Michigan enters the murderous portion of the schedule, and, despite a win over Izzo and the Spartans, confidence is not exactly to be found in spades. Michigan has lost two of its last 3, one an embarrassing loss at Iowa, the other at Arkansas. The latter doesn't bother me as much, but the fact that Michigan was losing by double digits for most of the game is more than a little worrisome as a matter of general competitiveness.
It doesn't get easier, as Michigan heads to West Lafayette tonight to face a Purdue team that has had their own share of struggles this season. Purdue sits at 14-6 (4-3), a game behind Michigan in the standings. Replacing outgoing stars JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore has been a difficult task, especially as 12th year senior Robbie Hummel continues to attempt to regain the game he had pre-injury. The Boilermakers' losses have come to: Alabama, @Xavier (a game in which they were up big and blew big time), a scuffling Butler team, @PSU, Wisconsin, and the recent drubbing @MSU.
As their record indicates, they have been very hit or miss throughout the Big Ten slate thus far, part of which is attributable to the fact that they have already played 4 away games compared to Michigan's 2. This Purdue team is definitely a notch or two below the Purdue squads of the last few years, but this is a team that has played us tough (Beilein is 1-5 against the Boilermakers) and we are not exactly indisputably better by any means.
Going from Arkansas' press to Purdue's more traditional man-to-man is akin to a college football team playing Oregon one game and Wisconsin the next. Personally, I've always preferred and admired Purdue's brand of defense. It is in-your-face and TOUGH and GRITTY and all the other things that a Midwestern team should be if we're letting stereotypes rule the day. Oh, what's that? Purdue's defense might not be so gritty you say?
Since you hypothetical question-answered there, Purdue's normally tenacious defense has taken a bit of a step back. Purdue boasted the #31 scoring defense in the country last season (second best in the conference), giving up a mere 61.9 ppg. This season, the Boilermakers are sitting at 81st, giving up 63.0 ppg (5th best in the conference). It seems like a small change, but the drop off passes the eye test as well. It's difficult to explain the dropoff with complete certainty, but there's no doubt that the loss of Johnson's shot-blocking presence and Moore's ability to rack up steals has contributed to the declawing of an ordinarily stout Painter defense.
As far as defensive rebounding goes, the Boilers are about a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team (34.2 rpg, good for 6th in the conference). Michigan has about a 40 spot lead on Purdue in rebounding margin as well (2.1 and .6 respectively).
Purdue is about as good as Michigan when it comes to defending the three (36.0% compared to Michigan's 36.2%), which is to say "not very good." Michigan should have their open looks: can they hit them? This is the question of our time, one that can be asked before every game.
In short, Purdue is at best average in almost every defensive category. They give up the three about as often as Michigan does, they're not a great rebounding team, and they're not a shot-blocking threat post-Johnson...despite all this, they're giving up 63.0 ppg (good for 80th nationally). That's not bad, and I don't think that Michigan really has the depth or the desire to try to push the tempo to give them problems by trying to score before they're set. With Michigan's dedication the 3, the lack of a shot-blocker doesn't mean too much...that is, unless THJ, you know, decides to SEARCH AND DESTROY.
As mentioned, 6'10'' JaJuan Johnson is currently plying his trade in the NBA with the Boston Old Guys. That is very good news indeed, as there's no doubt he would've have torn us up yet again. His stat line from the beating last season in Crisler: 22 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks. Jordan Morgan, you may rest at ease. Even more importantly, Purdue has not replaced JJ's production whatsoever. Purdue's top 7 scorers are all guards if you count DJ Byrd, who is listed as a 6'5'' guard/forward. Like Arkansas, this is another heavily guard-dependent team, which isn't necessarily unusual for a college basketball team, but still. Michigan doesn't have to worry about getting rebounded over or bullied in this one like they usually do.
Positives for the Celtics: is not 90. Positives for us: is not currently a Boilermaker.
Like Michigan, Purdue doesn't really shoot the 3 exceptionally well (35.5% as a team). Only senior Ryne Smith eclipses the 40% barrier, shooting at a very impressive 43%. Hey, Michigan. If you forget what the scouting reports are re: Purdue's 3-point shooters, remember that their specialist is the guy who spells his first name "Ryne." Otherwise, Robbie Hummel is the only other Boilermaker to have over 100 attempts from 3, and he shoots 35%. However, every time I've turned a Purdue game on of late, it seems like he's missing 3s in horrendous fashion (i.e. airballin' it). Hummel has gotten progressively worse from 3 since his stellar freshman season back when Lloyd Carr was still coaching football (I could have said "1962" or something for a cheap HURR joke, but saying "when Lloyd Carr was coaching football makes it sound like it was equally long ago, right?).
The thing Purdue does have going for it is that they value the ball, sitting at 11th in the nation in assist to turnover ratio. This is unsurprising given that Hummel, Kelsey Barlow, Lewis Jackson, and Ryne Smith are all upperclassmen. For the most part, Michigan will have to D up the old-fashioned way, as not many cheap turnovers will likely come their way. Past Hummel and Lewis Jackson, Purdue has a pretty big dropoff in offensive capability. Additionally, Jackson seems to be nursing some lingering injuries, and despite being the team's second leading scorer, is somewhat of an X-factor per his own coach's words.
Luckily, Purdue doesn't really expose any of Michigan's biggest flaws (lack of size, 3-point defense, depth). Despite being 4th in the conference in possessions per 40 (66.3 per game, good for a hilarious 209th nationally), that is of course like being one of the fastest turtles in a turtle race. I wouldn't mind seeing Michigan throw in some zone a little more than usual in this game.
Who/What To Watch
- Please please please MAKE THREES. Please. This is more a plea than a suggestion of what to watch out for.
- Burke on Jackson at the defensive end; we'll need another shutdown effort here.
- Burke and Morgan on the pick and roll.
Looking at everything, this seems to be about as winnable of a game as it gets in this upcoming murderer's row of games. Purdue doesn't seem to do a lot of things exceptionally well, and they do already have a Big Ten loss at home (Wisconsin, Jan. 12). Despite this, I picked Michigan to win on the road at Iowa and Arkansas and came away looking like kind of a homer/overly optimistic (in addition to being wrong). Unlike Ross-Ade, Mackey is a very difficult place to play. It is somewhat of a relief to know that a Wisconsin team we handled got a win there, but that win at Crisler is starting to feel like a distant memory. Unlike the last two road games, I think Michigan keeps it close for most of the game, as I don't really see either team having the firepower or overall competence to pull away. Unless THJ or Smotrycz bounce back and have a huge game, I think Michigan drops a close one. Michigan 61, Purdue 66.