Michigan, a very similar team to UCLA, comes to Pauley Pavilion Saturday on a four-game winning streak, led by possibly one of the best forwards in the country in LaVell Blanchard...
When UCLA and Michigan scheduled today's matchup years ago, I'm sure they were thinking that it would be two big-named, marquee basketball programs in a high-profile, nationally-televised non-conference clash.
Who would have anticipated that both teams would come into this game with losing records, and with RPI rankings at 120th (Michigan) and 197th (UCLA) in the country.
Times have certainly changed.
This Michigan team is certainly not even a faint echo of the Fab Five teams they had in the 1990s. The program has suffered through poor seasons, scandals, NCAA sanctions and generally some really bad publicity. It didn't help that this year's team started out the season 0-6, its worst beginning since 1933.
But after that sixth loss in a row, Michigan head coach Tommy Amaker told his team that they needed to start the season over and throw out those first six consecutive losses. Those words seemed to have worked magic since Michigan has won 4 in a row since, including a win over 6-3 Vanderbilt, which is supposed to be a pretty decent team.
Michigan is led by senior LaVell Blanchard, one of the most heralded recruits to come out of high school in his high school senior year. The 6-7 forward leads the team in scoring (17.3) and rebounding (6.8), and in fact did it all three of his seasons he's been in Ann Arbor. In Michigan's last three wins he's averaged 20 points a game. He's an inside/outside kind of player that is most comfortable facing the basket but probably just as effective in the paint. He can step out to three and nail them if he gets hot.
The question will be who will get the assignment among the Bruins to contain Blanchard. He's a pretty well put-together kid at about 220 pounds, and has good quickness. Jason Kapono might not be able to stay with him. Dijon Thompson might be the best candidate to guard Blanchard, but he might not be strong enough. Thompson, also, is questionable for this game because of an injured knee, but is expected to play.
Michigan is really a story of Blanchard and an emerging freshmen class that is starting to play well. At the head of that freshmen class is point guard Daniel Horton, who was one of the top 25 high school prospects in the country last year, and he's starting to prove it. He's averaging 13.6 points a game, and has had some pretty impressive stretches in recent games. Against Bowling Green he had 26 points, 24 in the first half, starting the game making 4 of 5 threes. Early on he was prone to turnovers, but he's starting to get those more under control. Horton is a big point, at least 6-2 if not 6-3, and is very effective at overpowering smaller defenders. He's more of a lead guard than a true point, and looks to score quite a bit. With the word that UCLA's Cedric Bozeman probably won't start this game, it will be interesting to see how Ryan Walcott matches up against the much bigger Horton.
Completing Michigan's big starting backcourt is 6-6 freshman Lester Abram. Abram is in there for his size and athleticism, and he generally plays pretty good defense. For a shooting guard, he doesn't shoot that much.
The other freshmen who are getting playing time are two post players, 6-9, 245-lb. Graham Brown, and 6-11 Chris Hunter. Both were pretty heralded recruits coming out of high school last year, and Brown and Hunter have been splitting time at the center position, and at power forward. Both are playing about 20 minutes a game, and have been fairly productive. Between the two of them they're averaging 10 points and 9 rebounds. Brown, obviously, is more of the bruiser while Hunter is the long, athletic shot blocker.
The other starter is junior Bernard Robinson, who is kind of a poor man's version of Blanchard, and steady leader on the wing.
Coming off the bench is 6-7 sophomore forward Chuck Bailey, who was a starter last year as a freshman, now supplanted by this year's freshmen class. The designated shooter off the bench is 6-5 senior guard Gavin Groninger, who hasn't had a good shooting year so far, but has found his touch more in recent games. Pint-sized point guard Avery Queen also comes off the bench.
It's actually a pretty good matchup overall for UCLA. Michigan doesn't have any real go-to low-post player, which has really been UCLA's bane so far this season. Michigan's two freshmen post players, though, have been quite a bit more productive than UCLA's freshmen posts, Mike Fey and Ryan Hollins. But still, Hunter and Brown are young and inexperienced, prone to mistakes and committing unnecessary fouls. They generally held up pretty well under the pressure of playing Duke at Cameron Arena, but their inexperience should be something UCLA should try to exploit.
In fact, in addition to the two freshmen post players, UCLA and Michigan are similar in many ways. Their scoring leader is an experienced senior (Blanchard and Kapono), while they also start a junior forward (T.J. Cummings and Robinson) who can score, while relying on many younger players.
UCLA has been prone to an opponent that plays a slowdown, deliberate style so far this season, and Michigan hasn't played that way yet this year. The one UCLA opponent that defied that strategy and tried to get in an open, pick-up style of game with UCLA was Portland, and UCLA blew them out. Michigan, though, has quite a bit more talent than Portland and will probably be able to hold up significantly better in that style of game. Against their one common opponent, Duke, both UCLA and Michigan got blown off the floor, with UCLA not looking quite as bad in its embarrassment as Michigan. Because Michigan is coming to Pauley, relying on some freshmen, and play the style that UCLA wants to play, you have to give the game to the Bruins.