No. 6 Michigan (22-3, 11-3) is 12-0 after a loss dating back to February of 2017. The Wolverines have not lost back-to-back games in over two years when they dropped games to Michigan State and Ohio State in the same week. After a disappointing loss to last-place Penn State, Michigan will attempt to rebound Saturday against a very dangerous No. 24 Maryland (19-6, 10-4) in a Big Ten battle at high noon inside Crisler Center.
“They are extremely young, but their bodies aren’t young, and their play is not young,” John Beilein said on Friday as he analyzed the Terps. “It reminds me a little bit of the class we had back in 2012-13, really just three or four freshmen, it’s in their DNA, their bodies are ready, their minds are ready.
The three freshmen Beilein spoke of are guard Eric Ayala, guard Aaron Wiggins and forward Jalen Smith. Ayala and Smith are regular starters, and Wiggins provides a spark off the bench for coach Mark Turgeon’s team. The Terps lost star guard Kevin Huerter and forward Justin Jackson to the draft but have improved behind the play of their two starting freshmen in addition to star players Anthony Cowan and Bruno Fernando. Smith and Fernando will present a big challenge for Michigan, as Fernando has recorded double-doubles in his last seven games while shooting 67% from the field this year. Standing at 6’10 with a 7-foot wingspan, the sophomore from Angola can wreak havoc in the post both offensively and defensively. Smith was a McDonald’s All-American as a high school senior in 2018 and also provides an imposing post presence. Smith is also prone to shooting the occasional three, as he averages two attempts per game, but has only connected on 27% of his shots from downtown.
“The league is just loaded with really good big men this year, whether it is (Ethan) Happ, then (Lamar) Stevens, now these two guys,” Beilein replied when asked about defending Maryland’s twin towers. “It is difficult and everybody is a little bit different between Jon and Isaiah, Iggy and Brandon, and anybody else we can put in there. These two guys (Fernando and Smith) are not only really skilled offensively, they are good passers. You think you got a stop, but they’re getting five offensive rebounds a game between the two of them. It’s not something we haven’t seen but this team has a chance to win the Big Ten Championship.”
Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis and junior Jon Teske will have their hands full Saturday with the abilities that Fernando and Smith bring to the court. “Their frontcourt is gonna be really tough but I am excited for this challenge. We are all excited for this challenge coming off that loss,” Brazdeikis said before practice on Friday. “I’m looking forward to it, it’s gonna be a big challenge,” said Teske of facing Fernando and Smith. “For Iggy, I, Brandon, whoever else goes in there, they are two great post players so we gotta be ready for it. Every team has great post players so we’re playing someone good every night and it’s gonna be nothing different on Saturday.” Teske did admit that Michigan’s failure to contain Penn State forward Lamar Stevens on Tuesday (26 points, 12 rebounds) did give them some things to work on in preparing for Maryland.
Much of the discussion for Brazdeikis and Teske revolved less around Maryland and more about how Michigan can use the loss to Penn State as a rallying point, as February losses to Northwestern (2018) and Ohio State (2017) served to springboard those teams to success in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. “You learn more from losing. (UFC fighter) Conor McGregor always said ‘you either win or you learn, you never lose.’ So I take that as well, that kind of mentality,” Brazdeikis said regarding the Penn State loss. “We just understand what we have to do to win,” said Teske. “Even like the Nebraska loss last year too, we just learned from that watching film and grow. We come to practice ready to play hard and go out there and play.”
An added emotional boost for Michigan will come from three former players returning with the NBA All-Star Break taking place this weekend. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson and Moe Wagner, who were part of teams that raised three banners in the last two years, are all back in Ann Arbor for the game and Beilein is ecstatic to have his former charges back for some quality time at Crisler.
“It’s a good thing when you got guys who were just with us for so much of it back,” said Beilein. “They were at practice yesterday, they got a workout in today, and they’re in Camp Sanderson last I saw, so that means they are excited about their pro careers and taking these off days to get better.”
“We were with them yesterday, we got some dinner. We were messing around and it’s like we haven’t lost a beat,” said Teske of having the trio of former teammates back. “It’s special that they are able to come back and willing to come back too.”
Perhaps having the three former Wolverines in town will provide a spark for Michigan’s beleaguered offense, which has struggled to put together a complete effort since the calendar turned to February.
“We had a couple times in that game where our lack of offense did affect our defense. We came down and all of a sudden it was like la la land,” Beilein analyzed. “That’s disappointing for us at this point of the year but it is understandable, if you’re not being successful on offense, it will carry over.”
As Beilein switched his focus from Penn State to Maryland and looking further down the schedule, which features two meetings with the Terps and two with arch rival Michigan State in the final six games of the regular season, he knows that Michigan’s coaches have a difficult puzzle in front of them.
“Certain players on our team have certain skill sets, and then they are average at other skills. Trying to put the puzzle together in thirty seconds to somehow contrast that so we can get the most out of this team is an interesting dilemma. We gotta work to improve how not to get exposed in the areas we are still working on.”
Michigan will want to get things clicking on Saturday and quickly against a Maryland defense that held Purdue to 17% shooting in the second half on Tuesday while outscoring the Boilermakers 40-18 in the final twenty minutes. Michigan’s hopes at remaining in the chase for the Big Ten Championship may hinge on getting its sputtering offense moving against Maryland.
No. 6 Michigan and No. 24 Maryland face off at Noon on Saturday in front of a sell out crowd at Crisler Center. The game will be broadcast by FOX with Tim Brando and Jimmy Jackson on the call. Follow @ByJaySarkar and @WolverineLounge on Twitter for updates from in-game, post game and more.