For the second time in two weeks, Michigan basketball is taking on a recent national champion. No. 7 Michigan welcomes No. 11 North Carolina to Crisler Center Wednesday in a rematch of the 1993 NCAA Tournament Championship Game (Don’t google ‘Chris Webber timeout.’) The Tar Heels are making their first-ever trip to Ann Arbor and will play in front of a sold-out Crisler Center in a Maize Out game.
“It probably will be another fifty years before it happens again,” said John Beilein when I asked him about UNC’s trip to the Crisler Center. Wednesday’s game finishes a home and home Big Ten/ACC Challenge series between the Tar Heels and Wolverines.
One year ago Wednesday, Michigan and UNC faced off in Chapel Hill in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Tar Heels, coming off a PK80 Championship 63-45 loss to eventual Big Ten champ Michigan State, ran out to a 51-37 lead in the first half and held off Michigan 86-71. Luke Maye (27) and Joel Berry (17) combined for over half of UNC’s scoring output, helping the Heels finish the first half on a 17-5 run that effectively put the game away.
“I remember pregame shooting, there was a vibe, we were all excited, ready for the game,” said Isaiah Livers, who made the trip to Chapel Hill as a freshman last year. “It was close to halftime when they just jumped away by like 15, it was bad momentum going into halftime, and we could not get any momentum going in the second half.”
For Michigan, an 8-8 shooting start at the Smith Center was unsustainable. The Wolverines shot a mere 35 percent from the floor including a woeful 6 for 30 from three-point land. Moe Wagner led the Wolverines with 20 points, but Charles Matthews was the only other Michigan player to reach double-digit scoring.
Simpson vs. White – Contrasting Styles
Longtime Carolina coach Roy Williams has handed the keys to his offense over to heralded freshman point guard Coby White. In UNC’s 92-89 loss to Texas in Las Vegas last week, White shot 7/10 from 3PT en route to a game-high 33 points (the highest scoring output of any UNC player this season.) The 6’5 Goldsboro, NC (only 81 miles from Chapel Hill) native is averaging 22.7 points in his last three games. White will face a difficult challenge in Zavier Simpson, whose defense has been lockdown for much of this year. White will be no doubt the most talented point guard Simpson has faced this season, but as Simpson’s film shows, he can put the clamps on anyone.
Ignas Brazdeikis vs Nasir Little in a Battle of Breakout Freshman
Both the Wolverines and Tar Heels bring difference-making freshman forwards into this titanic clash. Ignas Brazdeikis is averaging 15.7 points per game this year and has started all six games for Michigan (He has scored in double figures in five games, the most of any Wolverine this year.) The Wolverines standout freshman has gone for 20 points in back to back games and dropped 18 vs. Villanova two weeks ago. Brazdeikis stated he is eager for Wednesday night’s monster matchup.
“To get this opportunity and play in front of our home crowd, playing a team at a high level like this is just exciting. I’m just fully prepared, mentally prepared; I feel like our team is prepared. We’re just gonna do what we do.” commented Brazdeikis on the Wolverines readiness for Wednesday.
The Tar Heels have the luxury of having a McDonald’s All-American leading the second unit in Nasir Little. Little is averaging 14.7 points per game over his last 3 in just 19 minutes on the floor. His play has been as efficient as Brazdeikis’ has in a similar timespan. Roy Williams has elected to bring Little along slowly by having him lead the second unit, which means that Little could be matched up against either Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews, or Michigan’s 6th man, Isaiah Livers. Regardless, UNC’s offense will receive a shot in the arm when Little takes the floor, and rendering him ineffective will be important.
Three Keys, Three T’s: Tempo, Turnovers, Triples
(Note: I apologize for that headline, I am a sucker for alliteration.)
North Carolina’s offense is one of the fastest paced in the nation so far this season. The Tar Heels score at a rate of 122.2 points per 100 possessions, good for 10th overall. Through six games, the most points Michigan has allowed in a game has been 61 (that’s one less than the football team allowed to Ohio State Saturday!) The Wolverines have held opponents to just 73.4 points per 100 possessions, which ranks second. John Beilein will tell his players to try and slow down UNC to their pace. Of the six games UNC has played, Wofford was the most defensively efficient team the Heels played (The Terriers defense is currently ranked 22nd), and UNC won 78-67 on the road. That was the first game of the season, so it is difficult to ascertain too much from that result but could provide a blueprint for Michigan on film.
“It is tough because you are not gonna score every time down the court and then when you don’t score, if you’re thinking about the time you didn’t score, they are gonna score a bucket on you again, and again.” said Beilein about trying to slow down the Tar Heels tempo while keeping his team in a rhythm.”
Turnovers will be vital, in the loss to Texas, UNC turned the ball over 17 times, and the Longhorns capitalized with 31 points off those turnovers. If Michigan can disrupt UNC and create points off those chances, its shot at victory will increase significantly. Three-pointers will also be important, the Wolverines are shooting 32.6% from downtown this year, even in Michigan’s blowout win over Villanova, the Wolverines were 5 for 17 from three. North Carolina shoots an improved 37% from 3. It will take Michigan putting hands in the faces of Tar Heel shooters and contesting as many shots as possible to keep North Carolina from jumping in front early.
The Difference: Michigan’s Defense
What may genuinely work in Michigan’s favor is that this John Beilein team is like none that came before it at Michigan. UNC coach Roy Williams admitted as much during his press conference Tuesday. “It’s a little bit of a different team for him,” he told the assembled media in Chapel Hill. “I mean they have always been known as a great skilled offensive team but you look at the numbers, teams are shooting 32.9% against them, teams are shooting 27.8% against them. His teams have shot 80 free throws and opponents have only shot 65. It is a completely different team for him.” That difference may be enough for Michigan to earn a signature win at home, and like Villanova two weeks ago, get one back against a team that bested the Wolverines last year.
“I do like this as we have embraced change all the time to just say ok, this is who we are,” answered Beilein when asked about his team’s new identity as a defensive-first squad. “We are not gonna win just running and gunning with people. We have to stop people, and then we can get up the floor. So I think it is part of that puzzle we love to try and put together.”
The pieces are there, but Michigan has one heck of a puzzle to try and solve Wednesday night at home as the Wolverines, and Tar Heels square off.