It will be a tall task for the Michigan Wolverines to pull out a victory when they square off against Paul Hewitt's Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets this evening. Despite a very impressive performance without the services of Lester Abram when they faced Arizona last week, the effects of his absence became more and more pronounced as that game (and the tournament in general) progressed. If he is unavailable for tonight's contest, the Maize and Blue might be too overmatched.
The Ramblin Wreck has a defense known for the pressure they place on their opponents, especially in the backcourt. In 6-3 202 lb. PG Jarret Jack and 6-4 218 lb. 2G BJ Elder, Tech has big physical ball hawking guards that can apply pressure for the length of the court (they're also excellent scorers as well). In three games the Yellow Jackets have forced an average of 17 turnovers per game and held their opponents to 31.2 percent from the field. Teams that have penetrated into the lane have found a formidable shot blocking presence. 7-1 250 Luke Schenscher is definitely a deterrent in the middle, and back-up Thedois Tarver even gets into the shot-blocking festivities. He contributed with a career-best six blocks against Alabama State. The Wreck has 22 blocks as a team this season.
Still, Tech's defensive prowess stems from their excellent on-the-ball ability. 6-6 228 lb. Ismail Muhammad is an explosive leaper and probably Tech's best on-the-ball defender. He's effective on both ends of the court, contributing at both the three and the four. That is something that makes him hard for the opposition to contend with. "He's a match-up problem both at the three and the four," Hewitt said. "His athleticism, both offensively and defensively, creates match-up problems. He needs to slow down just a little, and you'll see his turnovers go down and his assist numbers go up. The other night, he was 6-for-10 from the floor. He's really improved his mid-range game, and everybody knows he can get to the basket. I'm waiting for him to shoot the ball with confidence the way he's been doing in practice. His game has expanded."
Muhammad's frontcourt mate, Anthony McHenry, went to Atlanta as a PG, but moved closer to the basket under Hewitt's tutelage. He provides the Wreck with another very versatile player on both ends of the court.
With a starting five that impressive, one might think that there is a major fall-off when the Yellow Jackets go to the bench. Nothing could be further from the truth. We've already mentioned Tarver, but the primary sparkplug off the bench is probably reserve guard Will Bynum. Many in the Midwest might remember him from his days at Chicago Crane High School. He initially signed with Arizona before transferring across the country in order to give his mom a better opportunity to see him play. Since arriving on Georgia Tech's campus he has done nothing but demonstrate the ability that had most considering him a blue-chip player as prep. He can take his man off of the bounce, shoot with range, and is explosive off of the ground (especially for a player his size). If he is the man that brings the offense off of the pine, fellow reserve Mario Henry brings the defense. He had seven steals in one of the early season exhibition games and nine rebounds in Tech's previous game.
Another early season bench contributor had been 6-6 232-lb. freshman Jeremis Smith. He was averaging 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 points in two games before suffering a dislocated kneecap in Tech's 79-54 victory over Arkansas Little Rock. "It's unfortunate (Smith's injury) because he was really making strides," Hewitt said. "Teams have to be able to overcome this type of thing. It's part of the game. But personally, you have to feel really bad for him, because he had made some tremendous strides, and he worked so hard. He was really on his way to having a good stretch of basketball. You could see it."
Smith's absence could mean increased playing time for freshman (and former Michigan recruit) RaSean Dickey. At this point, however, Tech's headman hasn't figured out what his final approach will be. "We're toying with a couple of ideas," said Hewitt. "We may go smaller, or we may put Theo (Tarver) at the four. Theo is starting to show me that he can guard out on the perimeter pretty well. With his type of athleticism and long arms, he can contest a lot of shots. I like what Morrow is doing. I didn't play Mario West a lot the last game, but you can expect to see his minutes increase also."
Keys to the Game
Obviously for Michigan, one of the real keys is whether Lester
Abram will be available. The junior swingman probably could have seen court action in New York, but with near 30 games left on the schedule, the coaching staff decided to sit him and make sure that he was 100% when he returned. The decision to sit or play is being taken day by day and at the time this article was published we had not heard of what the plan is for this evening. Nonetheless, Coach Hewitt is impressed by Michigan's backcourt. "Their athleticism is very impressive," Hewitt said. "They've got a point guard in Daniel Horton who is as good as anybody in the country. Dion Harris is shooting the ball very well. If they get Abram back healthy, they'll have an outstanding perimeter. With their athleticism on the glass and on defense, they're going to give a lot of people problems this year. If we don't take care of business on the backboards, they'll give us a lot of problems."
Regardless of whether Lester is in the lineup, the Wolverines absolute HAVE to take better care of the ball. There were a number of easy shot opportunities given up to Providence because of careless passes. The same thing will surely happen against an aggressive defense like Tech's. Ball and player movement will also have to be crisper. With a team that struggles penetrating off the dribble already, that problem will only be exacerbated by Tech's intense ball-hawking style. That said, the Wolverines can take advantage of that aggressiveness with better movement. Basket cuts and back cuts can work on this team.
If there is one place the Wolverines have an advantage in this match-up, it is in overall size in the post. That has been the case in most games this season, but it hasn't always been apparent in the results. If the Wolverines get more post touches in this game than they have in previous ones, it could make this a much closer contest than some expect…provided that the big men do both a better job of catching the ball and throwing it back out when the double downs come. They also have to be a force on the boards. "They're easily the biggest and strongest team we've faced this year," Hewitt said. "If we don't box out they can really hurt us."
One final area of the game that the Wolverines can use to their advantage is the charity stripe. The Yellow Jackets are only shooting 57.9% from the free throw line thus far this season. Prior to the preseason NIT the Wolverines were shooting 80% (60-75) from the line. That averaged dipped to 70.3% (78/111) after 2 games in the Garden. The Maize and Blue will have to return to form from the stripe if they are to have a chance in this contest.
Georgia Tech - 76
Michigan - 64
Previewing Georgia Tech
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