offense in college football (i.e. as a gimmick). It is what it is, and Anderson has implemented his system to great success at UAB(!) and Missouri before coming to Fayetteville this season. He took the Blazers of UAB to a Sweet Sixteen in 2004, and while many will argue that it's a system that has a distinct ceiling that precludes a program from reaching an elite heights, it can be very effective on a game-to-game basis.
With that said, given top notch point play and general experience, the press is something that can be surgically attacked. Kentucky is, well, Kentucky, but the contest Tuesday night was a glorified layup line. While Anderson has had teams execute his system with a quickness and a piranha-esque tenacity that was truly exciting to watch (as long as your team wasn't involved), it doesn't seem that they're quite there yet. Like a lot of SEC teams, Arkansas seems to have some ATH-A-LETES, but they are conceding 65.5 ppg (good for 139th nationally). Guards range from 6'1'' to 6'5'', which could be an issue given Burke's lack of size; some purposeless dribbling and he's trapped. Boom, turnover and points and let's set up and do it again. Of course, Burke is a freshman despite all visual evidence stating otherwise, and this is a road game (Michigan is 0-3 on the road). Naturally, Arkansas is top 15 in steals per game (9.3 per). If Michigan "values the ball," odds are this is not much of a contest.
My impression is that, while I respect Anderson's style of play, it hasn't quite taken root yet. As such, I think Trey et al should be able to handle the press with relative ease. Spot up opportunities from 3 will be available in abundance; Smotrycz, Douglass, and Novak need to connect on these opportunities at a higher rate than they have been of late.
Defensively, the Wolverines should be able to hold their own. As the saying goes, "teams that press don't like to be pressed." That's not to say that we should press, but Michigan should be able to force some turnovers. I foresee Stu continuing his streak of outright kleptomania, getting 2 or 3 steals in addition to his usually solid on the ball D.
Arkansas does score the ball (76.1 ppg, good for 41st nationally), but in SEC play thus far they have only scored 63, 69, and 63 in their last three contests respectively (they did drop a whopping 98 on Mississippi State). This is a team that clearly thrives on the mistakes of inferior or inexperienced and undisciplined opponents, favoring games featuring a high volume of possessions (in this respect, they are the anti-Wisconsin). In their lone win worth writing home about (Mississippi State), the Razorbacks forced 18 turnovers and took ten more shots than the Bulldogs en route to a ten point victory.
I haven't seen a whole lot of Arkansas (as I'm sure is true for most), but they seem like the typical fast/pressing team that struggles in half court sets. The only double digit scorers are 6'3'' freshman guard BJ Young (14.7 ppg) and the 6'2'' Mardracus Wade (11.1 ppg), and it seems that Young comes off of the bench despite being their leading scorer. Both are shooting over 50% from the field overall, with Young and Wade shooting 42% and 49% from 3, respectively. Arkansas's only other 3-point threat is Marvell Waithe off the bench, who is 6'9'' FWIW (39%)...that should be an interesting matchup for whomever draws him.
Arkansas has a generic medley of 6'8''/6/9'' guys, but none seem like anything special. The Razorbacks' rebounding margin is atrocious, sitting at -0.9, good for 222nd in the country. Michigan might give up some second chances here and there, but it shouldn't be endemic or ultimately fatal.
Arkansas's top 5 scorers are guards; saying this is a guard-dependent team is like saying Avatar is an entirely special effects-dependent film, one that would otherwise be a poorly done retread and seriously un-enjoyable on any level without such effects. That is, you'd be right in saying either of those things. Yes, without the guard play you get a Junior Varsity squad that tried to press one game after nothing else worked. Without the fancy guard play and all those explosions you get FernGully.*
*There, I said it.
Who/What To Watch
- Michigan's three-point shooting in transition.
- Burke/Michigan vs. the press in the first 5-10 minutes of the game.
- The defensive efforts of Burke, Douglass, and THJ against Arkansas's Young, Nobles, and Wade, etc.
So, this is mostly based on some perceptions based on the statistical data, and yes, a few preconceived notions, but...I get the feeling that Arkansas is a team that will be good down the road, but they're not there yet. The press can and should be handled, as most good teams are capable of doing. Trey Burke has come a long way since Michigan struggled mightily in Charlottesville against a tough, high pressure defensive (albeit not a pressing team) team. Arkansas seems to have a decent amount of youth on their own roster, and not much in the way of post play or a true big. As long as Michigan doesn't completely wilt under the pressure of the full-court press and at least one person shoots a solid percentage from 3, the Wolverines should be able to escape with a road victory. Also, THJ must attack the basket in the post-press-breakdown chaos; any less than 6-8 FTA and I will be somewhat disappointed. Michigan 74, Arkansas 67.