Michigan braces for North Carolina 'freight train'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan's Isaiah Livers

Ann Arbor — Michigan’s John Beilein and North Carolina’s Roy Williams have been personal friends throughout their illustrious careers.

While the coaching stops have changed from time to time, one thing certainly hasn’t: Williams’ teams like to push the pace and then push it some more.

“When I think about Coach Williams' teams at Kansas, it's like when they're running they are running downhill. It's like a freight train coming at you,” Beilein said Tuesday. “Their bigs run to the rim with one following. Guys really running lanes, always got a deep outlet and a terrific point guard. To do that, we have to make sure we get back and can set our defense as much as we can. The Carolina break, the Kansas break, whatever you want to call it, it moves so fast.

“It is tough to control the pace of this team. They're going to force their pace and we're going to have to adapt at times.”

Michigan found that out the hard way last season when it tangled with North Carolina in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The two teams got off to a roaring start, but the Wolverines eventually couldn’t keep up as the Tar Heels ran away with an 86-71 victory in Chapel Hill.

This time around in the annual conference series, Michigan knows what to expect and won’t be paralyzed by North Carolina’s quickness and length.

More:UM's Beilein on Big Ten: 'It's going to be a monster'

“It opened our eyes. It was my freshman year, so it was like this is real college basketball,” sophomore forward Isaiah Livers said of last season's meeting. “You go there, you get popped and we came back and we learned so much. We were taking bad shots, people weren't closing out the right way, we weren't moving our feet, they had too many offensive rebounds. A lot of that little stuff that we learned from it I feel like definitely carried over to this season.”

The challenge for Michigan, though, will be walking the fine line between getting out in transition after stops and not getting swept up in an up-and-down, quick scoring shootout.

The Wolverines fell into that trap last year. In the final five minutes of first half and the first five minutes of second half, they fell behind and resorted to taking rushed, tough shots to climb out of a hole that only continued to get deeper.

With that in mind, Livers said this year’s team understands how vital it is to stick with its principles — and how quickly everything can implode when it doesn’t.

“North Carolina definitely tries to get teams to fall in (to playing at their tempo) and that's where turnovers come and bad shots equal turnovers in Coach B and our eyes,” Livers said. “It's going to be a track meet sometimes because we have to get up and down. There’s just got to be a point where the smarter team has to slow down and realize, ‘OK, let's get a good shot so we can get back on defense and stop them and come back and score.’ It's a game of who is smarter.”

It’s also a clash of different styles. North Carolina ranks No. 4 in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency (118.6 points scored per 100 possessions), No. 11 in adjusted tempo (75 possessions per 40 minutes) and has scored at least 89 points in its last six games.

Michigan ranks No. 1 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency (87 points allowed per 100 possessions), No. 327 in adjusted tempo (66.7 possessions per 40 minutes) and hasn’t scored more than 84 points in a game this season.

For Williams, the numbers are a drastic shift from the skilled offensive teams he has grown accustomed to watching under Beilein.

“Their offense has always been very meticulous, very organized, great diversity,” Williams said. “It's a hard offense to cover, but this year their defensive numbers — they average 48.3 (points) giving up and we average 96.6. That's exactly twice (as much). I'm telling you, I think if we score 96 I think we got a better chance of winning.”

Yet, Williams knows that might be a difficult mark to reach against a Michigan defense that leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense (32.9 percent) and features defenders who take pride in keeping their man in front of them.

“They don't pressure them up quite as much as we do, but they still do the best job of anybody I've seen so far at not getting beat on the dribble,” Williams said. “If you don't get beat on the dribble, you don't have to help. If you don't have to help, that guy doesn't get an open 3.

“Michigan is going to run when they have opportunities, but when they don't the biggest challenge is being tough enough and patient enough to guard them for 20 seconds, 25 seconds. It's hard to speed up a team that's really good. I like to win in the 80s and 90s, but sometimes you have to win in the 50s and 60s. I don't know if I've ever won a game in the 40s, but I think you have to be able to play at a tempo that you can score at is the biggest thing.”

In a top-15 matchup that will pit one of the nation's highest-scoring offenses against the nation's stingiest defense, something will have to give.

“We embrace all the time to say, ‘OK, this is who we are.’ We're not going to win just running and gunning with people. We have to stop people and then we can get up the floor,” Beilein said. “I think it's part of that puzzle that we love to try and put together.

“We've heard all about the Dukes and now the Gonzagas. The talent on this team, as it always is with Roy, it's as good as anybody. Don't hand the national championship to anybody until you see these two teams tomorrow.”


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

Michigan vs. North Carolina

Tip-off: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: ESPN/950

Records: No. 7 Michigan 6-0, No. 11 North Carolina 6-1

Outlook: Michigan is 7-10 all-time in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and has a 4-4 record at home in the event…North Carolina leads the all-time series 4-2 and will make its first trip to Ann Arbor in program history…The game is sold out and will be a “Maize Out” with all Michigan fans asked to wear Maize-colored clothing.