Michigan Basketball: Must-Win Games on Wolverines' Schedule

Thad Novak@@ThadNovakCorrespondent IOctober 24, 2012

Michigan Basketball: Must-Win Games on Wolverines' Schedule

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    The arrival of standout freshmen Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III has made for hopes high in Ann Arbor, but living up to a No. 5 preseason ranking won’t be an easy task for Michigan. The Big Ten is the strongest, deepest conference in college basketball this year, and even the non-conference schedule features some high-powered opposition.

    The toughest game in the latter category sees ACC favorite North Carolina State come to town for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. An early-season win over the sixth-ranked Wolfpack will be vital in setting the tone for a Final Four-caliber performance from Trey Burke and company.

    Read on for more on the showdown with N.C. State and the rest of the most critical games facing the Wolverines in 2012-13.

10. At Michigan State (Feb. 12)

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    Draymond Green may be gone, but taking on the Michigan State Spartans on the road will still be a serious test for Michigan.

    State has as physical a set of forwards as any team in the country—highlighted by 6'9", 270-pound Derrick Nix—and Mitch McGary will be in for three games’ worth of bruises on this February night.

    The Spartans’ always-tough rebounding will put a premium on shot selection for Michigan because second chances will be hard to come by.

    The Wolverines have the edge in scoring punch here, so an efficient shooting night should turn into a Michigan win, but against this imposing defense, that’s far from a given.

9. Vs. West Virginia (Dec. 15 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)

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    West Virginia and Michigan have never met on the basketball court, so what better place to start than...Brooklyn?

    The brand-new Barclays Center—hosting the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival—will have plenty of offensive firepower on display as the Wolverines face a rebuilt WVU roster.

    The matchup to watch in this game will be in the pivot, where freshman Mitch McGary will get all he can handle from 6’10” LaSalle transfer Aaric Murray (15.2 points, 7.7 boards and 2.3 blocks per game as a sophomore).

    Murray has a fine point guard to set him up in sophomore Juwan Staten (formerly of Dayton) and his 5.4 assists a night, but the Mountaineers don’t have the perimeter defenders to keep Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. from earning the victory in a shootout.

8. At Ohio State (Jan. 13)

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    With its jump shot-heavy offense, Michigan is at its most vulnerable against a top-flight defense on the road.

    The first serious challenge of the conference schedule will see the Wolverines visit Ohio State, whose outstanding D is led by world-beating point guard Aaron Craft.

    The best perimeter defender in the college game, Craft forced Trey Burke into 16 turnovers over three meetings last season. Add in shot-blocker Amir Williams down low, and the visit to Columbus will be one of the toughest tests Michigan faces all season.

7. At Minnesota (Jan. 17)

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    Michigan’s only meeting with the Golden Gophers comes at the start of a soft stretch in the Big Ten schedule, but the Wolverines will regret looking past Minnesota on its home floor.

    Gopher forwards Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams Jr. both have more raw athleticism than anybody on the Michigan roster, and both know how to turn their skills into points on the scoreboard.

    Mbakwe is particularly devastating as a rebounder—he led the Big Ten in that category two seasons ago—and he’ll make sure the Wolverine offense doesn’t get many second-chance points.

    Michigan’s superior guard play should be enough to control the game against Julian Welch and a lackluster backcourt, but if either Trey Burke or Tim Hardaway Jr. falters, Minnesota is a real threat to spring the upset here.

6. At Indiana (Feb. 2)

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    In a brutal Big Ten schedule that sees Michigan play home-and-home with its three best league foes, there won’t be a more daunting opponent than top-ranked Indiana in Bloomington.

    The Hoosiers have the nation’s best player in seven-foot center Cody Zeller, plus a wealth of talent and experience around him.

    The IU frontcourt of Zeller and Christian Watford is the most skilled pair the Wolverines will face, putting the onus on Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan to play their best defense of the year.

    If either of those two gets in foul trouble, Michigan is sunk, but if they can stay on the floor, a big game from any of the Wolverine wings might be enough to pull out the win.

5. At Wisconsin (Feb. 9)

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    For a team built to win behind an arsenal of great scorers, there’s no less welcome a place to visit than Madison, Wis.

    Bo Ryan’s Badgers led the nation in scoring defense a season ago, and the team’s four returning starters have a great chance to repeat the performance in 2012-13.

    Wisconsin also has daunting size, led by 6’10” shot-blocker Jared Berggren, so Mitch McGary will really have to work to establish any kind of an inside game here.

    Michigan has to keep the game close and hope that its superior shooters will come through in the clutch to eke out a one- or two-point victory.

4. Vs. Michigan State (Mar. 2)

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    Fans in Ann Arbor are in for a treat here, as the rivalry with Michigan State brings one of the most entertaining backcourt matchups of the season.

    Keith Appling and freshman Gary Harris should provide some terrific one-on-one battles with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.

    The Wolverines’ ace in the hole here is likely to be Glenn Robinson III. The Spartans don’t have a scorer at the small forward spot to match Robinson’s abilities, and a big game from the freshman should ensure that the Wolverines hold serve at home.

3. Vs. Ohio State (Feb. 5)

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    On their home floor, the Wolverines should be able to put points on the board even against Ohio State, but stopping the Buckeyes from scoring is no easy task.

    OSU forward Deshaun Thomas will be one of the most daunting matchup problems Michigan faces all season.

    Thomas is too quick for Jordan Morgan and too physical for Glenn Robinson III, so whichever defender draws the assignment, he’ll need help.

    If either of the Buckeyes’ low-scoring guards—Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr.—steps up to help Thomas, Michigan will be in for a fierce fight.

2. Vs. N.C. State (Nov. 27)

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    The ACC-Big Ten Challenge regularly boasts some of the most intriguing matchups of the non-conference season, and this year’s edition is no exception.

    When the No. 5 Wolverines host the No. 6 Wolfpack, a No. 1 seed in March could be up for grabs.

    North Carolina State returns every starter from a Sweet 16 squad, then adds two elite freshmen on top of that group.

    Michigan has an opportunity to earn a statement win against the potential ACC champs, but only if Mitch McGary can light up the blue-collar Wolfpack frontcourt and get plenty of help from Glenn Robinson III (who will square off against preseason ACC Player of the Year C.J. Leslie).

1. Vs. Indiana (Mar. 10)

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    The last game of the regular season is also the most important for Michigan, which will likely have a chance to secure the conference title if it can take down mighty Indiana.

    Both teams are absolutely loaded with offensive weapons—including Indiana sniper Jordan Hulls and his .493 shooting from beyond the arc—so don’t be surprised to see this game turn into a shooting contest.

    The Wolverines’ best asset here will likely be Trey Burke, matching up with Hoosier freshman Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell at the point.

    Like Burke himself, Ferrell isn’t as strong a defender as he is on offense, and if Burke can light up the frosh with a monster scoring performance, he could give the Wolverines their biggest win of the year.