Game Preview: SMU vs. Michigan

Patrick previews SMU's matchup against Michigan in Moody Coliseum.

When: 8 p.m. CT, Tuesday, Dec. 8
Where: Moody Coliseum (Dallas, Texas)
TV/Radio: ESPN2/KAAM 770
Series: SMU leads 1-0
Last meeting: SMU won 62-51 on Dec. 20, 2014 at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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SMU (AP No. 22) is off to a 6-0 start, its best since starting 10-0 in 1997-98, and is one of 13 remaining unbeaten teams in college basketball. The Mustangs most recent win was a 98-44 dismantling of New Hampshire on Dec. 5 in which they averaged 1.48 points per possession, the highest in the Larry Brown/Tim Jankovich era. It’s a testament to how well the offense has played this season. SMU is sharing the ball and distributing its scoring extremely well: 64 percent of made field goals are assisted and seven players average at least eight points per game. Reigning American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Nic Moore has come alive recently after battling a couple injuries early in the season. In SMU’s last two games, he has combined for 39 points, 10 assists and just two turnovers while making nine of 15 three-point attempts. Keith Frazier did the most impressive work against New Hampshire, scoring 20 first-half points and making six three-pointers.

Breaking Down Michigan

The Michigan Wolverines sit at 6-2 and most recently beat lowly Houston Baptist 82-57 at home. They look better than last year’s 16-16 team. The offensive blueprint is the same: they take lots of threes, make lots of threes (44.1 percent from deep), run a lot of ball screens to set up good looks from three and don’t turn the ball over. Like other previous Michigan teams, the backcourt is the strength, but the frontcourt is a bigger question mark than in years past. Ricky Doyle, Mark Donnal and D.J. Wilson combine to average just 12.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. That’s a big reason for Michigan’s poor 24.1 offensive rebound percentage. Michigan doesn’t foul very much, but also struggles to get to the free throw line.

Three Players to Watch

SG Caris LeVert: The senior is having one of the best seasons in all of college basketball and has carried Michigan in a couple games. He’s averaging 19.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game (all lead the team) while shooting 49 percent from three. He has also taken 30 more free throws than any other Michigan player and has a 2.3 assist-turnover ratio. He may be the best guard SMU will face all year. 

SF Duncan Robinson: A junior in his first season after transferring from Division III Williams College, Robinson is shooting the three as well as anyone in the nation. He’s making 60 percent of his threes and has hit 17 of his last 26 attempts (65 percent), establishing himself as an elite shooter. He’s pretty much a shooter only and is the first man off the bench.

SF Aubrey Dawkins: The son of Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, the sophomore has played a lot of minutes as Zak Irvin continues to work his way back to 100 percent after September back surgery. Dawkins impressed as a freshman after injuries to LeVert and Spike Albrecht, scoring 20 or more points three times in Big Ten play. He’s a good shooter from deep, but can set up his shots by attacking the rim, which he also does well.

Matchup to Watch

Shake Milton and Keith Frazier vs. Caris LeVert: LeVert had a poor game in last year’s meeting, scoring four points on 1-8 shooting and committing five turnovers. But SMU doesn’t have a perimeter defender like Ryan Manuel, so Keith Frazier and Shake Milton have a tough task. Both have played solid defense this year, and Frazier’s improvement has been a pleasant surprise. LeVert plays a lot of minutes and draws 6.5 fouls per 40 minutes, according to SMU will need to force him into uncomfortable shots.

Keys to the Game

SMU’s advantage lies in the frontcourt and in the paint. While SMU is shooting the three at a high level this season (44 percent), it doesn’t rely on the three as much as Michigan does. Very few of Michigan’s points come in the paint or from the foul line, the opposite of SMU. In a Nov. 20 loss to Xavier, Michigan had no answer for Musketeers big men Jalen Reyonlds and James Farr. They combined for 22 points (9-11 FT) and 22 rebounds while getting Donnal and Doyle into foul trouble early. SMU should use a similar blueprint.

Michigan will shoot a lot of threes, and opponents have found space against SMU, even if not all of their threes have found the bottom of the net. If SMU is in foul trouble, it will play more zone defense. That’s when players like Robinson can really find space and get on a roll from deep. SMU will need to stay out of foul trouble so it can stay in man defense. The numbers suggest that won’t be a problem.

Michigan is a typically slower-paced, methodical Big Ten team. The Wolverines rank 336th in adjusted tempo, which tracks the average number of possessions per game. They take an average of 18.1 seconds to take a shot, which ranks 314th. SMU needs to force them into quicker, rushed shots and start hot offensively to get the Moody crowd really into the game. On the road, in a tough environment and early momentum on the home team’s side is a tough situation to win, especially with Michigan’s offensive philosophy.

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