Friday, January 27, 2012

Ohio Preview: Points of Interest*

John Beilein looks to point us to victory against Ohio like
noted pointing aficionado Brady Hoke

*What I did there...you see it.

General Outlook 
Michigan comes into this one riding high, tied for first place in the Big Ten. That's right. Michigan is 16-5 (6-2), and one would think that four more wins would make the Wolverines a sure thing. The win at West Lafayette went a long way toward mitigating some anxiety in that respect.

Ohio State, on the other hand, has been a top 5 fixture. The Buckeyes are coming off of three straight drubbings of Indiana, Nebraska, and Penn State by an average margin of 25 points. Their three losses have come at Kansas (minus Sullinger), at Indiana, and at Illinois, the game in which Brandon Paul decided to harvest all the residual MJ talent floating around the Land of Lincoln en route to a truly absurd 43-point effort. In short, they have lost in three pretty tough environments, one without Sullinger and another featuring one of those Daniel Horton-esque performances where every shot goes in, eyes open or closed. However, the Buckeyes have just been vaporizing teams at home, although the only Big Ten teams to visit Columbus thus far have been Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, and Indiana. This is not a great time to be traveling to Columbus, as they are simply firing on all cylinders.

This is probably the one game on the schedule that is objectively beyond our reach. A loss isn't a season-killer by any means, so I look forward to being able to focus on the matchups just to see how much we have or haven't improved, individually and as a team. Considering how the Hoosiers fared (despite recent struggles, they are still a solid squad) at Value City Arena, keeping this game close would be an achievement.

The Offense 
As it it stands, UVA and Wisconsin sit atop the scoring defense rankings; the Buckeyes are not far behind, only relinquishing 56.0 ppg. On the plus side, two straight games against high-pressure teams like Arkansas and Purdue (albeit different styles of pressure) will probably have served as good practice for this game. Trey Burke in particular has his work cut out for him, as he will be checked by Aaron Craft, the definitive defensive pest. Craft is quick and active with his hands, so Trey better be ready to fight off the fatigue and put the free arm out to protect or Craft will steal it. Craft is top 15 in steals, averaging a Madoffian 2.5 per game. Trey has gone up against quick slot ninja-esque types before--namely UVA's Jontel Evans and Purdue's Lewis Jackson--so he should be prepared, although those guys have had some success in locking Burke up to an extent (particularly Evans). I just checked and Craft is listed at 6'2'', which is definitely taller than I imagined. This will be a difficult matchup for Trey; if he comes out looking good then feel free to ramp up the hype machine tenfold.

The Buckeyes have some good size across the boards, but it isn't necessarily overwhelming. Only the 6'11'' Amir Williams off the bench is a true center type, and he's averaging a mere ("a mere"...GET IT) 8 minutes a game. Sophomores Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas are the bigs at 6'9'' and 6'7'', Buford is a big guard at 6'6'' and then you've got Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. at 6'2'' and 6'4'' respectively. Like all good teams, the Buckeyes are near the top of the national ranks in rebounding margin (+7.5), with only the Spartans crashing the boards better in the conference. Second chances will likely be hard to come by.

The Buckeyes are only behind the Spartans and Badgers in 3-point defense percentage, giving up the trey at a 31.5% rate. With Craft likely to be in Burke's face all game long, Michigan might not have a lot of good drive and dish looks and Trey might not get too many good looks himself while on the dribble. This has all the makings of a game in which THJ jacks up a good number of contested threes in response to the consistent Buckeye pressure (I would imagine that Lenzelle Smith Jr. will draw him, a young guy who has upped his minutes from last year by playing defense). Let's hope that is not the case, but Michigan will have to hit more than a few contested looks to have a chance by the end of the game.

The Defense 
The Buckeyes average 78.0 ppg, more than anybody in the conference save Indiana. Sullinger has an array of moves and is simply a bull on the block. Sullinger is shooting a Morgan-esque 59% from the field, and is right behind Zack Novak in eFG% at 61.5% (which seems to be slightly--and hilariously--buoyed up by being 8-17 from 3). When he gets the ball, he scores.

Jordan Morgan might want to eat some serious Cottage Inn between now and
Sunday to make up the 15 or so pounds he's giving up to this man
Deshaun Thomas and William Buford are the other two double digit scorers (15.0 and 15.2 ppg respectively). They are high usage guys, but their percentages aren't anything to write home about, overall or from three. Past them, Craft isn't a big time scorer (8.0 ppg) but they don't really need him to be. Lenzelle Smith is only averaging 6.0 ppg but doesn't seem to be a high usage guy. However, he did drop 28 on the Hoosiers at home, giving me enough reason to be suspicious of him. He only averages about 4 shots a game, but he is shooting 49% from 3 on 37 attempts. Speaking of, he is Ohio's best 3-point shooter by far and is only 4th in attempts. With the Buckeyes shooting the 3 about as poorly as us (34% to our 34.2%), Thaddeus Matta should probably find a way to get Smith to shoot more (actually, SHHH...nobody tell him). Thomas and Buford shoot the 3 at 38% and 35% respectively, and Craft's at 30%. If there is any comfort to be had, it's that the Buckeyes might not kill us when we collapse on Sullinger.

Every time I get the urge to say "hey, let's play a little more zone" (i.e. before the Purdue game), Michigan tries it...and it fails spectacularly. This is unfortunate, as Ohio's 3-point shooting doesn't scare me. Plus, Craft would have a hard time slicing up the zone if his defender is sagging off of him, as should probably be the case. Sadly, Michigan is going to have to survive on grit and grit alone. Luckily, we do have Zack Novak, who heads the glorious Department of GRIT. If there was a way to execute grit transactions, this would be the time for Novak to wire some to Morgan. If JMo can hold his ground and, more importantly, not pick up two quick and early fouls, Michigan has a chance to keep Sullinger reasonably in check. On the plus side, it seems like it's been a while since JMo has picked up two early fouls. Oddly, I have some faith that Morgan can body up on Sullinger.

Pros:
  • They don't shoot the 3 exceptionally well. Rather, they don't have one guy that could be called a true specialist. 
  • They aren't a great FT shooting team (67.9%, good for 189th in the country). 
  • This is somewhere between a pro and a con, but...while Ohio's offensive rebound percentage is approximately 5% better than ours (good for a difference of 161 spots in the rankings), they are not Michigan State (39.1%, good for 17th). They'll get their offensive boards but we won't get destroyed like we did against MSU. 
Cons:
  • They're top 10 in overall FG% (49.2%). 
  • Ohio is second nationally in turnover margin, so they value the ball as much as Tommy Rees loves throwing interceptions and Lloyd Carr values leather-bound books. Michigan won't get a lot of help there. TINSTAAFL's basketball cousin TINSTAAFB applies here...There's No Such Thing As A Free Bucket. 
  • Jared Sullinger and Michigan's lack of beef and/or depth. 

This is a classic "key on the big guy and hope the perimeter guys miss their good looks" sort of game. Sullinger will make his post moves and make Morgan look silly here and there, but Buford and Thomas are the players Michigan needs to hope have off nights.


Who/What To Watch
  • Trey vs. Craft on both ends of the floor. If Trey can consistently handle the pressure and can prevent Craft from zooming past him on the defensive end (like Lewis Jackson was able to do) then we have a shot. 
  • Jordan Morgan vs. early fouls. 
  • Whether or not THJ can pick up the play-creating slack with Burke being checked by Craft. He had four turnovers at Purdue, but I'll take it if he keeps thinking ATTACK first. 
Meaningless Prediction 
I hope I'm not setting myself up for disappointment, but I think Michigan has a pretty good chance to keep it closer than any of the other Big Ten teams that have paid the Buckeyes a visit thus far (that's not saying much, but still). If Michigan can avoid having anybody fall victim to the "2 fouls and proceed to eat bench" thing then we won't get blown out before reaching halftime. If THJ and Morgan have strong performances like they did in WL, there's a chance. I'm saying there's a chance. Craft will get into Burke and I'm sure we won't get any calls, so it basically comes down to whether or not Michigan's shooters can hit with hands in their faces. It's pretty reductive, but beating Ohio at home is difficult enough, even with everybody playing well. On the road, well...it's a tall order.

Michigan will keep it sort of close for a while, but with Stu's erratic shooting, Smotrycz's plummeting shooting percentage and/or lack of confidence since the beginning of Big Ten play, and THJ's still debatable dedication to attacking the rim, it's difficult seeing us being in a real position to win in the final couple of minutes. Michigan 63, Ohio 76. 

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