I caught up with Dylan over at the fantastic Michigan basketball blog, UMHoops.com, for some insight on tonight's Big Ten opening opponent for Penn State. The Lions take on the Wolverines in Crisler Arena at 7:30 PM. The game, as will nearly the rest of the Lions' games this season, will be on the Big Ten Network.
Michigan comes into the game ranked #18 in the AP poll and #16 in USA Today. They're 10-2 on the year with their two losses coming against Duke in Maui and Virginia on the road. They're a perfect 7-0 in Crisler including a 10 point win against Iowa State.
The Wolverines are led by sophomore Tim Hardaway Jr, who averages 15 PPG. Trey Burke, the one-time Penn State commit, has taken the point guard reins from departed Darius Morris. He's been a huge impact in Michigan's offense to the tune of 13 points and 5 dimes a game. 6-9 sophomore Evan Smotrycz has greatly improved from his freshman year, averaging 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds a game.
BSD: How has Trey Burke handled filling Darius Morris' shoes?
UMHoops: Trey Burke has handled his role - starting as a freshman point guard - as well as anyone could have realistically imagined. Burke has controlled the team, earned John Beilein's trust, and hit perimeter shots as a bonus. He's one of Michigan's primary scoring options when the offense bogs down, and he continues to produce while improving every game. He's obviously had some freshman moments - turnovers, defensive lapses, etc. - but he should battle Cody Zeller for Big Ten freshman of the year given his early production, and the fact that he's the only point guard on the Michigan roster.
BSD: Evan Smotrycz is straight torching the nets right now (58% from 3). How has his newfound shooting confidence affected Michigan's offense?
UMHoops: Shortly after Smotrycz committed to Michigan, he shot up the recruiting charts, wowing scouts with his perimeter game and three point shooting abilities. He was a prototypical Beilein big man, and when he arrived on campus, he was John Beilein's most highly regarded recruit ever. He played a lot of minutes as a freshman but wasn't even the first or second most important freshman on last year's team (Hardaway and Morgan) and saw his fair share of struggles.
The one thing he could do last year was shoot the ball (38% 3pt last year). So while his shooting has been unprecedented, especially over the last several games, it's everything else that he's begun to do that's truly impressive. His rebounding numbers are more than double a year ago, he's scoring inside, and he's playing better defense. He's begun to look like the complete player that Michigan fans expected. The only question now is how he reacts to the more physical nature of the Big Ten, and whether he can continue to play a complete game while staying out of foul trouble.
When he's playing well, Michigan's offense is clicking. He can stretch the floor at either the four or five position and that just opens things up for Michigan's other offensive threats.
BSD: Michigan's defensive efficiency according to KenPom ranks 9th in the Big Ten. What do the Wolverines need to improve upon defensively?
UMHoops: I'm concerned because it was the Michigan defense that saved the Wolverines last season. The numbers aren't impressive, but a lot of that is based on some of the mediocre competition that Michigan has faced. If trends continue, this Michigan team could be exposed early on because it's tough to win in the Big Ten if you are trying to win shooting the lights out every night.
BSD: Talk about this team's non-conference season. Have they met expectations thus far?
UMHoops: I'd give Michigan a B+ if grading against expectations. That's a passing grade, but it's nothing to be proud about either. Michigan is 10-2 but missed out on opportunities for a couple of really solid wins - against Duke in Maui and at Virginia - although neither of those appear to be bad losses either. The Wolverines beat Memphis, a pre-season top 10 team that has struggled a bit, and avoided upsets against teams like Iowa State or Oakland. Nothing Michigan did in the pre-season is going to hurt them come March but nothing really stands out either. The Wolverines will also travel to Arkansas in the middle of Big Ten play for one more non-conference game.
BSD: What are the keys for Michigan against Penn State?
UMHoops: I want to see Michigan prove that it can defend, even against a sometimes mediocre Penn State offense. The Wolverines never crash the offensive glass with much aggression but defensive rebounding will be vital. Penn State is a great offensive rebounding team and that seems like the most likely means for the Nittany Lions to hang around.
Michigan's shooting has been lethal this season. The Wolverines are the best two point shooting team (59%) and have the second best effective field goal percentage of 58.2%. The scary thing about that is that the rest of the Wolverine statistical profile is fairly average. If Michigan is missing a few more shots than usual, it could be ripe for an upset.
Thanks to Dylan for taking the time to offer his insights on tonight's opponent. Be sure to check out my interview at his site. Michigan will offer a tough test for Pat Chambers' young team. PSU could soon find out how hard life is on the road in the Big Ten.