‘Fun’ stretch could uncover plenty about Michigan basketball
Ann Arbor — The first two weeks of the season have left Michigan coach John Beilein still searching for clarity for some unanswered questions about his team.
Ready or not, that process will pick up steam and much more will be revealed over a telling five-game stretch where the competition level will be ratcheted up, starting Wednesday night against No. 13 North Carolina in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The trip to the defending national champion marks Michigan’s first true road test of the season – and first against a ranked opponent. It also signals the start of a rough road that'll be followed by an early December span unlike any Beilein has experienced during his tenure, with Big Ten games against Indiana and Ohio State, a home contest against UCLA and road tilt at Texas.
“It's obviously a big challenge,” junior center Moritz Wagner said Tuesday. “The Big Ten, that doesn't make it easier to have two conference games that really matter toward the end of the year because it seems so far away, and those games are really important.
“But it's awesome, it's fun. We haven't had that the last two years, so this stretch controls a lot about what the team is all about and I'm very excited about.”
And that excitement starts with a shot to pick up a signature nonconference win and make a statement on national television against the Tar Heels (5-1), a team that is trying to replace as many key players as the Wolverines (6-1).
North Carolina has lost four of its top five scorers from last year’s title team and utilizes three freshmen in its rotation: forward Garrison Brooks in the starting lineup and guard Jalek Felton and forward Sterling Manley off the bench.
But the Tar Heels still return senior guard Joel Berry II, a preseason All-American, and junior forward Luke Maye, last season’s NCAA Tournament hero who has got off to a hot start, and boast a dominant home-court advantage. North Carolina has won 20 straight at the Dean Smith Center and has lost just once at home since the 2015-16 season.
“We're excited for this opportunity,” senior forward Duncan Robinson said. “The ACC/Big Ten Challenge is a fun event, so it's cool to be a part of it and represent not only Michigan but also the Big Ten.
“The Dean Dome is a crazy spot, it's huge. A lot of historic college basketball memories have taken place there. Hopefully, we can go in there and make the most of it.”
Michigan will be traveling to face a North Carolina team that’s coming off a historically bad offensive performance against Michigan State in a PK80 Invitational tournament final. The Tar Heels shot a program low 24.6 percent from the field (15-for-61) and 5.6 percent from 3-point range (1-for-18) in the loss.
According to Beilein, the lackluster outing had more to do with Michigan State’s “elite defensive performance” and lack of open shots due to the Spartans’ length and quickness.
But after watching North Carolina’s other tournament games in the PK80 Invitational, Beilein said he’s wary of the Tar Heels’ ability to switch up their defense and take a team out of rhythm while the offense is efficient and has great flow.
“We got to do what we do well and try to keep them – they just will run you right out of the gym if you don't play great transition defense and take good shots at the other end,” Beilein said. “It's a great program in a lot of transition, too, even more than we're in with so many new players. But they really have been good. Michigan State had a great defensive game plan…That was a great win for our league and we'd like to get another one.”
And as far a repeat poor performance from North Carolina’s offense, Beilein isn’t banking on it.
“They're going to bounce back,” Beilein said. “They had a long journey back. (North Carolina coach) Roy (Williams) will have a good practice and they'll be ready for us.
“Once again, you're going to Chapel Hill, you're playing in the Smith Center. It will be packed since Michigan is coming to town and they'll be ready to go.”
Michigan at No. 13 North Carolina
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill, N.C.
TV/radio: ESPN/WWJ 950
Records: Michigan 6-1, North Carolina 5-1
Outlook: Michigan is 7-9 all-time in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, including 2-5 on the road. This is the first matchup between the teams in the Challenge and first meeting since the 1993 national championship game that North Carolina won, 77-71…Junior F Luke Maye leads the Tar Heels in scoring per game (19 points) and rebounds (10).