Michigan, Detroit Mercy swing open new door on rivalry
When Michigan tips off against Detroit Mercy at noon Saturday in the opening game of an in-state college basketball doubleheader at Little Caesars Arena, it’ll mark a series of firsts.
The first meeting between Michigan coach John Beilein and Detroit Mercy coach Bacari Alexander, who spent six seasons as an assistant under Beilein.
The first crack at Michigan for Detroit Mercy redshirt junior wing Kameron Chatman, who spent his first two seasons in a Wolverines uniform before joining the Titans.
And the first college basketball game to ever be played at the newly constructed home arena for the Pistons and Red Wings in downtown Detroit.
"This is a great environment for us to be in,” Beilein said on Friday. “It's a great way for the city of Detroit to bring college basketball back.
“We got to be ready to play and it's not going to be easy. We get a 'W,' it'll be a great 'W.' It reminds me of the game where we went and played Bradley (in 2012) with a tremendous team and we had to gut out a win somehow. We're going to have to gut this out to get a 'W.'"
Despite winning the past 14 meetings, close calls have become the norm for Michigan, with four of the past five victories being decided by single digits.
But that’s just the start of Beilein’s worries. For the second time in the series, Michigan and Detroit Mercy will christen a new facility, and Beilein doesn’t want his team to get caught up gawking at everything LCA has to offer. The teams also played in the first event at Joe Louis Arena on Dec. 12, 1979.
"I'm actually concerned a little bit because I was in there and it is so nice,” Beilein said. “I do not want our guys to be just all about the spectacular things they have going on in there. It is spectacular.
“As a result, we got to go and play like we were playing 94 feet just like any other court. And Detroit certainly will have the same type of challenges, but it is great. I know it's a tremendous environment to go to, but we got to play like we're playing at the YMCA. We're playing hard and strong and tough.”
For Michigan, it’ll start at the defensive end against a Detroit Mercy team that is averaging 89.4 points, has scored over 100 points in three games and has five players averaging double figures in scoring.
But adding to the difficulty is facing two people who have firsthand knowledge of the inner workings of Michigan’s intricate offense: Alexander and Chatman.
“We've been in the league now 11 years so I think a lot of people have seen it, but not from the inside like Bacari does,” Beilein said. “I don't think you change a whole lot. It's not what he knows, it's what he can get his team to know. That would be the challenge. We pride ourselves on some things and we have counters for everything.
“We hide a lot of (our terminology), but between him and Kam, I have to stay one step ahead of everybody. That's the way it's going to be. We got to continue to try to execute and counter so that they don't know what's about to come next.”
Alexander, who has since returned to Detroit’s bench following a seven-game absence due to a “personnel matter,” was on Beilein’s staff from 2010-16 and helped guide the Wolverines to two Big Ten titles and six trips to the NCAA Tournament, including the national championship game in 2013.
Chatman was never able to put everything together at Michigan. He made his mark by hitting the winning 3-pointer to upset top-seeded Indiana in the 2016 Big Ten tournament but averaged just 3.2 points and two rebounds over his two-year career before transferring following the 2015-16 season.
Through 10 games with the Titans, he’s averaging 17.9 points and 8.1 rebounds in 30.9 minutes.
"He's a good player, a very young player who was here two years and was developing but he felt he could develop somewhere else even more,” Beilein said. “It wasn't an overnight success and most players aren't but he wanted to go elsewhere. I like his development right now and I feel we're a big part of it as well. Now Bacari and his staff have continued that trend.”
And when the familiar faces converge at an unfamiliar place on Saturday, Michigan will look to extend its winning trend to 15 straight games over Detroit Mercy.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” Alexander said in a statement. “To go against a guy that mentored you in this game, John Beilein, the all-time winningest coach in Michigan history, at Little Caesars Arena, in our city. Our guys are very excited about it and I’m looking for a tremendous showing from our fans.”
Michigan vs. Detroit Mercy
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
TV/radio: ESPNU/WWJ 950
Records: Michigan 9-3, Detroit Mercy 4-6
Outlook: Michigan holds a 24-4 advantage in the all-time series and has won the past 14 meetings…Sophomore G Corey Allen (18.7 points) leads five players scoring in double figures for Detroit Mercy, which has lost four straight…No. 2 Michigan State and Oakland play in the second game of the doubleheader.