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Michigan Prepares for Two Major Tests Against Texas and UCLA

Michigan went 1-1 last week, and with two measuring sticks this week, fans should learn a lot about this Michigan team. 

NCAA Basketball: Kennesaw State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday night, Michigan led by 10, 60-50, heading into the under-8 media timeout. Zak Irvin was rolling, and the rest of the Michigan offense was playing well enough that many expected the Wolverines would eventually pull away with the victory. Michigan only managed 10 points in the final eight minutes, and dropped an absolute heartbreaker 73-70 to Virginia Tech. Give the Hokies credit for fighting back, but Michigan lost that game far more than Virginia Tech actually won it.

Despite the loss, there were definitely positives to take away. Zak Irvin was outstanding the majority of the game, finishing with 23 points on 10-20 shooting along with five rebounds. However, on the biggest possession of the game, Irvin took a contested long two-pointer that barely grazed the rim, which gave Virginia Tech two free throws and ultimately sealed the game. Moritz Wagner had a nice game inside, finishing 5-6 with 11 points, but the lack of D.J. Wilson (five fouls in 11 minutes) was extremely apparent, forcing Michigan to play nearly the entire game without their best defender. The loss stings now, and hopefully it won’t come back to haunt the Wolverines on Selection Sunday months from now.

Michigan bounced back in a big way on Saturday, routing Kennesaw State 82-55. Despite the sluggish start, in which Michigan only led 30-27 with five minutes to go in the half, the Wolverines ended on a 17-2 run to close out the half to bring a 47-29 lead to the locker room.

Irvin, Wagner and Wilson led the starters with ultra-efficient shooting games, as the three starting frontcourt players shot a combined 22-30 for a scorching 73 percent. Wilson continues to know his game extremely well, and his defensive length along with speed for a forward allows Michigan to get out in transition for easy buckets like this:

Sharpshooter Duncan Robinson knocked down two more three-pointers to give him 12 on the year, but statistically the best 3-point shooter on the team has been Wagner, going 9-15 so far for 60% on the season. Wagner's outside shot means defenses have to keep honest with the 6’11” center from Berlin, and his shooting combined with his inside play and great touch around the rim make him one of the toughest covers in the Big Ten.

While Michigan had one tough matchup and one “buy” game last week, two power conference teams are on the docket this week. We start with Shaka Smart’s Texas team (9:00 Tuesday, ESPN2), a squad many thought would hover around the top-25 but who has majorly disappointed up to this point. The Longhorns are 4-3, but they’ve lost three of their last four including neutral-site losses to Northwestern and Colorado and a really bad home loss to UT-Arlington. They bounced back with a win against Alabama on Friday, but not before overcoming a 12-point deficit at halftime.

Texas goes with a nine man rotation, and the majority of their best players are in the backcourt. 6’6” guard Tevin Mack leads the Longhorns in scoring with 14 points per game, shooting just under 48% on the year. He’s made 30 field goals, with 14 of them coming from behind the arc. His backcourt mate is Kerwin Roach, who is 6’4” and generously listed at 170 pounds. Roach averages just under 13 a game, and does far more of his damage inside the arc. Mack was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time last game, while Roach has started the last five games.

In the front court, the Longhorns have remained consistent with 6’11” freshman forward Jarrett Allen and 6’8” Maryland transfer Shaquille Cleare in the starting lineup. Cleare’s averages aren’t overwhelming, but his 290 pound frame could give Wagner and Donnal some trouble inside. Allen meanwhile has been great for Texas this season, scoring nearly 11 points per game on 55% shooting to go along with seven rebounds.

Off the bench, Kendal Yancy and Eric Davis Jr. both average around seven points per game in the backcourt. The Longhorns also play two freshman off the bench, guard Jacob Young and center James Banks. Neither has been been great to start the season, but both will likely see about 15-20 minutes on Tuesday.

This is a game that Michigan absolutely needs to win, especially given Texas’ sluggish performances in their last four games. Allen and Cleare could give Michigan fits inside, but I’d be more concerned about the backcourt depth with Mack, Roach, Andrew Jones, Yancy and Davis Jr. If Michigan can cause the Longhorns to take bad shots, they should be able to clamp down and win this game convincingly.

While Texas has been struggling mightily recently, Michigan’s opponent on Saturday (8:00, ESPN2) is arguably the hottest team in America. The Bruins just went to Rupp Arena and defeated Kentucky 97-92, ending the Wildcats’ 42 game home winning streak. UCLA has been perfect this season, and Steve Alford’s eight rotation players are arguably the best in the entire country.

It starts with point guard Lonzo Ball, a 6’6”, 190 pound wizard that screams John Beilein clone. If you could combine the passing and ball-handling of Trey Burke, athleticism of Glenn Robinson III and the shooting and cocky swagger of Nik Stauskas, you’d get Ball. The freshman went into Rupp Arena fearless, and finished with 14 points, seven assists and six rebounds. Not bad for his ninth collegiate game.

The Bruins’ other freshman stud is T.J. Leaf, a 6’10” wing who has done a little bit of everything for the Bruins thus far. He’s shooting a lethal 67% from the floor, and is averaging 17 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game. Leaf never seems rushed on the floor, and he made a couple drives to the hoop around Kentucky defenders that almost no collegiate defender can stop.

The Bruins also start Isaac Hamilton, who leads them at 18 points per game. Hamilton and fellow senior/coach’s son Bryce Alford have been dynamite from the outside, but Hamilton can also use his 6’4” frame to body guards going to the basket. The last starter is 7-footer Thomas Welsh. The California native won’t overwhelm Michigan with any great moves, but he’s one of six Bruins averaging double figures with over 11 per game thus far.

Off the bench, Aaron Holiday is a lethal scorer with 13 per game in just under 26 minutes. He gives Ball, Alford or Hamilton a break, and look to see a mix and match of three of those four guards throughout the game. UCLA will also look to Gyorgy Goloman and Ike Anigbogu for minutes behind Leaf and Welsh. Anigbogu missed the first four games, but he’s been increasingly eating into Goloman’s minutes and will continue to do so as the season goes on.

Overall, Michigan has two teams heading in completely different directions on their schedule this week. Texas seems to be completely lost, while UCLA has locked down their rotation and has two of the best freshman in all of college basketball. Michigan should absolutely win Tuesday night’s battle, but and if they can at least compete and stay competitive in the first 25-30 minutes of Saturday’s game, John Beilein will be more than pleased with a close result in a daunting road test to the west coast.