The Michigan Wolverines have more than enough talent to merit their No. 5 preseason ranking, but they’re still in for a ferocious battle in the Big Ten conference. Rivals Michigan State and Ohio State both have serious Final Four aspirations of their own, and Indiana is the top-ranked team in the nation.
Any one of those four teams has a serious chance to take home the conference crown, which will likely come with an inside track on a No. 1 seed in March. With that situation in mind, their head-to-head meetings will be played for even higher stakes than the usual black-and-blue Big Ten clashes.
Read on for a breakdown of the Wolverines’ matchups with each of the Spartans, Buckeyes and Hoosiers as they jockey for the top spot in the conference.
Few teams play defense as a unit as effectively as the Spartans, who placed second in the country last season by holding opponents to 37.9 percent shooting.
They don’t force a ton of turnovers or block a ton of shots, but Michigan State is never an easy group to score on.
All that said, one of the great strengths of John Beilein’s offense is its ability to create one-on-one scoring opportunities for such terrific shooters as Trey Burke and freshman Glenn Robinson III.
If any of the Wolverine jump shooters gets in a rhythm, State’s lack of individual stoppers will be the Spartans’ undoing.
The Spartans aren’t as imposing an offense without Draymond Green, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be pushovers, either.
Keith Appling will at least be able to fight Trey Burke to a draw—more likely to a big game for Appling—and freshman Gary Harris is a devastating all-around scorer.
The pressure will be on Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan to make smart decisions on when to help the guards vs. when to stay home and keep the Spartan big men off the offensive glass.
McGary has the quickness and mobility to straddle that line effectively, but Morgan (and the Wolverines’ unimpressive reserve big men) probably don’t.
Advantage: Michigan State
Each of these teams has some advantages over the other, but the margins everywhere are razor-thin. In all probability, home court will be enough to decide the winner in both regular-season meetings.
If they do face each other again on a neutral postseason floor, though, it’s tough to bet against the Spartans’ defensive strengths. State is also the deeper team, so a defensive contest with plenty of fouls works very much to their benefit.
Advantage: Michigan State (barely)
The biggest concern for the Wolverines in this matchup is whether Trey Burke can survive his showdown with college basketball’s best defender, Aaron Craft.
The Buckeye point guard forced Burke into 5.3 turnovers per game a season ago, and he won’t be any easier to beat in 2012-13.
On top of the point guard battle, Michigan also has to contend with the prospect of the Buckeyes going with a big lineup—Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Deshaun Thomas, Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams—that has even more size than the Wolverines themselves do.
Williams is likely to be the Big Ten’s best shot-blocker, making the paint just as unfriendly as the perimeter in this contest.
Advantage: Ohio State
There isn’t a team in the Top 25 that’s depending as heavily on a single scorer as Ohio State is on Deshaun Thomas.
The 6’7” combo forward is going to be a daunting matchup for the Wolverines—he’s too strong for freshman Glenn Robinson III and too quick for Jordan Morgan—but he can’t beat an offense as good as Michigan’s by himself.
The most obvious scoring prospect aside from Thomas is Lenzelle Smith Jr., who not only hasn’t lived up to his considerable potential as a Buckeye but will be matched up with Michigan’s toughest defender in Tim Hardaway Jr.
Unless Ohio State finds a lot more scoring than it appears to have entering the season, even Thomas’ point production won’t be enough to save them.
At first glance, Ohio State would appear to have the edge in what’s likely to be a defensive contest. After all, the Buckeyes will be leaning on their defense all year, while Michigan is built to outshoot foes more than to slow them down.
However, these are also likely to be close games, and in that context, having four top-drawer scoring options for a clutch late-game possession is a lot better than having just one.
That’s not to say Deshaun Thomas might not pull the game out for the Buckeyes—especially in Columbus—but the odds are with the balanced Wolverines.
As much talent as the Hoosiers have, they actually aren’t particularly well-stocked when it comes to individual defenders.
Even Cody Zeller—all 7’0”, 240 lbs of him—only blocked 1.2 shots per game last year, meaning that Mitch McGary will be facing a difficult battle, but not an unwinnable one.
The key factor for the Wolverines will likely be Tim Hardaway Jr., who (assuming he’s guarded by Indiana sharpshooter Jordan Hulls) will be working with a six-inch height advantage.
If IU lets Michigan isolate Hardaway, he’ll be scoring pretty much at will, and if the Hoosiers double-team, that creates shooting opportunities elsewhere—just the situation John Beilein wants to see.
The Wolverines have plenty of high-level athletes, but an elite defensive team they aren’t. That’s bad news against a Hoosier squad that will daunt even the best defenses in the country this season.
Any one of Indiana’s five starters, and several reserves, has the jump-shooting ability to punish a defense that overplays Cody Zeller or freshman PG Yogi Ferrell.
Michigan’s size will help to some degree, but it won’t be enough to handle the depth and skill of the Hoosier offense.
The two meetings between these teams have every likelihood of being among the highest-scoring Big Ten contests of the season.
Against almost anybody else, a shootout would favor the Wolverines, but Indiana is the only team in the country equipped to beat them at their own game.
In addition to having even more jump-shooting options than Michigan (thanks largely to the strength of the IU bench), the Hoosiers are better equipped to pound the ball into the post and get easier looks near the rim.
Mitch McGary is good, but he certainly can’t put up enough points inside to match both Cody Zeller and Christian Watford, and low-scoring Jordan Morgan won’t be in much position to help in that battle.