MnB's Drew Hallett stopped by earlier today to chat about tonight's Indiana-Michigan matchup. I answered some questions for him over at their site, too. Follow Drew on twitter dot com right here.
1. Okay, Caris Levert is day-to-day. Your prediction: Do we see him tonight? If we do, how effective should Indiana fans expect him to be?
On Monday, John Beilein informed the media that Caris LeVert made great progress in Sunday's practice, providing Michigan fans with hope that LeVert will be back tonight. However, my gut says otherwise. Throughout the past month as Beilein was badgered with questions about LeVert's status, he made it clear that Michigan would not rush LeVert's return and wanted LeVert to participate in two or three straight practices first. Given that Michigan had just two days of rest between tonight's contest and its matchup with Penn State for the inaugural B1G Super Saturday at Madison Square Garden, I don't think there has been enough time for LeVert to be properly evaluated and ready for tonight. I believe that he will sit out and make his return on Saturday when Michigan hosts in-state rival Michigan State.
However, if I'm wrong and LeVert plays tonight, I really don't know how effective he would be. I thought it would be best for Michigan if he returned last week, so he could shed the rust against lesser opponents and begin to get back in game shape for this important week. He hasn't played in a game in a month, and it's not as if he has been practicing or running much with his "lower left leg" injury. I don't think he would be able to give Michigan the 30-plus minutes that he usually does as a starter. I'd guess he'd play more of a bench role (17-22 MPG) and defer to Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton for the time being.
2. Duncan Robinson's been incredibly impressive as a D-III transfer from Williams College. How does he fit in with Michigan's system & do you see him having a big game tonight?
John Beilein did it again. Beilein has this knack for discovering under-the-radar talents that can flourish in his flowing, four-guard offense, and Duncan Robinson may be one of his greatest finds. Beilein saw Robinson's potential fit in his offense as a three-point shooter but thought it would take some time for the D-III transfer to become accustom to playing with the big boys. Beilein was mistaken in that regard because Robinson came out firing from the get-go. He's Michigan's second-leading scorer (12.5 PPG), averaging 3.4 made threes per game and knocking down 50 percent of his threes, which is 12th in the nation. His stroke is so pure that there have been debates about if he or Nik Stauskas is the better shooter, though there's no question that Robinson doesn't live up to Stauskas as an all-around player. Where Stauskas was able to run the offense and create shots for himself, Robinson is of the catch-and-shoot variety that spreads out the defense and opens space for Michigan's pick and rolls on the wings. Robinson also can be a dangerous weapon in transition, trailing the play and finding the open spot on the perimeter for a three. But, for all of his offensive skill, Robinson struggles with closeouts and on-ball defense.
Nonetheless, there is no guarantee that Robinson has a big game tonight. There is evidence to suggest fatigue may be getting to him. When Caris LeVert went down, Michigan didn't add another suitable wing to the main rotation. Rather, everyone else's minutes have increased, and essentially there are only five Wolverines playing spots 1 through 4. As a result, Robinson is playing almost 10 minutes more per game (33.6 vs. 24.6) since LeVert's injury. And I don't think it's a coincidence that Robinson made 49-of-84 threes (58.3 pct.) before LeVert's injury and only 23-of-61 threes (37.7 pct.) since then. Clearly, 37.7 percent from three still is a great number, but he's no longer automatic like he used to be as he's missing an abnormal number of open looks. And Michigan needs him to be automatic if it wants to win this game.
3. Zak Irvin's a name Indiana basketball fans know well. How has he grown into his role in LeVert's
Zak Irvin received some training in being Michigan's go-to option at the end of last season when Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton were out with season-ending injuries, and that experience has served him well now. Irvin began his career as a gunner. He didn't dribble much. He didn't pass much. His job was to stand on the wing or in the corner, catch the ball, and fire away. And he was pretty good at it, too (42.5 3P% his freshman season). But he has become a much more well-rounded player since then, fulfilling the potential many saw in him when he was a four-star recruit and Mr. Basketball in Indiana. And that can be seen when his non-conference stats are disregarded as he still was recovering from his offseason back surgery during that time. In Big Ten play, he's recorded 13.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, and 4.1 APG. From a scoring perspective, not only is he knocking down threes (42.9 pct.), he's much more persistent about driving to the rack and finishing with his right hand. But what stands out the most is his passing, rebounding, and defense. As a distributor, his assist rate has doubled (23.1 to 11.8) while maintaining a healthy A:TO ratio (2.2) because he's learned how to operate out of the pick and roll and hit the screener. As a rebounder, he's active on the defensive glass (17.4 DR%) despite boxing out bigger forwards than him on most occasions. And, speaking of which, he's learned how to body up these bigger players in the post.
Irvin won't ever be as fluid or smooth as LeVert and it'll be interesting to see how LeVert's return impacts his role, but it's clear that Irvin is capable of running a Big Ten offense efficiently.
4. We know Michigan, like Indiana, can score the basketball pretty well. Simple question: What's this Michigan team's biggest weakness?
Michigan's biggest weakness is its defense. Like, all of it. The Wolverines are 130th in adjusted defensive efficiency (101.2), and, at this point of the season, it would be foolish to expect it to improve. If I must narrow it down to two critical weaknesses, they would be Michigan's inability to contain dribble penetration and struggles defending and boxing out bullies in the paint. With regards to dribble penetration, quick guards have been able to maneuver around Michigan's perimeter defenders and exploit their undisciplined closeouts. That could be a major problem against All-Big Ten jitterbug Yogi Ferrell. And what also could be a major problem is the tag team of Troy Williams and Thomas Bryant because, not only do they both finish extremely well around the rim, they can crash the offensive boards hard as Indiana is 11th in offensive rebounding rate. Mark Donnal is progressing as a defender, staying vertical rather than hacking opponents in the post, but I don't know if he has the discipline or strength to slow down Bryant. If Indiana is able to pound the ball inside to Bryant, it could be a long night for Michigan's defense. The Wolverines need to keep Indiana out of the paint and force the Hoosiers to win with jumpers.
5. Okay, give me a winner. Who, why, and a score.
Michigan and Indiana seem to be very similar teams. Both have shiny records that are partially inflated by weak schedules. Both have explosive, jumper-oriented offenses with lagging defenses, though Indiana's defense has been much better in conference play with James Blackmon, Jr.'s absence. And both desperately want to win this game because of the impact it will have on the Big Ten standings and their NCAA Tournament resumes and because, frankly, these coaching staffs don't like each other. If this was on a neutral site, I'd probably give the edge to Indiana because I'm not sure Michigan has the resources to stop the duo of Yogi Ferrell and Thomas Bryant, and I'd obviously hand the win to the Hoosiers if it was in Assembly Hall because that place is full of evil and horror. But this game will be played in Ann Arbor, and, as I have watched Indiana this season, they aren't the same team on the road as they are at home -- more so than other schools. I'm not sure if it's that the Hoosiers' outside shooting is more likely to sputter or if the hostile atmospheres rattle them into more turnovers, but there is something different. How else do you explain Indiana shellacking the likes of Ohio State, Illinois, and Northwestern at home but struggling to put away Minnesota and Rutgers on the road? Whatever it is, I think that will be the difference tonight, and the home crowd will push the Wolverines to a close win over the Hoosiers*.
Michigan 76, Indiana 71