Michigan An Unpredictable Foe For Terps

Maryland travels to Michigan Jan. 7 for a 3:15 p.m. bout in the Crisler Center.

The Terps are in the midst of a rare stretch with no mid-week game, meaning they’ve had four days to stew on their Jan. 1 debacle against Nebraska. Of course, Maryland has also been granted extra time to work on its season-long issues, while preparing for its next foe.

UMD travels to Ann Arbor, Mich., Jan. 7 for a 3:15 p.m. bout against Michigan (11-4, 1-1 Big Ten), which is coming off a 72-69 victory against Penn State. Similar to Maryland, the Wolverines have shown flashes this season with quality wins against Marquette and Texas. But they’ve also suffered through head-scratching spates of inconsistency, leaving head coach Jim Beilein shaking his head.

While the Wolverines have had their share of issues, this is a team that could give Maryland problems, especially at the Crisler Center, where Michigan is 9-1 with its lone blemish a three-point loss versus Virginia Tech.

Like Illinois, which the Terps dismantled, Michigan boats plenty of length, starting a pair of 6-foot-10-plus power forwards (sophomore Mortiz Wagner and junior D.J. Wilson); a 6-6 wing (Zak Irvin); and a 6-4 shooting guard (Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman). Thus, it’s no surprise the Wolverines rank fourth in the Big Ten with 31 defensive rebounds a night.

Michigan’s offense operates at a methodical pace, although the Wolverines are efficient and smart with the basketball. With senior guard Derrick Walton running the show, Michigan has a conference best plus-3.5 turnover margin and plus-1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio. They shoot 47 percent from the field (sixth in the Big Ten), 37 percent from deep (sixth) and outscore foes by 12 points a night (fourth).

Michigan cans about 10 triples a game, more than any other league team save Purdue. In fact, each regular save Abdur-Rahkman shoots better than 37 percent from beyond the arc, meaning UM can make up ground in a hurry.

To boot, the Wolverines connect on almost 80 percent of their foul shots, which is also tops in the Big Ten.

“I think our timing is better and guys are understanding what is a good shot,” Beilein told the Detroit Free Press recently. “Our shot selection has really helped us. I think people have a rhythm right now.”

Walton, the catalyst up top, is deadly from distance (41 percent) and money from the line (91 percent). He is averaging 12.5 points per game, ranking second on the squad, and has close to a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Walton also pulls down about four boards a game, impressive for a 6-1 point guard.

Irvin, meanwhile, is first with 14 points per game and second in assists and rebounds. He can score from the mid-range (45 percent) and knock down his outside shots (36 percent).

Rounding out the backcourt is Abdur-Rahkman, who has seen his playing time fluctuate of late. He’s probably Michigan’s most athletic, dynamic presence, showing an ability to drive; break down defenders; and connect from deep. But Abdur-Rahkman hasn’t always taken high-percentage shots (he settles for 3s too often) and can be a liability defensively.

Senior Duncan Robinson has stepped in for Abdur-Rahkman at times, and has actually started on three occasions. Robinson doesn’t have Abdur-Rahkman’s driving ability, but he’s efficient from the field and 3-point range.

As for the two big men, Wagner and Wilson are both averaging around double-digits in scoring. Each have proven they can score underneath and beyond the arc, but Wilson is a more accomplished rebounder (7.0 a game) and shot blocker (team leading 19).

It should be noted, however, that this is Michigan squad with exploitable holes. The Wolverines have looked sluggish for periods – on both ends of the court.

It's really hard to put our finger on it," Beilein told the Detroit Free Press. "There's some guys that I've coached over these years that there's this little tape delay that keeps them from going good to great. Whether it's an offensive tape delay or a defensive tape delay, whether we've got to rep it more to get less tape delay. There's just been that (thing) that paralyzes guys for a second. I wish I could say it's going to change. You can't say they can't do it. ... There's a few guys that seem to be always in that situation. We've got to get them to understanding the urgency.

"Do something. Even if it's the wrong thing, do something."

For one, the Wolverines’ backcourt prefers to settle for outside jumpshots rather than drive the lane. They’ve been criticized for being tentative, failing to draw fouls or convert at the rim.

A more glaring problem has been the team’s lack of offensive rebounds. Michigan sits last in the conference in that category, despite having the likes of Wagner and Wilson underneath.

And it would certainly behoove the Wolverines if they could pick up the pace a bit. They average just over 62 possessions per game, which is near the bottom of college basketball.

Defensively, Michigan’s slow-down approach does limit opponents’ scoring opportunities. But, even so, the Wolverines allow foes to shoot almost 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from range, stats that are at the bottom of the Big Ten. They also don’t protect the rim particularly well, even though they typically have the height advantage inside (2.7 blocks per game; 13th in the Big Ten).

Moreover, this is not a team that’s very deep, with head coach Jim Beilein only using about seven players each night. Thus, Michigan tends to tire late during games, such as in its overtime loss to Iowa.

Those in Ann Arbor have been clamoring to see more of freshman shooting guard Ibi Watson, who has seen his playing time decrease of late. Watson is known for his ability to slice through traffic and score inside.

“Defensively we’re not there – I don’t think anybody ever thinks their team is there,” Beilein told the Free Press. “And offensively we’ve just got to execute better.”

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