Living in the midst of Big Ten country, I get a chance to see teams from the conference quite a bit. As such, I am probably more familiar with Michigan than of any non-conference foe that UCLA will play or have played this year.
Michigan is coached by Tommy Amaker, who is in his sixth season with the Wolverines. Amaker has gained the reputation of being a very good recruiter, both at Seton Hall and at Michigan. He has also gained the reputation of being a mediocre teacher of the game and game coach. Under Amaker, Michigan has been characterized by a lack of a "system" on the offensive end and a lack of focus on the defensive end. Last year's version of the Wolverines objectively had the talent to not only make the NCAA tournament, but to play into the second weekend. The fact that they didn't make the tournament is more of indictment of the coaching staff/philosophy than of the players. That being said, Michigan was and still is a pretty athletic team that will provide the Bruins with a stern test heading into their conference season.
The Michigan offense is quarterbacked by senior Dion Harris (6'3" 205 lbs.). Harris is one of the Wolverines who has seemingly been around for a decade. He is the team's 2nd leading scorer at 13.7 PPG, leads the team in assists at a little over 5 APG and has a better than 2 –to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Harris also has 17 steals and is shooting 36% form behind the arc. It's his outside shooting, though, that is Harris' real weakness. His shot selection has always been questionable and this year is no different. They key to stopping Harris, and to a certain extent, Michigan, is keeping Harris out of the lane and off the foul line. While more than half of Harris' shots have come from behind the 3 point line (which is probably why he is only shooting 41% from the field), he is shooting 78% from the free-throw line. Harris isn't a mid-range shooter. It's either behind the arc or all the way to the rack with him. Darren Collison will find Harris a difficult opponent if Harris decides to use his size and strength against him. Collison has a clear quickness advantage (as does Russell Westbrook), but Harris does have a size and strength advantage. Collison must keep Harris out of the lane and front the Michigan point guard if and when he posts up. The good news is that Harris hasn't shown the inclination to really use his strength yet this season.
The starting ‘2' will be super-senior Lester Abram (6'6" 200 lbs.), who has a great deal of talent but, during his career at Michigan, has seemed like he was always hurt. This is the first season in three where he has been able to stay relatively injury-free. Abram is quick, has a nice shot and generally is a good decision-maker. Because of the injuries, Abram has turned into a role player, much in the mold of Cedric Bozeman last season. Abram is considered the Wolverines' defensive stopper. While he averages 8.4 PPG and 4 RPG, stats don't really tell the story on Abram. He is the captain and leader of the team. He will hit a big shot or pull down a big board. He, in essence, wills his team to be better and to win. It will be intriguing to see Abram match his intensity and leadership with the unquestioned leader of the Bruins, Arron Afflalo. If Afflalo doesn't score much, but causes Abram to essentially become a spectator, then the Bruins will win big. Michigan doesn't play well without their leader.
On the wing, Michigan starts junior Ron Coleman (6'6" 210 lbs.). Coleman's size might be close to that of Abram, but they are two very different kinds of players. Coleman is more of a jump shooter and doesn't really have the quickness to be anything but that. This is probably helpful for Josh Shipp as he won't have to worry too much about Coleman driving on him. Expect Shipp to close out hard on Coleman and force him to put the ball on the floor. Coleman does average 8.7 PPG and is the team's leading three-point shooter at 39%. Because he is a jump shooter, he hasn't turned the ball over much this season, ut he hasn't passed the ball much, either. Coleman is one of the two most mentally fragile Wolverines; when his shooting is off, then his whole game suffers.
Senior Brent Petway (6'8" 210 lbs.) is the starting power forward for the Wolverines. Again, Petway is another seemingly 10-year player for Michigan, and the best athlete on the Wolverines. Sometimes it seems like Petway could jump over the backboard. He has extremely long arms and he uses these attributes to hit the boards; he leads the Wolverines in rebounding at 7.7 RPG. He doesn't have much of an offensive game (he hasn't even attempted a 3-pointer this year), and doesn't do much with his back to the basket. He reminds one of a poor man's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who, ironically, will be matched up against him. For all of Luc's mediocre play over the past two weeks, he is still the better player in this situation in every category. Perhaps, most importantly, Luc is in much better shape than Petway and will be on the floor more than the Michigan forward.
The starting center is senior Courtney Sims (6'11" 245 lbs.), who probably presents the Bruins with their biggest defensive challenge…but only if he can get going. Sims is the team's leading scorer at 15. 6 PPG and is the 2nd leading rebounder at 7.6 RPG. Sims is a classic back-to-the-basket post player, who is better at turning to his left, but can go both ways. He has improved his shot out to about 10 feet and his hands seem softer this year. Sims, however, is the other head case on the Wolverines. Sims has had too many games over the course of his career, including this season, where, if he's not getting early touches, or if his first few shots are off, he disappears. Of the Bruin posts, Sims is a natural match-up for Lorenzo Mata. Mata has had trouble guarding athletic posts that move out to the arc. That won't happen here. The problem is if Mata gets in foul trouble, because Alfred Aboya and Ryan Wright simply don't have the girth to prevent Sims from backing them down constantly.
Off the bench, the Wolverines use primarily three players, one guard, one wing and one post. Sophomore Jerret Smith (6'3" 195n lbs.) is the sub for both Harris and Abram, and he averages almost 20 MPG. Smith takes most of his shots from behind the arc, where he hits just under 35%, but he only averages 3.8 PPG. He does have the 2nd best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team. Smith will be a nice player in a year or two, but the Wolverines definitely take a step down on both ends of the floor when he plays, more because of inexperience than anything else. The wing player is sophomore Jevohn Shepherd (6'5" 210 lbs.), from Canada, who is a terrible shooter. That means that his value to Amaker is to provide Coleman or Abram a brief rest. He does provide energy and will work hard on defense, but that's about the extent of his value to the Wolverines right now. The back-up post player is true freshman Ekpe Udoh (6'10" 240 lbs.), easily the most impressive of the bench players, averaging 4.6 PPG and 4.5 RPG in only 18 + MPG. Udoh is a very good athlete and very long. His energy is excellent and he has nice touch from inside of 8 feet. However, he's a very poor free-throw shooter at 33%, and although he's only attempted 9 free throws, if you've seen his form on the line, you'll know what I'm talking about.
There are several keys to this game, and they tend to come down in the favor of UCLA. The first key will be how Michigan plays defense. Amaker will want to play mostly man, but his team really is nothing better than average at it. So expect to see the Wolverines mix their defenses between man and a 2-3 zone. Last year, in Ann Arbor, the Bruins were able to tear apart the Wolverine zone pretty easily. That's because a good zone is like a terrific man-to man-defense with great help-side principles. The Wolverines just don't play good, fundamental help-side defense. Individually, the Wolverines are athletic enough and long enough to play their individual men straight up. But their team defense is mediocre at best and poor at worst. They don't fight through screens well and they don't talk that much. Watch for Wolverine defenders to get smacked by screens because they have their head turned (a no-no in a Howland defense), and none of their teammates were talking to them in order to avoid the screen.
Another key is whether UCLA can get out and run. Michigan is better at running than at playing solid, half-court offense. The Bruins have seen teams that are methodical over the past two weeks, but Michigan will break that mold. Now, it's not like Michigan is the 2nd coming of a Paul Westhead team, but they will run. Michigan is a team that doesn't really dictate a tempo. Rather, they will let the other team dictate tempo. That's why the Bruins should be able to force a faster pace than what they've seen the past several games.
A question, and a key, is which UCLA team will show up? The Bruins have had the maddening habit this season of playing up or down, depending on the competition. To determine whether or not the Bruins have brought their ‘A' game is to look at the rebounding. Michigan is a very good rebounding team, being +9 per game against the competition and, yes, the competition they've played has been pretty lax, but they are still averaging over 38 RPG as a team. If UCLA is winning the battle of the boards, this could turn into a laugher, because keeping UCLA to one-shot possessions is probably the only way that Michigan can win.
Michigan will probably come out and play inspired ball for a while. The Wolverines realize that they have a chance to achieve a big win that will propel them towards their conference season. UCLA may fall behind early. In fact, they may be behind at halftime. But the reason I see a fairly big UCLA victory: Michigan is a poor man's version of UCLA. A quick point guard (Collison's quicker); a warrior leader (who would you rather have, Abram or Afflalo?); a solid, but not quick wing who can shoot (Shipp is a headier player than Coleman); and a slim, athletic ‘4' who can board. About the only difference is the role and type of post player the respective teams have. Sims would be tough in UCLA's offense, but the Bruins would be giving up athleticism and defense. Both benches are expected to spell the starters and not screw things up. UCLA has Mike Roll, Alfred Aboya and Russell Westbrook (and James Keefe and Ryan Wright), and Michigan doesn't. Finally, the biggest difference is in the coaches. The things that Howland preaches as gospel truths – defense, rebounding and fundamentals -- are things that Amaker either doesn't focus on or isn't very good at teaching. So, when you look at the game, you'll almost see a mirror image of the teams, except that one is fun to watch. The other…not so much.