They're 7-1, with their only loss coming against a good Vanderbilt team, on the road. On the other hand, they don't have any significant wins, their biggest against a decent North Carolina State team. But to make it even more difficult to judge just how good they are, the Wolverines barely held on against Delaware State on Monday, 55-50. After leading by double figures, Delaware State came within one point, and out-played Michigan completely in the second half.
Michigan, though, does have some easy advantages against UCLA on Saturday. It's UCLA's first real road game of the season (the Arrowhead Pond can't be considered a true road game). For a young team like the Bruins, who are still trying to find their footing, that's tough. Plus, they'll be playing without a double-figure scorer, their best outside shooter and a good defender in Brian Morrison. For a team that can only go seven deep comfortably when at full strength, losing Morrison is especially a big blow.
Michigan Head Coach Tommy Amaker has been tinkering quite a bit with his personnel, trying to find the right combination of players. He hasn't yet. And the experiment against Delaware State wasn't very successful. In that game, he started five sophomores. It was the first time this season that senior Bernard Robinson didn't start. Without Robinson, Michigan scored its lowest first half total of the season, 30 points. It also shot a season-low 38.6 percent for the game.
Senior Robinson could be one of the best wing players in the Big 10, a 6-6, strong kid who plays around the basket well. He loves to get physical, can put the ball on the floor relatively well, using his strength to overpower his defender, and is Michigan's second-leading rebounder. He's just a decent shooter, and has a limited range, averaging 13 points a game, but having made only 3 of 16 three point attempts. He's also a very good defender.
Sophomore 6-6 forward Lester Abram is their second-leading scorer, also averaging 13 points a game. Abram is more of a pure wing, with better perimeter skills, particularly shooting the ball. He's good for at least a few threes per game, and generally is very good at getting open looks.
Sophomore point guard Daniel Horton is one of the best young point guards in the country, with very good size at 6-3ish and 200 pounds. He scores mostly on taking the ball to the basket, and is good at creating for others. He hit seven threes against UCLA last year, but his shooting has been pretty poor so far this season, shooting only 35% from the field. He also has a habit of making bad decisions, mostly with his passing, and is prone to turnovers. For any other team he usually is a tough, physical matchup for the opposing point guard, but UCLA has 6-6 Cedric Bozeman to guard him.
With their starting center, Chris Hunter, out for a few more games, 6-10 freshman center Courtney Sims will probably start. He's been in the starting lineup for every game so far this season while Hunter was out, so it's a fairly safe bet, even though Amaker could try to mix it up a bit. But with UCLA putting good size on the floor with Michael Fey starting, you can expect Sims to match up with him. Sims is a pretty long and athletic type, with actually a pretty decent touch when he gets his hands on the ball (sound familiar?). He plays just 17 minutes a game, and gets rotated out of the front court quite a bit.
Rotating in is 6-8 junior J.C. Mathis, a 230-pounder who likes it physical. Mathis doesn't score from far beyond 5 feet. In staying around the basket, he's a very good rebounder, averaging over 6 boards in just 18 minutes a game.
Graham Brown will probably get the start at the other post position, and he presents another physical challenge for UCLA to match up against. The 6-9, 250-lb. sophomore doesn't get many scoring opportunities, but is the leading enforcer on the team.
Dion Harris, the 6-3 freshman wing, has quickly become one of Amaker's favorites, tied for the third most minutes on the team, minutes that he's exploited, being the third leading scorer at 10 points a game. Harris is a fine scorer, with a good outside jumper and the athleticism to score off the dribble.
Rounding out Michigan's eight-man rotation has been another big long body in Brent Petway, the 6-9 freshman.
Michigan likes to be physical inside, both on offense and defense. They'll try to get the ball into the hands of Robinson around the basket. They don't have one big man, without Hunter, who is a great scorer, but on offense the ball does go down low quite a bit. The Wolverines haven't been generally a great outside shooting team, with their two outside threats being primarily Abram and Harris, but tend to rely on it, for lack of anything else. They are pretty good at getting transition baskets, and need them, since (again, sound familiar?) that they're not great in their half-court offense. They can also go through long periods of some bonehead play, resulting in flurries of turnovers. With so much youth on the team it's generally not a surprise. With their long athletes around the basket and some athletic, physical guards, they've been very good defensively so far on the season, allowing opponents to shoot only 39% and outrebounding them by six boards a game.
UCLA got a taste of physical Big Ten play against Michigan State, but Michigan has just as many big bodies it can throw at you. The Wolverines will do what the Spartans did, try to keep UCLA's big men from establishing position and make the Bruins beat them from the outside. That becomes an even dicier proposition with the loss of UCLA's most consistent outside shooter in Morrison.
With Morrison, UCLA would have a decent chance to beat Michigan. Without him, if you're Michigan, you pack it in, not allow UCLA's big men to get on the block, and then keep a man in the face of Dijon Thompson for the entire 38 minutes he'll be on the floor.