Generally, the tail end of the year and the entire first semester is focused on College Football. Tailgates, warm weather and a certain folk hero named Harbaugh will dominate the headlines until the Wolverines inevitably get stomped by Ohio State on the gridiron. However, college basketball season begins in early November, beginning with some high profile matchups around the country. Michigan's schedule features a few great early season games, and we'll break down three of the most marquee ones.
Friday, November 20th- Xavier at Michigan: Ann Arbor, MI (Crisler Center)
Following last season's Sweet Sixteen run, Xavier looks for another strong year in the Big East under Chris Mack. The Musketeers lose big man Matt Stainbrook, their leading scorer and rebounder, but return a slew of players. Treveon Bluiett, Myles Davis and Remy Abell make up a strong backcourt, with Blueitt the most talented of the three. In the frontcourt, Jalen Reynolds will have to take on a bigger role with the loss of Stainbrook, and look for James Farr to step in to fill that void.
Why is this such a big game? It's Michigan's first really competitive test against a likely NCAA Tournament team on their home floor. Most teams don't get these opportunities, and playing a veteran team like Xavier in the first month of the season is a great test. If Michigan can win this game, it will go a long way toward boosting their resume.
Wednesday, November 25th-Friday, November 27th- Battle 4 Atlantis: Paradise Island, Bahamas
A few days later, the Wolverines hop on a plane to beautiful Paradise Island to play three games at the ballroom in the Bahamas. It's a bizarre venue to host one of the best early-season tournaments, but you can't argue with the level of talent from all eight teams in this field. This will be great preparation for teams as a mini-tournament, more similarly structured to the Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan's first game is against UConn, a very talented team with an excellent backcourt. Along with returners Rodney Purvis and Omar Calhoun, Kevin Ollie has added two fifth-year transfers in Cornell guard Shonn Miller and Seton Hall guard Sterling Gibbs. Both players averaged nearly 17 points per game at their respective schools and bring a level of toughness and leadership. Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan are the most experienced frontcourt players, but Nolan is more of a stretch 4 and prefers to play on the perimeter.
If Michigan were to win that game, they would get the winner of Charlotte and Syracuse. Syracuse should be the favorite in that game, and the Wolverines have played Syracuse plenty of times over the last few seasons. This version of Syracuse is not as formidable as recent years, but still features some familiar faces. Veteran point guard Trevor Cooney starts in the backcourt for his senior season, and Michael Gbinije will join him fresh off his summer playing for the Nigerian Basketball team. In the frontcourt, there will be major voids with the departures of Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough, both playing in the NBA. Jim Boeheim is hoping forwards Tyler Roberson and B.J. Johnson will pick up the slack, along with top 100 recruits Moustapha Diagne and Tyler Lydon. If Michigan were to handle Syracuse, they would move on to the Championship Game.
I can't predict Michigan will win all of these games, but for the purpose of this exercise, it's more fun to predict Michigan winning and playing the best team in the tournament in the final, Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have the nation's most prolific frontcourt, with Kyle Wiltjer shooting, Przemek Karnowski bruising, and Domantas Sabonis doing everything in between. Coach Mark Few has flirted with the idea of playing these three guys together because of Wiltjer's spacing, which would be a nightmare for other teams. Kevin Pangos, Byron Wesley and Gary Bell, Jr. have all departed in the backcourt, meaning guys like Kyle Dranginis and Eric McClellan need to step up in their senior year. Gonzaga's biggest weakness will be depth, but if Mark Few can find a way to get quality minutes out of guys like Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, this team could be excellent in March.
Tuesday, December 8- Michigan at SMU: Dallas. Texas (Moody Coliseum)
This game is arguably the one that John Beilein circled with the most intent on his schedule this offseason. The Mustangs came into Ann Arbor and used a second half run to storm past the Wolverines, part of a December month that was one of the worst in program history. The good news? Michigan gets a chance to beat SMU on their home floor this year with essentially the same roster from last year.
SMU still has a very talented team, with Nic Moore leading the charge in the backcourt. Moore averaged 15 points and 5 assists last season, and looks to build off a great junior campaign. Alongside Moore is Jordan Tolbert, a 6'7 senior who last played at Texas Tech. In the frontcourt, look for Markus Kennedy and Semi Ojeleye to start. Ojeleye last played at Duke and will be eligible starting in December, while Kennedy averaged 12 points and 6 rebounds last season. Keith Frazier will likely be the final starter, and look for Ben Moore, Sterling Brown and Ben Emelogu to get major minutes off the bench,
Overall, Michigan has a great non-conference schedule that will help prepare them for the rigors of Big Ten play. The other marquee game not mentioned is Michigan's trip to Raleigh to play at NC State, as the Wolverines defeated the Wolfpack in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in 2012.