Let’s compare the week that Arizona and Michigan are having, and see who has it easier heading into Saturday’s showdown between them in Ann Arbor, Mich.:
On Saturday, Arizona struggled to beat UNLV 63-58. Michigan crushed Houston Baptist by 54 points.
On Monday, the Wildcats’ routine was disrupted by well-hyped news that they had become the No. 1 team in AP Top 25 for the first time in over a decade. The Wolverines (6-3) quietly dropped out of the poll.
On Wednesday, Arizona had to figure out a bizarre array of defenses from New Mexico State before moving to 10-0. Michigan practiced at home for the third straight day, then went home to sleep in its own beds.
This afternoon, the Wildcats will fly nearly across the country for the second time in two weeks, arrive to frigid temperatures in the evening and prepare to play the Wolverines at 10 a.m. Saturday on their body clocks.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, get to practice and sleep at home. Again.
Yet Michigan coach John Beilein isn’t so sure his guys have the edge.
“The way they’re playing, they’re really in a great rhythm,” he said of the UA earlier this week. “We do need the rest. We’ve played a schedule of about two games a week or even more and with exams coming up, we need some time.”
“It’s difficult to go cross country and play from a Wednesday to a Saturday at noon, but that’s the part of the landscape we all have to go through. But the rhythm they’re playing with right now? I don’t think it will be a huge deal for them.”
Maybe. But the UA’s opponent could be a big deal.
The Wolverines have three losses but none are to be ashamed of: at Iowa State, at Duke and to Charlotte, by two points, in the final of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. All three of those teams are in the Top 100 of the Sagarin ratings.
Plus, while they lost two NBA first-rounders in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. from their backcourt this season, the Wolverines still have many key pieces from the team that reached last season’s NCAA title game.
“The one thing about Michigan, they’ve played a great schedule,” Miller said. “If you play at Duke, your chances aren’t very good. They played a very competitive schedule and because of that they’ve probably improved every week of the nonconference season.”
So while adrenaline has worked out pretty well for the Wildcats to date, there’s no telling how far that can take them Saturday.
“We’ll see how ready we are,” Miller said. “We can go there and play a great game and maybe not win. But I know trips like that and games like that will only make us better.”
That was easy
Miller says he can’t coach the kind of forceful one-handed jam in traffic that freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson did Wednesday but, in one sense, he did.
“We just came out of a timeout and coach was like, ‘We gotta attack,’” Hollis-Jefferson said. “So I was like, ‘OK, I gotta do it.’ That’s what I did.”
Hollis-Jefferson’s dunk gave UA a 32-24 lead with 1:01 left, which the Wildcats carried into halftime of their 74-48 win. He finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, having averaged 9.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in UA’s past four games.
“Rondae was outstanding,” Miller said. “He made big plays, he did it in all facets of the game, offensive and defensive rebounding, great assists…. He did everything and it was great to see.”
Thanks for trying
Among the five different defenses Miller said NMSU threw at the Wildcats was a “tandem-and-three,” which features a player stationed at the basket, another in the center of the free throw line and the remaining three playing man-to-man defense.
“You (can) see a lot of college games but I don’t know if you’ll see that defense,” Miller said. “But it’s effective because they have a 7-5 guy (Sim Bhullar) in there. It just feels different. But once you get the hang of it … there’s a reason no one plays that defense. I thought we broke them down and had some great shots at the baskets, had some great passes.”
The Wildcats also faced a 1-3-1 zone, a 1-2-2 three-quarter-court press, a man-to-man and a 2-3 zone.
“It was a great experience, almost like practice,” Miller said. “You get your ability to teach and coach, where guys understand that the next time we see this, this is what we will do.”
Another fast start
The UA has now started at 10-0 for two straight seasons. They were 14-0, just two wins shy of the school-record start in 1931-32, before losing at Oregon last Jan. 10.
“We’re very proud of it,” Miller said. “Some of the guys in the locker room have been on both teams and it’s a credit to them, working hard between games. It’s not easy to play UNLV in a ‘white out’ and then get ready for another opponent in a few days and now we have to do it again.
“Now we have to get ready for a huge game on the road with Michigan.”