After three wins by 30 points or more to open the 2012-13 season, the Michigan Wolverines have silenced some of the critics who doubted their No. 5 ranking in the preseason polls, and John Beilein's team will have a chance to shoo more of the non-believers away by beating the Pittsburgh Panthers in the Preseason NIT Tip-Off Semifinals on Wednesday night.
The Wolverines have shot better than 50 percent from the floor in their opening three games and are ranked No. 34 in the country in rebounding thanks to the improvement of junior power forward Jordan Morgan, along with the addition of highly touted true freshman Mitch McGary.
Sophomore point guard Trey Burke and junior shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. have been stellar for the Wolverines thus far and lead the team in scoring.
Michigan defeated the IUPUI Jaguars 91-54 in the first round of the Preseason NIT and followed that up by holding the Cleveland State Vikings to a mere 14 points in the first half of a 77-47 rout in the North Region final, which the Wolverines hosted at the Crisler Center.
Meanwhile, Pitt is off to a 4-0 start and opened the year with an 80-48 blowout of the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers in their regular-season opener, before blowing out the Fordham Rams 86-51 and Lehigh Mountain Hawks 78-53 in the East Region of the tournament.
The Panthers hosted the Oakland Golden Grizzlies and struggled to a 72-62 win in overtime after shooting just 30.8 percent in the first half.
Pitt trailed Oakland by as many as 18 points before going on a 13-3 run in the second half, and the Panthers forced eight turnovers in the final three minutes of the game.
Junior power forward Talib Zanna has given the Panthers a strong inside scoring presence, while Dante Taylor and true freshman 7-footer Steven Adams have provided Pitt with plenty of rebounds.
All that being said, let's take a look at how the Wolverines and Panthers match up in this upcoming tournament game at Madison Square Garden.
The Wolverines have come a long way in the rebounding department in a short amount of time—Michigan finished No. 311 in the nation in rebounds per game last year—but Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary aren't lighting up the scoreboard like Talib Zanna has been for the Panthers.
Zanna scored 20 points in Pitt's wins over Lehigh and Mount St. Mary's, while Morgan has only reached double figures once for the Wolverines.
Steven Adams and Mitch McGary also match up well against each other. Both players are still rounding into form on the offensive end of the floor but have been strong rebounding and shot blocking presences down low.
McGary is averaging 7.7 rebounds per game for the Wolverines, and Adams has pulled down 5.5 rebounds per game and has nine blocks through four games for Pitt.
True freshman small forward Glenn Robinson III has been as good as advertised for the Wolverines.
Despite shooting the ball poorly against Cleveland State, the former No. 18 overall prospect still managed to drive to the basket at will, scoring nine points and pulling down seven rebounds.
Robinson scored a combined 31 points on 13-of-16 shooting in Michigan's first two victories, so the Indiana native has already proven he can be a lights-out shooter on any given night.
On the flip side of this matchup, junior Lamar Patterson has struggled early on this season for the Panthers and has shot less than 20 percent through four games.
Reserve small forward J.J. Moore has stepped up to fill the void left by Patterson's poor shooting. Moore has scored at least eight points in each of Pitt's games this season and recorded a double-double against Oakland with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
I'll give the edge to Michigan on this one, because Robinson is probably the best player out of this group and the combination of McGary and Morgan should be able to slow down Zanna.
Michigan's backcourt is one of the best in the country and is headlined by Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., who are both averaging 18.3 and 17.3 points per game respectively for the Wolverines.
Both of Michigan's stars do much more than just score, though. Burke has dished out eight assists per game, while Hardaway has pulled down close to eight rebounds per contest.
Senior sharpshooter Matt Vogrich is struggling from behind the arc right now, but true freshman Nik Stauskas has put up 11 points per game and has knocked down 70 percent of his three-point shots off of the bench for the Wolverines thus far.
Pitt also has a talented guard duo that features senior point guard Tray Woodall and true freshman James Robinson.
Woodall is coming off of a disastrous 2-of-14 performance against Oakland but had averaged 16.3 points per game in Pitt's first three victories.
Robinson is an outstanding defensive player, who will be tasked with attempting to slow down Burke and Hardaway for much of the contest, and averages seven points a game for the Panthers.
The Panthers will also call on shooting guard Trey Zeigler to provide an offensive spark off of the bench along with J.J. Moore.
John Beilein and Jamie Dixon go back almost a decade from the time they spent coaching against each other in the Big East Conference.
Although Dixon boasts a 5-3 record against Beilein, the amount of talent Beilein has to work with this year at Michigan is nothing compared to what he consistently put out on the floor as head coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Dixon has managed to post a 244-77 record in 10 seasons at the helm of the Pitt program, while Beilein has been successful at each of his coaching stops over the years and has posted three 20-win seasons in his first five years in Ann Arbor.
Both coaches will have their teams ready to play a great game at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
This will be the first legitimate test of the season for the Michigan Wolverines, and I expect them to get all they can handle from the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Who wins this Preseason NIT Tip-Off semifinal?
While I believe Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III will be too much for Pitt to handle, the Panthers will give Michigan some problems on the interior with Talib Zanna's scoring abilities and Steven Adams' rebounding.
This will give Michigan fans a better indication as to exactly how much the Wolverines have improved in the rebounding department and will be close until the final five minutes of the game.
Final Score: Michigan 85, Pittsburgh 72
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