Oh my goodness. When this game was announced earlier this calendar year, I knew it had the potential to have two top-10 teams squaring off in Ann Arbor. While Arizona has held up their end of the bargain, the Wolverines sit at 6-3, playing two brutal non-conference games in Ames and at Cameron and losing to Charlotte on a last-second tip. Beating Florida State was a solid win, but the Wildcats will be the stiffest test that Michigan has faced this year. Let's breakdown Saturday's match-up:
The Wildcats have played like the #1 team so far this season, beating a talented San Diego State team in Viejas Arena, a very good Duke team in New York and most recently, a scrappy UNLV team with an NBA-sized front line. What makes the Wildcats so good is that their 7 rotation players know their role incredibly well, and they all seem to gel. Arizona's 5 starters all play at least 26 minutes per game, and their 6th and 7th men, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Gabe York, play 23 and 19 minutes respectively. The key to beating Arizona is getting them into serious foul trouble, but no one has been able to do this yet. Their frontcourt resembles that of an NBA team, with highly touted freshman Aaron Gordon playing the 3, Brandon Ashley at the 4 and Caleb Tarczewski at center. Gordon is a freak athlete who is just beginning to polish his game, has a mediocre 3-point shot and will look for a few lobs a game (think Glenn Robinson with a less polished shooting touch and slightly better). Ashley is a bruising forward who has a decent outside shot, great post-up game and snags a bunch of rebounds. Because of Ashley's size, I expect to see Jordan Morgan in the starting lineup alongside McGary, and Glenn Robinson III will slide down to the 3 to guard Gordon. This leaves McGary guarding Tarczewski, a bruising center who gets most of his points on dump-offs and putbacks. Their one bench frontcourt player is Hollis-Jefferson, an active 6'7 wing with no jumpshot and freaky athleticism. When he's in the game, I expect Robinson to guard him as well, and Michigan will likely have to go with two big men (a combo of Morgan, Horford and McGary) for most of the game.
While Arizona's frontline is immense, their backcourt is equally as talented. However, both of their starting guards are below 6'3, so Michigan must exploit this. Because Beilein wants his best lineup on the court tomorrow that can also match Arizona's size, I expect Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas to start in the backcourt. I see Stauskas guarding T.J McConnell, a talented point guard who transferred from Duquense last season. His backcourt mate, Nick Johnson, is one of the most explosive players off the dribble, and will be a handful for LeVert all game. While Derrick Walton has played well so far, I don't see him playing as many minutes tomorrow. I can probably see Spike Albrecht playing between 15 and 20 minutes to give the guards a rest, and because of Arizona's lack of depth, keeping the guards fresh will be a huge key for the Wolverines. The gameplan has to be to establish the outside game first, and if LeVert and Stauskas do in fact both start, I think they need to shoot over the smaller Arizona guards. Both McConnell and Johnson are too quick for the Michigan guards to get by, and the 3-point shot will be incredibly important tomorrow. I cannot wait to see how Mitch McGary plays against Tarczewski and the entire Arizona front line. The preseason All-American hasn't had a game yet where his All-American spot on has been warranted, and a statement game tomorrow would be huge for both his confidence and the entire team's.
In a game like this, Arizona's skill is neutralized by a hostile, raucous Crisler Center that has been waiting for a matchup like this since Michigan's dream run to the National Championship. If the Wolverines want to make a repeat run, they will likely have to beat Arizona or a team of their caliber to make it, and tomorrow will be both an important test and huge resume booster for Michigan if they can win. While I don't see the Arizona bigs getting into foul trouble, I see Michigan making too many shots and the length of Stauskas, Levert and Zak Irvin to be too much for Arizona's guards. My score prediction is 69-63 Wolverines. Michigan will need to have its best defensive game of the year to win this game, and cannot beat Arizona in a track meet that is played in the 80s.
As always, Go Blue!