ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Few teams can mimic the length and athleticism Arizona’s defense has, so Michigan coach John Beilein didn’t try to.
He brought out the sticks instead.
Michigan shooters literally faced defenders holding long sticks in practice to give them a feel for what they might be facing Saturday at Crisler Center.
Arizona has “a tremendous length in their gaps,” Beilein said. “So you’re going to see them in gap defense, a lot like Ohio State plays, and (Aaron) Craft is very much like McConnell. But their length at the other positions helps in the gaps they can help and recover so well out of those gaps, you think you’re open for a three… I mean, all of a sudden we’re practicing with these long sticks all day today because they can close back out and get there.”
While so much has been said about UA’s frontcourt this season, Beilein was really wary of their backcourt.
T.J. “McConnell, if you watch his play (is effective) and Johnson was good back there last year,” Beilein said. “Johnson had to have the ball in his hands a lot last year because his assists numbers were so high. Now you’ve got that experienced player plus a really experienced player (McConnell) coming in next to him. They make the right play consistently because they’ve been around so long. “
Another key to Saturday’s game that Beilein is concerned about: Whether they can fuel their transition offense or not. Arizona has been effective on the offensive glass – collecting an average of 42.7 pervent of those opportunities so far --- while Michigan has been a strong defensive rebounding team.
“People aren’t running on them because they’re only getting the ball out of the net, and not off the backboard,” Beilein said. “So if we can just find a way to get stops so we can get the ball up the floor …. that’s a big issue. Our defense is gonna be the key to our offense. It’ll be so much about field position. That’s a strength of ours. Defensive rebounding is a strength of ours and a strength of theirs is offensive rebounding.”
Beilein marveled at the fact that Arizona has 18 offensive rebounds against UNLV last Saturday.
“They’re really taking great shots, so they’re going to bleed you and take a really good shot,” Beilein said, “and then if they miss it, they’re going to bleed you again until they take another good shot. So it’s really important that you … try to run when you can get a stop.”
Maybe it could seem like Arizona, with a No. 1 ranked team facing the unranked but dangerous Wolverines, is the one that has all the pressure on it Saturday.
But that may not be the case. After reaching the NCAA championship game last season, Michigan has lost three games already and the Wolverines aren’t happy about it.
“This is the kind of game we need to have,” senior forward Jordan Morgan said. “We haven’t had any big wins like this in preseason nonconference except maybe Florida State (in Puerto Rico), so it’s important to get some of those key nonconference games under our belt.”
Beilein, however, said it was just another of many good games, adding "big games are played in March."
UA coach Sean Miller was not available for comment in advance of Saturday’s game but I did manage to reach the game scout, assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, and told him that Michigan players appeared to have been disappointed with their season so far.
He appeared to be surprised by that.
“All of the stuff they've given you out there, I don’t know about all that,” Stoudamire said. “I know they’re a dangerous team. They’re solid this year and they’re a tournament team. It’s not like they aren’t going to make the tournament. They are.”
Stoudamire said Michigan is an excellent transition team and that they biggest key for Arizona will be in guarding their three-point shooters.
Michigan is shooting 38.6 percent from three, with guard Nik Stauskas having hit exactly half of his 48 long-range attempts.
Glenn Robinson III is trying to get his shots to fall.
MLive look at some keys for Michigan.
You can watch all of Beilein's remarks on Michigan's website.