After 15 games, players, coaches and fans have started to develop an idea of what this version of Michigan Basketball looks like. Some things have been expected, like the brilliant play of Caris LeVert, but the emergence of Duncan Robinson since the beginning of the season and Mark Donnal's play more recently have been a major bonus to an already solid Wolverine team. As good as the team has looked in wins and as awful as they've looked in losses, none of that matters now. The brutal part of conference play begins, and Michigan better be up to the challenge.
Within the last week, Michigan defeated a pesky Illinois team in Champaign and dismantled Penn State at home behind 14 3-pointers and another monster 16 point performance from Mark Donnal . But both Penn State and Illinois have bad losses, and there's an extremely good chance neither will be playing meaningful postseason basketball. Michigan's upcoming opponents, however, will all be trying to make real noise in March, and both are talented enough to make the Final Four.
Let's start with Purdue, a team on paper that should be able to blow past Michigan in West Lafayette. Michigan's shortcoming has always been its play in the post ever since John Beilein has been in Ann Arbor. Besides for Mitch McGary's ten game brilliant stretch in 2013, Michigan has never had a true go-to option to get buckets in the post. Purdue has two on this roster, and their third guy stands at 7'2". An embarrassment of riches for the Boilermakers, but recently they've found their fair share of struggles.
Against Iowa, Purdue coasted through the first half, taking a 37-20 lead into the break with Jarrod Uthoff scoring 16 of the Hawkeyes 20 points to keep them in the game. In the second half, it was a different story. Purdue couldn't score, Iowa managed to put up 50(!) points, and the Boilermakers lost 70-63. Purdue is now 2-2 in their last four games after starting 11-0, and they were clearly exposed against Iowa.
A.J. Hammons, who has been an absolute beast off the bench for Matt Painter, was extremely efficient with 11 points and 7 rebounds in 25 minutes. Kendall Stephens had 12, but no other player and no Purdue starter finished with double figure points. Perhaps most surprisingly was Caleb Swanigan, a matchup nightmare at 6'9", 260 who can play in the paint and on the perimeter. Michigan doesn't have anyone who matches up well with Swanigan, and I can't see John Beilein matching up sharpshooter Duncan Robinson with him.
The rest of the Purdue lineup is a bevy of guards and wings who are shooters or excellent defenders. The most important of these guys is Rapheal Davis, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten who will live in Caris LeVert's shorts if the Michigan senior is healthy enough to play. Kendall Stephens and Dakota Mathias are going to look for long range shots, and Michigan is likely going to have to decide between doubling Hammons, Haas and Swanigan on the block or staying out on shooters if they start making shots.
The biggest key for Michigan is trying to get Purdue's big men into foul trouble and limiting the Boilermakers' ability for a big run. Against Iowa, Purdue went ice cold down the stretch and committed too many costly turnovers, which Iowa was able to turn into free throws and open baskets. There's a pretty good chance Michigan won't win this game, especially given how frustrated the Boilermakers will be following the Iowa meltdown, but with Michigan's shooters and playmakers all over the floor, they at least have a chance.
Which leads us to the most complete team in the conference and Michigan's opponent Tuesday night, the Maryland Terrapins. At the start of the season, people wondered whether Maryland was legitimately good enough to make a run at the Final Four. I got called out for criticizing the Terrapins' depth in an earlier article, and subsequently gave up on trying to understand them. The main point is that when Maryland is clicking, and they're firing on all cylinders right now, they could be the best team in the entire country.
I watched their game against Northwestern, and every time the Wildcats even sniffed the idea of making a run, Maryland would thwart the run and make a huge play. They have playmakers and true scorers at every position on the floor, and the addition of Rasheed Sulaimon cannot be overstated enough.
You can argue that the Penn State game was a fluke, a game in which Diamond Stone (the best name in college basketball that definitely sounds like an adult film star) finished with 39 points and 12 rebounds on 10-15 shooting and 19-25 from the free throw line. Penn State might have played their best game of the entire season in College Park, and Maryland only had four players make a field goal. And the Nittany Lions still lost.
Maryland currently has five players averaging double figures, three average more than five rebounds per game, and Melo Trimble, arguably one of the best point guards in the entire country, has a cool six assists per game. Their top nine players have appeared in every game this season, and Mark Turgeon appears pretty comfortable with his rotation at this point.
Within this rotation, the Terps have so many weapons to account for. Besides for the aforementioned Stone, Trimble and Sulaimon, Jake Layman is a skinner, lankier Jarrod Uthoff with a better 3-point shot. Layman looks like a frat star who continues to produce solidly for Maryland, and Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter is the real deal down low, an athletic freak who accompanies Damonte Dodd and Layman in the frontcourt.
Stone is the biggest impact player off the bench, but Jared Nickens and Jaylen Brantley provide solid minutes in the backcourt. I'm not quite sure what Michael Cekovsky does besides for being over seven feet and from Slovakia, but that's probably more than enough for this Maryland team.
By next Wednesday, I'll either be praising the hell out of this Michigan team, neutral after a 1-1 week, or fearing the worst after an 0-2 spell against two very talented teams. The biggest question mark, as its been all week, is whether Caris LeVert will play in either of these games. Simply put, Michigan isn't going to hit 14 3's a game and coast to victories against Penn State without LeVert. They need his playmaking, scoring ability and defensive versatility against Purdue and Maryland.
Lastly, and most importantly, even if Michigan loses, they cannot get blown out. They looked scared in Dallas against SMU, got manhandled against the men of Xavier at home, and just couldn't make a shot against UConn. I think they'll ultimately go 1-1 in these games, losing at Purdue and beating Maryland at home, but they need to prove that they're more than just a jump shooting team. If they can do that, they could be a team no one wants to play in March.