Be sure to check out GoBlueWolverines keys to victory as well well as tonight's visit list, which are both linked at the bottom of this story.
Much was made over the mental state of the Michigan basketball team after close losses to three ranked teams this season. The near misses against UCLA, Indiana, and Illinois had many believing that the Wolverines had doubts as to whether they could pull out a big game. As they prepare to face arch-rival Michigan State tonight, the players insist that is not an issue.
"I think we're a confident ball club, period," Daniel Horton said. "A lot of people may not have confidence in us or believe that we can do certain things, but we feel we can go out win, and compete against anybody. I know myself, Dion, and other guys…we feel like no matter who we step on the court against, if we execute and do the things that we practice, we'll be able to come out on top."
Horton's belief in his team was echoed by freshman point man, Jerret Smith. Though only a member of the team for a few months, he entered college having dealt with throngs of doubters throughout his high school career. That experience has hardened him to some of the pressures that consume many newcomers, and he believes the team as a whole shares that same steely exterior.
"The guys on the team don't question whether we can win a big game," Smith said. "Everybody outside the team always questions us. That's something that I've been going through since high school. I'm used to that kind of stuff. Sure it would help us for us to get the win. Sure it hurts when you lose to a team you know you could have beat. At the same time that is a learning point. Illinois was the #6 in the nation and we were up one late in the game. We made a few mistakes but once we get them corrected I think we can run with any team in the country. We know that we can do it. Now it's just a matter of us performing to the ability that Coach Amaker knows we have. We're not worried about what people think about us. We want to win and we want to win now because we have the talent to do it. This isn't a team playing for next year. We're playing for right now"
Life Without Lester
The task of defeating the 11th ranked Spartans became a bit more daunting when Lester Abram went down with an ankle injury early in the second half of Michigan's road victory over Minnesota. Barring a miraculous recovery, the Pontiac native won't be in the line-up for tonight's game. As disappointing as that is, Amaker is demanding that his players not cry over what they don't have.
"It certainly doesn't help us with their perimeter players," Amaker said regarding the absence of his starting wing. "They are as strong as they come with Ager and Brown. But we've played without Lester in games before and other guys have had to come and give extra minutes. Ronnie Coleman Jevohn Shepherd…those kids on the wings, and Jerret Smith has obviously been counted on to do a little bit more when me move our other guys over. So we have some bodies there to try to throw at them."
Amaker's resolve paired with the team's familiarity with playing without Abram has allowed the players to remain upbeat. "It's going to be tough," acknowledged Horton. "Lester is one of our better players. But at the same time, with the lineup changes we're going to make if he doesn't play, we'll still be fine. We have a lot of talent on the perimeter to be able to withstand a blow like that. "
Will Sims & Harris Rise to the Occasion?
Much of the pressure of Abram's absence will fall on the shoulders of juniors Dion Harris and Courtney Sims. Each has been somewhat up and down thus far this season. An off night by either against Michigan State will likely mean a loss for the Maize and Blue. Fortunately for the Wolverines, Harris looks to be heating up. With double-digit scoring performances in four of five Big Ten games and improved three-point shooting in the last two, the former Mr. Basketball is poised to have a good game against the Green & White.
"He hasn't played as consistently as we would have liked him to play," Amaker said of Harris. "It's nice to see him with some confidence. The last couple of ball games I think he has really exerted himself offensively…which we need him to do. We've had conversations. He knows his teammates feel that same way. I think that Dion can be too unselfish. That's not a bad quality to have, but certainly at times we need him to guard against that. I like the fact that he's been able to be fairly aggressive in his mindset, his game, and the way he has played the last two games."
If Harris performance is on an upswing, Sims' showings of late have been the polar opposite. In Big Ten play, Michigan's man in the middle is averaging 6.4 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. The low point was his last outing versus Minnesota in which he was held scoreless, had three shots blocked, and grabbed only three rebounds. On top of that, he is second on the team in turnovers with 46. Amaker knows that his main low post threat must be more effective if his team is to have a chance to win.
"We need to have better production from the inside," Michigan's fifth year headman said. "In the last game we didn't get that as much as we would have liked from Courtney Sims. Sometimes you have those days. I'm hopeful that it's behind us now. Obviously Courtney has been an integral part of our team. When you look at our system and our style, and you look at his numbers…we need to have solid play from a post player. He's been able to give us that the majority of the season. He didn't have one of his memorable games Saturday night. We're hopeful that he'll do better on Wednesday."
Horton to "Be Himself"
Daniel Horton has been the catalyst for Michigan's success for much of his tenure in Ann Arbor. That has clearly been the case thus far this season, and was no more evident than in his outstanding showing versus Minnesota on Saturday. He rained in a career-high 32 points to spur the Maize and Blue to victory. Like a proud father, Amaker expressed pride in his pupil's growth.
"I think it's obvious that he is our leader on the floor," said Amaker. "He's our quarterback out there. He's directing people. He's calling plays. He's getting guys in and out of huddles. I'm communicating through him to the team. Not only that, obviously his numbers are pretty darn good. I think he's having an exceptional year thus far, and that's the reason why we're 13-3. "
Amaker is asking Horton to do even more with Abram out. The Wolverines' floor general will likely see even more minutes and an increased role on the wing. That, however, suits Horton just fine.
"Of late they've just told me to be myself and be aggressive," Horton said. "I think this team needs me to do a few extra things offensively to help us get going with Lester being out. At the same time, I kind of enjoy falling back like I did against Northwestern and letting those guys show what they can do and contribute to this team's success as well."
Keys to Victory
Amaker and his players laid out a number of keys to victory for tonight's game. Michigan's hopes for an upset rest on their ability to achieve the following objectives.
Tommy Amaker -
"I think for us in general, and not just against State, it's important that we value the ball. I think any coach will say that. You have to order with your team and taking care of the basketball and not having turnovers. In any sport it seems like the team that turns it over the most is probably the team that's in trouble a little bit in that game. "
"Michigan State is shooting an incredible percentage from the foul line. I think they're #1 in the conference and I think we're #2. So I'm looking at for both teams, an opportunity to get to the foul line is a huge weapon. Whatever team can get there the most and live up to their percentages thus far is probably going to be a big factor on Wednesday."
"I think they've been tremendous in their transition game. Any team that faces Michigan State has to deal with that. We know that's a tough thing for us. We feel like we have a solid transition game as well. I think this game could have the making of a high octane kind of game because of both teams really wanting to in the past at least, really wanting to push the basketball."
"We better do a lot better (rebounding). I think that's obvious. It's going to take a better effort by our kids to keep people off of the backboard. So far this year in various moments we've done a pretty darn good job on the glass. But that certainly was a sore spot in the game in Minneapolis on Saturday night."
Brent Petway -
"Turnovers are going to be real big. You cannot turn the ball over against them. They're good in both fast break and transition. If you give them easy buckets, it's going to be a long night for you. So you've got to take care of the ball. You've got to defensive rebound too. You can't let them climb the glass.
"You can't let (Ager, Brown, and Davis) get out to a quick start. Like most great scorers if you let them get off to a quick start, it's going to be hard get them shut down because their confidence gets going. It's hard to shut anybody down especially with great players like that. You've got to stop them early and then hopefully that will make things easier for us at the end of the game."
Dion Harris -
"We have to do a good job of getting back in transition. Their wing players really spring the wings going into offense and they're real athletic. You've got to come out and control them in transition."
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