|Who: No. 14 Michigan (5-1) at Virginia (5-1)|
|Where: John Paul Jones Arena, Charlottesville, VA|
|When: 7:02 P.M. ET, November 29th, 2011|
|TV: ESPN2 / ESPN3 (Provider List)|
|Radio: MGoBlue / WWJ (950 AM) / WWWW (102.9 FM) / Sirius: 134 / XM: 190|
|Preview Content: John Beilein Notes, Quotes & Video, Pick to Click|
|Maui Invitational: What We Learned|
The beaches, sun and cozy atmosphere of the Lahaina Civic Center are a thing of the past but Michigan is back on the road, this time making a trip to Charlottesville, VA to face the Virginia Cavaliers. It’s not Cameron Indoor or the Breslin Center but it’s still Michigan’s first road game of the season in an ACC arena that holds over 14,000 fans. The Wolverines have faced an array of tests with varying degrees of difficulty this season but the trip to Virginia poses two challenges unique to Michigan’s young season: a true road game and a match-up with a slow paced defensive minded team suitable for the Big Ten.
To date, Virginia is the best defensive team that Michigan has faced this season. The Cavaliers first six games might not have been murderers’ row but they have yet to surrender more than .9 points per possession in any game this season. Teams have struggled to score the ball against Virginia because they haven’t been able to make shots – inside or out. Opponents have made just 38% of their twos and 24% of their threes for a dreadful 37% effective field goal percentage (5th best nationally). With all of those missed shots, Virginia’s defensive rebounding might be most impressive as the Tony Bennett’s squad grabs 75% of its opponents’ missed shots. The UVA defense has also forced opponents to turn the ball over on a quarter of their possessions while managing to do an adequate job of preventing free throws.
John Beilein compared Virginia to Wisconsin in his pregame roundtable and he’s about two thirds of the way correct. Wisconsin is the only major conference school that plays at a tempo slower than Virginia and both teams have defended their early season foes as well as anyone. The difference between Bo Ryan and Tony Bennett’s squads is that Wisconsin can score the ball with breathless efficiency. Virginia isn’t quite on that level.
The Cavaliers have ranked near the bottom of the ACC in per possession offensive output throughout Tony Bennett’s tenure and haven’t gotten off to a much better start this season. With a 51 percent effective field goal percentage, Virginia has been just average shooting the ball making a decent 52% of its twos and mediocre 33% of its threes. The causes of concern on the offensive side of the ball have been turnovers and offensive rebounds. The Cavaliers have been Jeckyl and Hyde in the turnover department and simply haven’t attacked the offensive glass all season. The greatest strength of the UVA offense has been getting to the free throw line. The Cavaliers not only get to the line often with a free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of 56% but they convert their freebies at an efficient 79% clip.
Virginia’s most important player is fifth year senior Mike Scott. Scott suffered a season ending ankle injury last season and spent a bit too much time eating donuts before former Michigan strength coach Mike Curtis got him back into shape. Now he’s in shape, and producing to the tune of 15 points and 10 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8, 237 pound, power forward is joined up front by 7-foot senior Assane Sene. Sene is an efficient finisher around the basket and a solid shot blocker but only plays around 20 minutes per game. When Sene is not on the floor, sophomore big man Akil Mitchell will serve as his replacement.
Virginia’s No. 2 and No. 3 scorers, Joe Harris and KT Harrell, are sophomore wings that both made 42% of their twos and 42% of their threes a season ago. The duo appears to have lost its three point shooting stroke this season with significant regression by both players. Harris is still the primary shooter, attempting over half his shots from three point range a year ago, while Harrell is more of a slasher. 5-foot-11 guard Jontel Evans starts at point guard but averages more turnovers (2.7) than assists (2.5) per game. Top 100 freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon and fifth year senior shooter Sammy Zeglinski are the primary depth options in Bennett’s backcourt.
This game presents an interesting match-up. Both teams should be more than willing to play the game at a slow pace – similar to the 54 or 55 possession games Michigan has played versus Wisconsin in recent years. Beyond tempo, this game pits relative strengths against weaknesses. The Michigan offense looked better than the defense in Maui while Virginia’s defense appears to be far ahead of its offense. Can Michigan’s offense continue to convert so effectively around the basket against Virginia’s physical defense? Does Virginia’s offense knock down easy looks against a defense that has been up and down? More importantly, how does Virginia’s tendency to get to the free throw line affect Michigan’s foul prone big men?
On an individual level it will be interesting to see how Michigan tries to counter Mike Scott. Evan Smotrycz has played physically this fall but is in for another level of competition and needs to stay out of foul trouble while generating a mismatch offensively on the perimeter. John Beilein will certainly go small for stretches with Novak at the four, a scenario which will create drastic defensive mismatches for both teams. Does Novak make Scott pay on the defensive end, forcing Bennett to counter with a small lineup, or does Scott have his way with Michigan in the paint?
Pomeroy gives Virginia a 62% chance of defending home court, projecting a 56-54 final in a 57 possession slugfest. It’s important that Michigan doesn’t underestimate a Virginia team that might not have the name cachet of other ACC foes. The ACC looks wide open after Duke and North Carolina and Virginia looks very much the part of a middle of the ACC bubble team, meaning a win tonight be a nice bullet point on Michigan’s resume this March.