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Thursday, January 5, 2012
Saddle Up: Michigan's tall task

By Eamonn Brennan

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of that night's best basketball action.

No. 13 Michigan at No. 12 Indiana, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: According to ESPN Research, "This will be the first time these schools have faced off as top 15 opponents since Feb. 8, 1994, and the first time they’ve faced each other when both are ranked since 1997."

That's a great stat, especially if you need a reminder of just how much both programs have struggled in various ways since the mid- and late-1990s. Having said that, and at the risk of turning this space into Poll Thoughts, Part Deux, let's get a couple of things out of the way:

1. Michigan is not the 13th-best team in the country.

2. Indiana is not the 12th-best team in the country.

In Michigan's case, the Wolverines are almost certainly overranked. This is why polls are so unreliable -- slowly but surely, teams often move up by default. I don't think the Wolverines deserve to be unranked, necessarily; I still had them at No. 19 in my power rankings Thursday. But even that may be a bit high. On an efficiency basis (per, as usual, Ken Pomeroy), the Wolverines are currently ranked No. 46 in the country. Their offense has been solid. Their defense has been mediocre. In other words, don't let that "No. 13" disorient you. To date, for as solid as John Beilein's team has been, it hasn't been that.

Indiana, on the other hand, can make a legitimate argument that it is underranked. (It is, of course, no surprise to see Indiana fans making this argument, and rather forcefully, in the direction of our Doug Gottlieb, who is far less bullish on the Hoosiers than most.)

The Hoosiers are 13-1 and own not one but two of the best wins of the season to date, in the form of home victories over then-No. 1 Kentucky and then-No. 2 Ohio State in the span of three weeks. Only UNLV, which beat North Carolina in Las Vegas on Nov. 26, has even one win that good on its ledger thus far.

Indiana's adjusted efficiency numbers back this up: The Hoosiers are currently No. 8 in Pomeroy's rankings; their offense has been the fifth-most efficient in the country to date, and their defense has ranked among the top 20 or 25 units in the country, thanks in large part to the Hoosiers' sudden ability to force their opponents into turnovers. They've won all the games they were supposed to win, and usually by impressive margins, and they've knocked off two national title contenders at home. When compared with some of the other resumes in the top 10, well, yeah: No. 12 doesn't quite tell the story.

In other words, the numbers in front of teams' names can be deceptive. (Duh, Eamonn. Any other trenchant insights?) If No. 12 versus No. 13 was the only piece of information you had before settling in to watch this game, you could find yourself popping over to ESPN2 in full expectation of a very close, very hard-fought game. Chances are, this won't be that.

It's up to Michigan to prove otherwise. The Wolverines entered this season with a fair level of expectation -- they were seen as a potential Big Ten contender, or at least in the high-second tier directly below Ohio State -- and their wins and losses to date align with that fact. But the efficiency margins at work here suggest Indiana is light-years ahead of the Wolverines at this point in the season. This is a great opportunity for Beilein's team to put something solid behind the expectations, to prove that they're more than a few decent wins over so-so competition and to reassert themselves in the country's best and most dynamic conference title chase.

To that end, the Wolverines have plenty going for them. The first is Beilein's two-guard front system, and these players' familiarity with it. This group doesn't have much of an interior presence, but on offense that's by design. Now five years into his Michigan tenure, Beilein has had the chance to inoculate all of his players into this tricky but effective style, and this particular team runs it very well.

There's also the heady point guard play of freshman Trey Burke, a low-top-100 recruit who has exceeded all expectations in his first two months at the helm in Ann Arbor. The best way to encapsulate Burke's performance is to imagine these Wolverines without him. The point guard position would be an amalgam including players such as Stu Douglass, a combo guard and spot shooter who would have been out of place on the ball this season. Instead, Burke has been dynamic, effective and savvy beyond his seasoning.

That offensive system is sure to pose challenges to Indiana, which is still, all things considered, a relatively young group. Freshman Cody Zeller hasn't played against this system yet; will it take him out of the game on the defensive end? (With all the rotations and long rebounds, can Zeller still be effective defensively?) This is the benefit of running a "junk" system in college hoops: Even when you're seemingly overmatched, you can give more talented teams a lot of trouble.

Offense is just one part of the equation. To get this win, Michigan will not only have to score on one of the best 25 or so defenses in the country, it'll also have to stop one of the nation's best offenses. On that team's home floor.

That's something neither Kentucky nor Ohio State could accomplish. If the Wolverines can, they will notch the definition of a statement win. A victory Thursday would sound an alarm to the rest of the Big Ten: Look out for Michigan. That's what's at stake here.

But disappointing though it may be, there's no shame in a loss, either -- no matter what the numbers next to these two teams' names say.

Everywhere else: Immediately preceding the aforementioned game on ESPN2 is Pittsburgh at DePaul. It will be interesting to watch the defensively bereft Panthers try to avoid a loss -- and the resulting freak-out cascade -- on the road against Oliver Purnell's noticeably improved DePaul squad. ... George Mason travels to Old Dominion in a quality CAA matchup. ... Villanova will attempt to avoid further disaster at home versus South Florida. ... In other Big Ten action, Purdue travels to Penn State. ... And for the West Coast folks, night owls and college basketball writers assigned to rank the Pac-12 on a weekly basis, the Pac-12 has a spate of interesting matchups, including California at Oregon State, Stanford at Oregon, Arizona at UCLA (a game that should be much bigger than it is, but oh well) and even Washington at Colorado. Happy hoops Thursday, everyone.