Utah (4-4) hosts Michigan (4-3) tonight in a battle of teams needing a win.
After starting the season in the Top-25 and winning their first three games, the Wolverines hit a three-game skid before stopping the bleeding with a 67-53 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Michigan fell out of the rankings during their losing streak, and a win over the Utes would go a long way to getting the Wolverines back on track in the Big 10. Utah has been inconsistent from the opening game and a win over a second Big 10 team would be big for a young team trying to find their identity.
Michigan's biggest issues have been on the offensive end, where the Wolverines are in the midst of a shooting slump. In their last four games, the Wolverines are shooting just 39.5%, 23.3% from three. Michigan is also not rebounding the ball as well as they did to start the season. Michigan grabbed 42 rebounds per game to start the season, but that number has dropped to 29 boards per game over the last four games.
Defensively, the Wolverines are solid, and are excellent at creating turnovers. Michigan averages just over eight steals per game, and force over 16 turnovers per game. Even during the losing streak, these numbers have not changed much. Turnovers could be a key in this game. Both Utah and Michigan are in the top-30 nationally in turnovers; the Wolverines are second, turning the ball over just 9.4 times per game while the Utes are tied for 28th with 11.9 turnovers per game. Michigan is much more proficient at forcing turnovers, getting four more than the Utes per game.
On the stat sheet, the Utes and the Wolverines appear very similar. Neither team is shooting the ball particularly well, especially from beyond the arc. The rebounding numbers are nearly identical (34.8 RPG for Utah, 34.6 for Michigan), and both are getting out-rebounded by their opponents. Both teams are scoring at almost identical rates, as Michigan is scoring 73 PPG and the Utes 72.
Utah, however, has a huge size advantage at almost every position. Michigan's best post player is 6-foot-8 forward DeShawn Sims who is averaging 15 points and seven rebounds per game. He is a forward who can run the floor, space the floor, and drive on bigger defenders from the perimeter. Michigan's tallest player that plays is 6-foot-10 forward Zack Gibson, who has been instant offense off the bench, scoring seven points in 11 minutes per game. After those two, the Wolverines do not play anyone taller than 6-foot-5. Should seven footer Jason Washburn be available against the Wolverines, Utah could play as many as six players 6-foot-6 or taller.
Even so, the Utes could have issues matching up with the smaller, quicker Wolverines, especially 6-foot-5 guard Manny Harris. Harris is Michigan's best player, leading the Wolverines in points (21 per game), rebounds (8.7), assists (5.4), and steals (2). Harris is more of a slasher than a shooter and he creates a lot of open looks for his teammates. Laval Lucas-Perry has been Michigan's best outside shooter and can knock down open shots when defenses collapse on Harris. This should be a concern for Ute fans, as defense has been Utah's biggest issue.
Utah's defense has been porous at times, the Utes are giving up over 68 points per game and opponents are shooting 42% on the Utes - 46.4% on two-point shots. A lot of those points come off of offensive rebounds as the Utes give up almost 12 per game. Defense and fighting for loose balls has been something of a concern for Utah coach Jim Boylen, as has getting his team to play for the full 40 minutes. After the Utes last game against Idaho State, when the Utes let a 25-point halftime lead turn into a 12-point win, Boylen emphasized those points. "I thought we shared the ball to start the game and I thought we defended like we have to defend,
Boylen said. "The problem is, with this group of guys, they are learning to play 40 minutes. I thought we won the loose ball game for the first 26, 28 minutes which is very important [going forward]."
Though Carlon Brown leads the Utes in scoring with 12.8 points per game, Brown not shot the ball well through the first eight games, and is nowhere near the distributor he was a year ago when he led the Utes in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. Brown's assist numbers are half of what they were a year ago, and he has nearly twice as many turnovers as assists. Utah needs Brown to start doing what he does best - drive hard and either get to the rim or kick out to open shooters - instead of settling for jump shots.
Jay Watkins return from a hip injury has been a huge plus for the young Utes. Watkins provides an immediate boost off the bench as he is averaging 11.3 points and five rebounds through his first four games. "Good to have Jay Watkins back," Boylen said. "Obviously a big piece that we've been missing. His athleticism, toughness, the way he pulls this team together."
KEYS TO THE GAME
- Rebound Neither team is shooting or rebounding well, so whichever team can control the glass has a huge advantage. Utah's size should be a factor, but to this point in the season that advantage has not been seen on the glass.
- Team defense The Utes have not been good on defense, as the shooting percentages show. They go through stretches where they play well, especially when Brown, Luka Drca, and Kim Tillie (or, the players that have experience in the system) are on the floor together. How the bench plays defense will be big for the Utes.
- Control Harris So much of what Michigan does on offense is based off of Harris creating for his teammates. With as much man defense as the Utes play, they need to keep Harris from driving into the lane, where he can either score or pass to open teammates. Make Harris a perimeter player, and the Utes have a great chance of winning.
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