Michigan Basketball: What We'll Learn About U-M at 2013 Puerto Rico Tip-off

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Michigan Basketball: What We'll Learn About U-M at 2013 Puerto Rico Tip-off
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Spike Albrecht will have his chance to become the team's starting point guard in San Juan.

The University of Michigan basketball program has participated in a regular-season tournament in each of the past six seasons.

A trip in November to the 2013 Puerto Rico Tip-Off will extend that streak for another year.

The event will get underway on Nov. 21, and the tourney bracket features plenty of familiar foes.

Of the seven other teams in the tourney, the Wolverines have faced five of them since 2007. Michigan boasts a combined 3-2 record against Florida State, Georgetown, Northeastern, Kansas State and Virginia Commonwealth over that span. 

Most recently, the Wolverines topped Kansas State, 71-57, in last year's Preseason NIT semifinals and blew out VCU, 78-53, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Charlotte and Long Beach State, which will face Michigan in the opening round, fill out the field.

As of now, only one game is on the schedule prior to the tournament. Seeing as that contest is against Division I newcomer UMass Lowell, the real early learning curve for the Wolverines will come during their trip to Puerto Rico.

Three things in particular should become very clear by the time the trio of games concludes.

 

Will Michigan Continue to Struggle Against Defensive-Minded Teams?

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Will Michigan be better in the half court this season?

There weren't many teams in college basketball last season that could keep the Wolverines from getting out and scoring in transition.

When Michigan had to operate strictly out of the half court, though, it struggled mightily. Losses to Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin (twice) were evidence of that.

The strength of Michigan's 2013-14 roster will be athleticism, so transition offense is going to be a primary source of scoring once again. VCU, Florida State and Georgetown all have the ability to take that away.

Thankfully for the Wolverines, the Rams and Seminoles face each other in the first round. It also guarantees that Michigan will have to play outside of its comfort zone in the semifinals.

Michigan should have no problem dispatching of Long Beach State on the opening day of the event. The 49ers have lost three of their top four scorers from last season, including Big West Conference Player of the Year James Ennis. Even a mediocre effort from the Wolverines should be enough to stay in the winners portion of the bracket.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Shaka Smart's HAVOC defense will be a tough test for Derrick Walton.

Shaka Smart's HAVOC defense for VCU has the potential to rattle true freshman point guard Derrick Walton. Spike Albrecht handled the pressure for 15 minutes in Michigan's rout of the Rams, but it could be a different story if he has to play extended time.

Meanwhile, Georgetown and Florida State take teams out of rhythm by slowly lulling their opponents to sleep at the offensive end of the floor. Both work deep into the shot clock and do not concede a whole lot of transition opportunities.

Half of ESPN.com's panel of college basketball experts has Georgetown advancing to the championship game. There is also a chance the Wolverines could face the Hoyas in the consolation final if things do not go well against the VCU-Florida State winner.

One way or another, college basketball fans are going to find out whether or not Michigan can play a half-court game. If the Wolverines struggle, losses to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State could be on the horizon come Big Ten Conference play.

 

Backcourt Clarity

Uncertainty is circling over Michigan's backcourt entering the 2013-14 campaign.

One tune-up game before Puerto Rico is unlikely to clear up the position battles at the 1 and 2. Three neutral-floor contests in San Juan will be a lot more telling, especially when it comes to determining a starting point guard.

Two years ago, Trey Burke cemented himself as a future star for the Wolverines with an impressive three-game stint in the Maui Invitational.

Walton's coming-out party could very well wind up being the 2013 Puerto Rico Tip-Off. If Walton falters, Albrecht will be waiting in the wings. Either way, the Maize and Blue faithful should get a good grasp on who the No. 1 point guard is going to be.

Turning over guards is what VCU does best. The Rams forced 709 turnovers last season, more than any other program except Louisville. 

It is safe to say that Walton and Albrecht will both be put to the test in a potential semifinal matchup. 

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Caris LeVert could be more than just a role player this season.

Same goes for shooting guards Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin. Stauskas started 33 games in 2012-13, but his defensive efforts left plenty to be desired. 

Three-point shooting kept the 6'6", 205-pounder in the starting five. The Canadian shot 44.9 percent from beyond the arc and averaged 11.0 points per game. It may be a different story this year with talented reserves behind him.

LeVert came on late last season as a defensive specialist. Offseason improvements at the offensive end would give the rising sophomore a legitimate chance to crack the starting lineup.

However, the player to watch in San Jaun will be Irvin, a 5-star recruit. Not only is the Fishers, Ind., product an excellent defender, he has a deadly mid-range jumper. Look for Irvin to be one of the first players off of Michigan's bench for much of the tournament.

Once the event concludes, everyone will know who the Wolverines' starting backcourt will be going forward.

 

Can Michigan Succeed with Two Big Men in the Starting Five?

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Will Mitch McGary make the tough adjustment to power forward?

Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary will both be playing new positions this season. Robinson is moving to his natural position (small forward), while McGary will be at power forward. This gives Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford a chance to compete to be the starting center.

If the two-big man lineup does not impress, head coach John Beilein could opt to go in a different direction by the end of November. Robinson and McGary could both shift back to the 4 and 5, respectively. Stauskas and LeVert or Irvin would fill out the 2 and 3.

The success or failure of the bigger group of starters will come down to how well McGary defends at his new position. Quicker forwards and stretch 4s will be tough assignments for the Brewster Academy alum.

Opposing bigs will have an even more daunting task in trying to slow down McGary this season. One NBA Western Conference scout has seen McGary make improvements during the offseason, including the addition of an outside shot.

"He is showcasing that he can do stuff other than playing with his back to the basket," the unnamed scout told Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated. "You can tell he has been working on his outside shooting. That's a skill we like to see in big guys."

How long Beilein sticks with two big men for opening tips will have a lot to do with the results of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. 

 

Follow me on Twitter: @Zach_Dirlam.   

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