Game 10: Arizona at Michigan Preview

Dylan Burkhardt
Who: No. 1 Arizona (10-0) at No. 25 Michigan (6-3) ArizonaLogo[1]
Where: Crisler Center (Ann Arbor, MI)
When: 12:00 p.m., Saturday, December 14th, 2013
Radio: MGoBlue, 950 AM, 1050 AM, Sirius 92, XM 190

Michigan has played in some big games this year but they’ve all taken place far from the friendly confines of the Crisler Center. With just a couple weeks until the Big Ten season, the Wolverines finally get to host a marquee opponent in No. 1 Arizona.

The Wildcats weren’t as hyped as Kentucky, Michigan State or Duke in the preseason but they boast a one-and-done lottery pick, plenty of supporting talent, ridiculous length and the No. 1 ranking. Sean Miller’s group has already beaten Duke and Drexel on neutral floors and won at San Diego State this season.

Michigan has had a week to prep for the Wildcats and is badly in need of a win after dropping three of its first nine games. Arizona won at New Mexico State on Wednesday and will travel to Ann Arbor Friday afternoon with Saturday’s noon tip-off equivalent to a 10 a.m. start in Tucson. That should provide a slight advantage to the Wolverines, who haven’t gone more than five days without a game all season before this week.

The Wildcats

Arizona’s statistical profile reminds me a bit of a vintage Tom Izzo Michigan State team. The Wildcats are dominant on both backboards, rebounding 41% of their own misses (12th) and 76% of their opponents’ (8th). Dominant rebounding sets the tone for Sean Miller’s team but is far from their only strength.

Offensively, Arizona is solid and relies on scoring around the basket but isn’t immune from the occasional turnover. The Wildcats shoot 55% inside the arc (29th) and 37.7% outside the arc (67th) but attempt just 27.3% of their field goals from long range. The Wildcats shoot 30% on two-point jumpers and 38% on three-point jumpers and are obviously much more effective when they gets to the rim where they shoot 76%. Arizona gives the ball away on 18.7% of it possessions (186th) and gave the ball away at least once every five trips in its three closest victories (Duke, Drexel and UNLV).

Defensively, the Wildcats have the nation’s fourth best eFG% defense, surrendering just a 40.4% effective field goal percentage. With great shooting defense and great defensive rebounding, it should come as no surprise that the Wildcats are the fifth best efficient defense in the country to this point. The one thing Arizona doesn’t do much of is force turnovers, but that appears to be by design as Sean Miller’s teams rarely force turnovers. Cal Poly was the only team to surpass a point per possession against the Wildcats this season and accomplished that in the first game of the year.

Brandon Ashley New Mexico State v Arizona 6vIPA5ygdMZl[1]
Brandon Ashley, Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson


The size of Arizona’s big men is the first thing you notice when you look at the roster. Aaron Gordon is projected as a top-ten pick next year and has the athleticism to back up his lofty rankings but he also has help. Gordon wants to play on the wing, and has some skills in the open court, but his offensive game appears to be a work in progress.

The 6-foot-8 freshman averages 12 points and 8.5 rebounds per game while starting at the three position and is an impact defender and rebounder. His Achilles’ heel right now is at the free throw line where he’s just 21-of-47 on the season. Offensively, he’s active but not the most efficient player. His offensive numbers aren’t bad but they aren’t really spectacular either.

Gordon isn’t a great scorer with his back to the basket, he’s only posted up 10 times this season and scored six points. He’s had just a handful of perimeter isolation plays and he’s not a great shooter: 6-of-37 on two-point jumpers and 6-of-16 on three-point jumpers. The bulk of his offensive production comes in transition, on the offensive glass and cutting to the basket – but even then he’s not the most efficient finisher.

Gordon is still a match-up nightmare for Michigan as a three (he would even be a lot for Robinson to handle at the four). However, I suspect that Duke is the only other team that Arizona has played with a 6-foot-8 three-man to match Gordon’s size and he still hasn’t consistently taken advantage of those matchups.

Gordon is joined in the frontcourt by Kaleb Tarczewski, a 7-foot, 235 pound sophomore that attended prep school with Nik Stauskas at St. Mark’s, and 6-foot-8 sophomore Brandon Ashley. Tarczewski, Ashley and Gordon are all nationally ranked in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages while Gordon and Tarczewski are the best shot blockers in the rotation. The threat that all three players provide on the glass will be a huge issue for Michigan’s defense.

Tarczewski is a more traditional back-to-basket big man and rim protector, 49% of his offensive possessions are post ups and he scores .82 points per post-up (43rd percentile). He gives the ball away almost once every three post-ups, so double teaming him appears to be the right move.

Ashley is the dynamic scorer that jumps off the page when you skim Arizona’s Synergy Sports scouting report. 19% of Ashley’s offensive possessions come in the low post and he’s Arizona’s most effective option on the low-block (22 points on 19 post-ups), he’s an effective isolation driver against opposing four men (20 points on 15 poss.), he’s Arizona’s best pick-and-roll man (23 points on 15 PNR catches) and he’s even shown the ability to hit the three when left open (7-of-12 on the season). Sean Miller estimated the Ashley has a 7-foot-4 wingspan and he’ll be a load for Michigan to deal with at the four position.

Most teams that have great bigs still need their guards to excel and Arizona is no exception. Nick Johnson leads the Wildcats in scoring and uses a quarter of their offensive possessions. Johnson is an athletic off-guard that excels attacking the basket (61% 2-point shooting, 46% free throw rate) but is also an above-average perimeter shooter (36%). He uses a fair amount of ball screens but he’s at his best off of screens and dribble hand offs and is devastating in transition.

Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell is the glue that holds everything together for the Wildcats. He has a 37.5% assist rate and is an effective shooter inside (56%) and outside (33%) for a 54 eFG% even though he’s more likely to distribute than shoot. McConnell uses the ball screen often and is better passing than scoring when using the high screen.

The Wildcats play a short bench as 6-foot-7 forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and 6-foot-3 guard Gabe York are the only reserves to average double-digit minutes. York is a knock down perimeter shooter, over half of his field goal attempts come from long range and shoots 40% from distance (he’s just 3-of-15 in the last five games) . Hollis-Jefferson is a five-star freshman forward that’s aggressive on the offensive glass (12.2% offensive rebounding rate) and attacks the rim (91% free throw rate, 60% 2-point shooting). He does things like this, but isn’t much of a shooting threat.


Force small ball. The match-ups in this game will be interesting. Arizona wants to play big (6-foot-8, 6-foot-9, 7-foot) while Michigan wants to play small (6-foot-6, 6-foot-6, 6-foot-10). Usually Michigan’s stretched offense forces opponents to match its smaller lineup but Arizona has some uniquely talented players at the three and four in Gordon and Ashley. I suspect that the Wildcats will try to stick to their guns and force Michigan to guard them. Whichever team has to switch from its preferred lineup will probably be playing from behind. Forcing the Wildcats to defend the perimeter will be the top priority offensively as Michigan spread the floor.

Hold the defensive glass. Michigan is unlikely to win the battle on the offensive glass – the best strategy is probably to crash McGary and send everyone else back to stop Arizona’s transition – but it needs to hold its own on the other backboard. Arizona is a great offensive rebounding team and Michigan (who has been a great defensive rebounding team), needs to prove its ability on the defensive glass. If the Wolverines can control the defensive glass with their typical lineup, they’ll have an advantage offensively. If not, inserting a second big man into the lineup will make it very difficult to score against the Wildcats.

Defensive weak links. Johnson and Ashley are two of the more versatile scoring options on Arizona’s roster but the Synergy numbers say they are the weakest links defensively. Johnson (.87 PPP allowed, 48th percentile) has been tested the most often and struggles defending screens both on the ball and off. Michigan doesn’t really have a weapon to exploit Ashley’s inconsistencies defensively (.926 PPP, 37th percentile) – other than some baseline cuts from Glenn Robinson III – but Johnson could be a different story. Whether Johnson is matched on Caris LeVert or Nik Stauskas, the Wolverines need to test him on the defensive end.

Get over the ‘wow’ factor. Michigan has faced a bigger team (Florida State), a more skilled team (Duke) and a better shooting team (Iowa State). The Wildcats are still the best defensive team, and probably the most athletic team, that the Wolverines have faced this season. Michigan’s ability to settle down and play its game defensively against Arizona’s length and athleticism will be critical. In short, don’t start the game like this.

The 1-3-1 zone lottery. On paper, Arizona looks like the type of team susceptible to struggling against a zone defense. The Wildcats have a lot of length, struggle with turnovers at times and are a good but not great shooting team. However, the Wildcats have played well against zone this year (1.109 PPP vs. zone; .91 PPP vs. man) and Michigan’s zone defense hasn’t been good. I’m sure John Beilein will have the 1-3-1 zone ready but it seems like a desperation play. Given Arizona’s offensive rebounding abilities, don’t expect to see the zone unless Michigan is struggling and needs to change the dynamic of the game.

Bottom Line

Ken Pomeroy projects a 66-65 win for the Wolverines, giving Michigan a 54% shot at knocking off the Wildcats on Saturday afternoon. The importance of this game can’t be overstated. A win has the potential to rescue Michigan’s non-conference schedule while a loss leaves the Wolverines with their backs to the walls headed to Barclays and into the Big Ten season. Right now Michigan has a disappointing loss and two ‘good losses’ but it doesn’t have a big win. Arizona would be that victory.

  • MLaw

    Huge game obviously. My thoughts- a hidden key to this game will be how the back-up bigs play in the 10-15 minutes of time they get. if this is close to even Michigan will be in great shape.

    Second- the foul situation. With Arizona being so shallow on the bench maybe we can actually force foul difficulty. There have been at least a couple games this season where Michigan has gained early foul advantages and not taken advantage or pressured the other team. If Arizona has to play their 8th man, that is a big advantage Michigan. Time for some home cooking right?

    Third- the other foul situation- Aaron Gordon is a monster that we probably can’t solve with our pieces. Too big for GR3, too fast for Mitch. What about doubling him whenever he gets near the post and even fouling him whenever he goes up to shoot? With the depth Michigan has, I think it serves them well to be aggressive, especially when Gordon has the ball. Not to pick on Spike, whom I love on offense, but he should at least consider just going for the steal/foul if he is even close to Gordon. I would rather he shoot free throws than either dunks or kick-out threes with Spike on the floor.

    Fourth- Hit your open shots. Enough said- we can play great offense, but without hitting the open jumpers, both 2s and 3s, our offense does not work.

    All in all, I think this is about a 50-50 game at Crisler and the boys had better be amped up. This is about a 3-4 seed swing potentially. I think it is critical to know if we are a bubble team or potential 5-6 seed. (current estimation- 8 seed- loss to 9 seed, win to 5-6)

    • guestavo

      Not sure that I agree on your analysis of Gordon. His stock has fallen some from what I’m hearing.

      • kam

        It has a little because he isn’t that skilled yet. Still a tough matchup

        • guestavo

          My biggest concerns are Rondae and Tarczewski (sp?). Gordon is passive but Rondae stays in attack mode. The other guy is so tall that even though he lacks footwork, he can still pose a significant problem in the post.

          • Kam

            i agree! he’s massive it could be a problem

          • guestavo

            Ojo pt 2 lol

      • MLaw

        Fair response, but I still expect him to have a fairly big game if we don’t address his athleticism. Can we win the game if he gets 16 pts and 8-10 rebounds? I’m not sure. That means we have to get somebody to help out our 3 defender- either Glenn or Mitch seems most likely as a secondary defender.

    • kam

      Well first Gordon plays the 3 so Mitch won’t see him.. he isn’t that skilled offensively either.. Glenn will have to guard Brandon Ashley at the 4 because he is big and skilled. Nik Johnson at the two is their best scorer soo Caris will have him..that means NIk will have to take Gordon. He just has to box out. Gordon doesn’t have a post game.. he gets put backs and cuts.. they play 7 footer then 6’9(Ashley) then Gordon at the SF

      • kam

        Unless u did a two big lineup then Glenn would slide to the 3 and guard Gordon

      • MLaw

        Nik guarding an explosive 6-8 cutter sounds like trouble also. I just assumed any normal 6-8 player would be at least a 4 in the college game. I forgot how crazy tall Arizona is generally.

  • mikey_mac

    This looks like a matchup that will really stretch our primary six with long minutes. Needing to turn to Morgan or Horford for significant minutes because of fouls or rebounding would make for a long afternoon.
    By the way, GR3 bashers, please note how much energy he has to expend on defense. You want a vanishing act on the offensive side of the ball? Then spend your afternoon boxing out guys with 2 inches and 25 pounds on you all day.

  • Mattski

    Expecting some of you say this tweet from John Gasaway that was included in the preview at mgoblog:

    “Not counting laugher @ home vs Texas Tech, Arizona scored 0.99 points per trip vs. Drexel, Duke, UNLV; 26% on 3s, 48% 2s. Fret accordingly.”

    Michigan can do this.

    • MGoTweeter

      That is a fair point but I don’t think anyone should be worried about the Arizona offense, especially in the half court. It is the Arizona defense and their rebounding that are the concerns.

  • BlueBasketeer

    Unmentioned key: shoot 3s really, really well. Arizona is going kill us with a lot of easy baskets and put-backs inside. To have any chance, we’ll have to balance that with great outside shooting. We’ll probably have to take 20-25 threes and make close to half of them to be in this game.