Michigan braces for Indiana to open rough 6-game stretch

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan guard Zak Irvin (21)

Ann Arbor – Michigan has been able to stay afloat throughout the first half of Big Ten play.

But nearing the midway point, the Wolverines will soon find out whether they’re going to sink or swim.

As Michigan enters the heart of its schedule, it faces a grueling six-game stretch that begins Thursday night against Indiana, a team that has won three straight after stumbling out the gate.

Looming afterward are two games against rival Michigan State, another Indiana tilt and a rematch with Wisconsin, all teams the Wolverines are chasing in the conference standings.

“There's no one game right now that you say is a game that if you lose, cash in the chips. But these are important games right now,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “If you look at this league, there are a couple teams out front and maybe it's been their schedule, maybe it's been just dumb luck or maybe it's been great play.

“But it's a long way right now from determining who is going to win the league and who is going to be in the NCAA Tournament because everybody has got 11 games or so left.”

It’s also been a long time — over a month — since Michigan has been able to string together consecutive wins, but the Wolverines sense a prime opportunity to take a step forward and add to its lacking NCAA Tournament resume.

Indiana will be without forwards Collin Hartman (knee) and OG Anunoby (knee), who are both out for the season, and could also be without Juwan Morgan (left foot) for the third straight game.

But even with the lack of depth at forward, the shorthanded Hoosiers still present plenty of problems. They rank second in Big Ten play in scoring offense (79.3 points), field-goal percentage (48.4 percent) and made 3-pointers (63).

“(Indiana) plays really well in transition. They're able to get out there and are a dangerous team,” said senior forward Zak Irvin, an Indiana native. “But they get hot behind the arc…and they crash the offensive glass pretty hard, too. So if we take care of those three things, we'll be in pretty good shape.”

And while it’s a different Indiana team, the Wolverines are hoping to avoid a repeat of last year’s contest at Crisler Center. Michigan jumped out to an early double-digit lead in the first half, only to watch it evaporate as Indiana closed the half on a 25-0 run to turn it into a rout.

Yet, Beilein cautioned Indiana is still just as capable offensively.

“We were really rocking and rolling at the beginning (of last year's game) and they can do it again now because they have a lot of shooters,” Beilein said. “They had shooters at four positions and they can do that again. Just getting in transition, Yogi (Ferrell) and Troy Williams just flying up and down the court and other guys just spotting up.

“So now, (Robert) Johnson and (James) Blackmon can all do that. They just have a lot of weapons again. They patched any holes they had in graduation or the NBA. They're loaded with good scorers, that's for sure.”

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It all starts with slowing Blackmon, who made his first seven shots — including four 3-pointers — and torched Michigan State’s defense for a career-high 33 points last week, and not letting him get clean looks to get into a zone early.

While Michigan has been able to limit the opposition’s top scorer throughout Big Ten play, containing Blackmon and Indiana will be the start of a series of tests as the Wolverines look to survive the upcoming choppy waters.

“This is a long season and you know that you can't get too up, you can't get too down,” Beilein said. “You got to enjoy the season, you got to enjoy the year but you got to attack every game like it's your last game because anything can turn a game and any game can turn a season around.

“That's got to be our mentality and I think it is right now.”

Indiana at Michigan

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

TV/radio: ESPN2/WWJ 950

Records: Michigan 13-7, 3-4 Big Ten; Indiana 14-6, 4-3

Outlook: This is the first meeting between the teams since Michigan beat Indiana in the quarterfinals of last year’s Big Ten tournament. …Junior G James Blackmon Jr. (18.3 points) ranks third in the Big Ten in scoring and is one of three Hoosiers averaging double figures.