What a difference a week makes. Last Sunday afternoon, Michigan looked overwhelmed, out of sorts and in desperate need of Trey Burke. A change of scenery to the warm and friendly confines of Puerto Rico seemed to do the trick for these Wolverines. On Thursday, they were able to take out an inferior Long Beach State team, handily winning 85-61 in Mitch McGary's first game back. On Friday, the 2013-2014 Michigan Wolverines showed a glimpse of how good they can really be. While Florida State's interior gave the Wolverines fits all game, the 3-point shooting kept them in throughout. Climbing back from a 16-point deficit in the second half shows the will and character of this team, and sets up an enticing final against a sneaky good Charlotte team. With five games in the books, tomorrow's game becomes a huge turning point for the rest of the non-conference schedule. Let's start by previewing the Charlotte 49ers.
So far, Charlotte hasn't played a very tough schedule. Their first game of the tournament against Kansas State is their best win so far, but this is a Kansas State team in a down year that lost to Northern Colorado in the first game and to Georgetown by 27 on Friday. Regardless, it's clear this 49er team has some lethal shooters and is very disciplined defensively. In their win over Northeastern, guard Ben Cherry was 6-7 from deep, and six players scored in double figures highlighting their balanced attack. Their two main frontcourt players, Mike Thorne and Willie Clayton, could pose a threat to a relatively small Wolverine team. Clayton, a 6-9 forward, will most likely be guarded by Robinson for most of the game, while Thorne will be guarded by Mitch McGary. Both Charlotte bigs are talented and capable rebounders, and the Wolverines need to be disciplined and not get into early foul trouble. Only seven 49ers played significant minutes in the win over Northeastern, so Michigan needs to attack early and often to create foul trouble for Charlotte. The key to stopping Charlotte is keeping their 2 bigs off the boards, and challenging shots on the perimeter. Charlotte went 10-16 in their last game and will look to the 3-ball to keep the game within striking distance throughout.
While Charlotte has made a surprise run to the final, I expected Michigan to be in this championship game. The number of shooters this team has at its disposal will be a huge weapon all year. However, in the big games thus far, there still hasn't been consistent production from the perimeter players Coach Beilein expected to step up. That being said, Nik Stauskas has been absolutely phenomenal so far. It's clear that Michigan has not found its go-to-guy yet, but Stauskas' audition through the first five games puts him in the driver's seat. America's favorite Canadian has been ferocious to start the season, and seems to be playing with an added chip on his shoulder due to the departure of both Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. His 3-point shooting is still there, but his ability to stretch the defense, which he didn't employ as well last year, now allows him to attack the basket with plays like this:
Stauskas' excellent production will hopefully spark the play of both Glenn Robinson III and Caris LeVert. Robinson had a very productive second half against Florida State, finishing the game with 13 points on 5-9 shooting plus five rebounds. Beilein's initial plan of playing Robinson at the 3, his likely position at the next level, has not quite panned out. To have his best five players on the floor, Robinson must play the 4 again like he did last year. Whether this is mentally affecting him and will continue to long-term, or if he just hasn't found his shooting stroke yet, is yet to be seen. Robinson needs be more aggressive, and his thunderous dunks on put-backs and lobs need to be accompanied by more mid range jumpers and creative moves off the dribble.
Another player who is due for a big game is Caris LeVert. Before the season started last year, expectations were not high for LeVert. This year, LeVert has bulked up, developed a lethal 3-point shot, and his defensive tenacity remains consistent. His scoring outputs in the first two games were a delight to watch, but he has not been the same player he was to start the season. His rebounding and passing have been average, but he seems to have lost his scoring touch and desperately needs to find it tomorrow against Charlotte. If he can do that, the Wolverines will have another excellent scoring option and that should help shoulder the scoring load from Stauskas and Robinson III.
My ultimate X-factor for tomorrow's game is Mitch McGary. Many college basketball fans laughed when McGary was thought of as a lottery pick in last year's draft, and especially when he was tabbed as a first team preseason All-American. His hustle, energy and reckless abandon make him one of the most exciting players in the entire country, and hopefully he can stay under control while playing this style. If he can stay out of foul trouble and can give Michigan between 25 and 30 minutes, along with 10 points and 10 rebounds, it would provide a huge boost to a team far too reliant on the 3-ball. My prediction is 68-58 victory for Michigan tomorrow, with Stauskas scoring 18 points and McGary going for 12 and 10. If Michigan can bring home the championship tomorrow, marquee non-conference games against Duke, Arizona and Stanford will become ever more important. The Wolverines have the talent to return to the Final Four, and tomorrow would be a small step to preparing for March.