On Saturday night, Bob Huggins' Mountaineers, reeling from a loss to Duquesne on Wednesday, limp into the new Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, NY, to take on a familiar face - John Beilein and his #3 ranked Michigan Wolverines. Zach Travis from the SBNation Michigan blog Maize n Brew took a few minutes to preview the matchup - and he's a lot more optimistic about the Mountaineers' chances than I am.
Country Roads: This will be the first time in my life that a former WVU football or basketball coach will have faced the Mountaineers after leaving for another position, so please forgive the "seeing your ex-girlfriend out while you're on a date with your fiancee" feelings from us. Those feelings aside (and I think the pain has been eased by Huggins' success and the fact that West Virginia is his home), this is an intriguing matchup of contrasting styles with Beilein's finesse shooting/passing offense and 1-3-1 defense providing an apt foil to Huggins' rugged defense and rebounding focused attack. How do you see the Wolverines handling the Mountaineers' physical style of play? Are the pieces there to match WVU athletically and prevent the Mounties from rebounding and running at will?
Zach Travis: In the heirarchy of coaches poached from West Virginia, John Beilein's name should be higher, but something about the relatively clean break and the long shadow of the Richrod saga keep Beilein's legacy of switching schools pretty hidden. That being said, we are very happy with him and I can only imagine that makes it worse (although I think if there is one thing the vast majority of Michigan and WVU fans can agree on it is hating Richrod and liking Beilein).
As for actual basketball, I think Michigan is in a much better place to deal with Huggins' style. The Wolverines have never played much of Beilein's old 1-3-1 -- instead relying on more man to man defense -- and this may be Beilein's most physically talented team ever. On top of that, it is one that isn't afraid to get dirty. Michigan out rebounded both Pitt and Kansas State by large margins, and with solid depth at the four and five, Michigan has the capability to hang with teams that like to hit the glass.
CR: Everybody knows Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., and to a certain extent Glenn Robinson III. Which of them is most important to Michigan's success? And who are some of the unsung heroes that WVU fans will want to know about before Saturday's game?
ZT: Trey Burke is the most important for obvious reasons. The offense runs through him and Michigan ultimately needs him to control the offense for long stretches. He passes well and it has even been shown recently how good he is at getting other players open looks from his own missed shots. Hardaway Jr. has been at times great, but he is too inconsistent and sometimes too willing to settle for long jumpers rather than attacking the basket.
The unsung hero that WVU should worry about is Nik Stuaskas, the underrated true freshman. Not only is he proving to be one of the better three-point shooters that Beilein has had at Michigan, he has the ability to put the ball on the floor and create his own shot. When Burke and Hardaway are breaking defenses down with drives to the basket, it is Stuaskas and Robinson III that can really spark runs.
CR: Sitting at 8-0 (probably 9-0 depending on whether you answer these before or after you play Binghamton) and ranked #3 in the country, Michigan basketball is finally flying high for the first time since the Fab Five era. Do you feel like John Beilein is building something special in Ann Arbor? Are fans happy with the development of the program so far, and do you think he can recapture a national title there?
ZT: We are ecstatic. It was a long road back from the late 90s when everything pretty much went to hell and Michigan spent the next decade and a half in the cellar. There were a number of "wait for it" moments with Tommy Amaker -- as well as a few with Beilein -- that seemed to suddenly collapse back into mediocrity. But Beilein continues to find under the radar players that turn out to be really, really good, and that helped Michigan take the step forward last year. Now, with one of the better and more complete recruiting classes in the country, Michigan finally seems poised to put together the kind of season that fans have been waiting for since the Fab Five. With the recent renovations made to Michigan's basketball facilities (massive from what I've seen and have been told), Michigan finally seems to have all the pieces in place to step back into being a consistent top-25 program. So yeah, we're pretty happy with Beilien. As for a national title, anything is possible, but those things are pretty hard to win so I'll leave it as "I think he can win one here."
CR: When Beilein was in Morgantown, fans often complained about his teams' inability to inbound the ball, create their own shot, and rebound. Comparing his 2005 Elite Eight squad with the 2006 Sweet Sixteen group, the loss of athletic forwards Tyrone Sally and D'or Fischer may have contributed to that issue as much as the system. What, if any, weaknesses are this year's Wolverines showing and do you think they are attributable to the system, the personnel, or both?
ZT: I think the biggest problem for Michigan is actually the defense. The Wolverine offense has been really good so far this year, and the rebounding has been solid (it helps that Michigan doesn't play much out of the aforementioned 1-3-1, a notoriously poor rebounding defense). However, Michigan's defense has allowed a few teams to make runs and make out of reach games a little tight by the end. With that many freshman playing significant time, and the defensive deficiencies of Michigan's established starters (Hardaway has never been a great defender, and Burke is small-ish and is depended on too heavily for his offense). Even if Michigan is able to control large portions of the game I could see WVU keeping things close as Michigan's defense struggles to get stops. Michigan has won big by overpowering teams on offense. Defense has been an issue, and if this turns into an upset, Michigan's defense will be the culprit.
CR: You're probably picking Michigan to win, so let's spice things up a bit. You're a Vegas oddsmaker setting the line at Caesar's Palace...ok, wait, let's pick something more realistic. You're setting the line at Mandalay Bay - what's the line and what's the over/under?
ZT: I'm not much of a gambler so I'll do my best to work my way through this. I would favor Michigan by a handful of points, but not double digits. West Virginia's style should be good to hand close in this one. For that matter I would be surprised if either team scored much higher than the low 60s. With the way WVU rebounds Michigan might have a harder time getting easy buckets and second shot opportunities.
I foresee a similar game to the one vs. Pitt earlier in the year where Michigan survives late despite a strong push from the Mountaineers. I'm picking Michigan in this one, but I think it will be a game late in the second half.
Thanks again to Zach Travis from Maize n Brew for talking Mountaineers-Wolverines with us. Make sure to head over there for all your Michigan news, intel and general revelry.