Early January seems a bit soon to be talking about the NCAA Tournament and enhancing your credentials for that prestigious affair, but that's where the Wolverines find themselves as the Big Ten schedule gets rolling.
While fattening themselves up on a pre-conference schedule loaded with lightweights such as Gardner Webb, Concordia, South Carolina/Upstate, and Bryant University, the Wolverines did nothing to enhance their resume for post-season consideration.
Reality came pounding on the front door of Crisler Arena, however, when Michigan came back home from a defeat at Wisconsin and had to prepare for No. 3 Kansas, followed by No. 2 Ohio State just three days later. The Wolverines pushed Kansas to the limit and beyond before falling in overtime by a 67-60 score.
"Any time you have home games with nationally-ranked teams, you have to look at it as a tremendous opportunity," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "I'm sure there's a lot of extra adrenalin that we're going to have to calm down ... one of our biggest obstacles is to channel that in the right direction. You're going to have extra energy, but you have to channel it correctly."
Michigan has had some history of success in bringing the big boys to Ann Arbor. The Wolverines bumped off Duke in Crisler Arena two years ago, and last season upended UConn in Ann Arbor. They had an opportunity to do it again against Kansas, but the more seasoned Jayhawks made most of the plays in overtime.
Beilein hopes life in the Big Ten will provide his youthful team with the mettle and the experience under fire to make Michigan's case for a place in the NCAA tournament field come March. A few well-timed wins against the competition Michigan will face over the next two months should advance that cause.
"When you're playing in the Big Ten, you've got six teams that were nationally-ranked last week, so that's a 60 percent chance you are going to play a nationally-ranked team," Beilein said. "We have a lot of pride in the Big Ten."
--The Wolverines went a perfect 8-of-8 from the foul line in their loss to Wisconsin, and continued a string of success at the line. Michigan had made 24 straight free throws dating back to the Purdue game, going a perfect 14-of-14 against Penn State in between.
--In a rugged back-to-back stretch, the Wolverines hosted No. 3 Kansas on Jan. 9, and three days later host No. 2-ranked Ohio State. When the Jayhawks visited Ann Arbor and bumped off the Wolverines in overtime, they were the highest ranked team to play in Crisler Arena since top-ranked Ohio State in March of 2007.
--It's no mystery that good shooting wins games. In a recent win over Penn State, Michigan shot a season-best 27-of-47 (57.4 percent) from the field, and was a perfect 14-of-14 from the free throw line.
BY THE NUMBERS: 2 -- The Wolverines went through the first two months of the schedule -- 17 games -- playing only two true road games. They won at Clemson in late November, and then lost on the road to Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener Jan. 5.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have a lot of work to do. I think they realize that we're on the right path, but we have some things we have to shore up." -- Michigan coach John Beilein on what lies ahead for his team in conference play.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Ohio State, Jan. 12
KEY MATCHUPS: The Buckeyes bring the nation's No. 2 ranked team to Ann Arbor, and the potential conference Player of the Year in sensational freshman C/F Jared Sullinger. Michigan will have to counter the double-double machine that Sullinger is and try to collapse on him inside with a pair of its own freshmen -- 6-9 F Evan Smotrycz and 6-8 F Jordan Morgan. Their goal is to make everything Sullinger gets come with a lot of effort, hoping to wear him down as the game progresses.
--at Indiana, Jan. 15
KEY MATCHUPS: The Hoosier have a budding Big Ten star in sophomore F Christian Watford, who will come into the game sitting eighth in the conference in scoring at 16.4 points per game. Michigan will likely use 6-8 freshman F Jordan Morgan to counter Watford, and the key will be to defend without fouling, since Watford entered the week having made a league-high 82 free throws in 95 attempts.
FUTURES MARKET: On a roster with no seniors, the Wolverines have placed a premium on the contributions they get from the most experienced members of the team. Junior G/F Zack Novak is at the top of that list of reliable incumbents. The Indiana native has played an increasingly vital role for Michigan as Big Ten play starts. In the win over Penn State, Novak went 5-of-6 from the field and scored all 15 of his points in the second half. He followed that up with a 5-of-7 shooting performance from behind the arc in the loss at Wisconsin, and then posted a double-double in the overtime loss to undefeated Kansas, with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
--Sophomore G Darius Morris has already surpassed his assist total from his freshman season (84) and had 109 assists as the Wolverines prepared to meet No. 3 ranked Kansas. Morris had 10 or more assists in six games to date, and was leading the Big Ten with 7.27 assists per game.
--The foul line is the place where many games are won or lost, and Michigan has to like its chances when the Wolverines are sent to the stripe, especially if freshman G Tim Hardaway Jr. steps to the line. Michigan ranks second in the Big Ten in free-throw percentage with a 72.4 percent rating, and Hardaway is eighth in the Big Ten with his 80.4 percent accuracy from the line.
--Sophomore G Jordan Dumars transferred to Michigan from South Florida in the middle of last season, and became eligible to play for the Wolverines as of the Dec. 28 game against Purdue, although he has yet to take the court. He played in just six games at South Florida before deciding to transfer much closer to his Detroit area home.
--Freshman G Tim Hardaway Jr., a two-time first-team all-city player at Miami's Palmetto High, made a smooth and quick transition to Division I college basketball. Hardaway averaged a team-best 11.8 points per game during Michigan's European tour in August, and then scored 19 points in his regular season debut.
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