- Todd Needle/Daily
By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 12, 2011
On Saturday, the No. 18 Michigan men’s basketball team escaped from the Palace at Auburn Hills with a 90-80 win over Oakland. It also escaped from the rigorous portion of its non-conference schedule.
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With the major-conference opponents (and tough mid-major competition) in the rearview mirror, Michigan (7-2) now shifts its attention to the Arkansas-Pine Bluffs and Alabama A&Ms of the schedule.
The Wolverines’ next three opponents are a combined 7-12, and with each of those games being played at Crisler Arena, it would be a massive letdown if Michigan didn’t head into conference play at 10-2 — a familiar record for a certain bowl-bound team in the Athletic Department.
After the Wolverines host Bradley on Dec. 22, they will set their sights on the Big Ten season. The conference, which had just three teams ranked in the preseason top-25, now has six ranked teams. No. 19 Illinois, which was expected to rebuild this year, is 10-0 so far. And No. 20 Indiana, which hadn’t been ranked since 2008, just knocked off Kentucky — previously the No. 1 team.
“I think the league has surprised people around the nation,” said Illinois coach Bruce Weber during the conference’s teleconference on Monday. “A good start for us and for the whole Big Ten conference. I’ve got to believe (the Big Ten will) be RPI-wise No. 1, unless we really fall off these last couple weeks of non-conference.”
The Big Ten is indeed tops in RPI at the moment. And its six teams in the top-25 is tied for the best in college basketball.
“I thought beforehand that we were going to have a lot of surprising teams,” Weber said. “A lot of the question marks that the teams had and the conference had, I think are starting to get answered.”
On Tuesday, Michigan will get its first of three tuneups for Big Ten play when it takes on Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The low-revenue, small-conference team has played each of its games on the road and won’t play at home until Jan. 14.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff (1-5) has struggled offensively and has failed to top 60 points all season. The Golden Lions have shot just 38 percent from the field and average 52 points per game while allowing 68. Meanwhile, the Wolverines put up a season-high 90 points on Saturday on 57 percent shooting from the floor and 54 percent shooting behind the arc.
The Golden Lions’ lone offensive threat is senior guard Savalace Townsend. The Mississippi native has accounted for more than one-third of Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s scoring and has tallied nearly one-third of the team’s assists. Townsend likes to get to the rim and is an excellent free throw shooter, but he struggles when forced to shoot the longer jump shots.
Sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz will be important in helping out to keep Townsend out of the lane and forcing the guard to make jumpers. Smotrycz broke out for 20 points on 7-for-8 shooting and nine rebounds on Saturday. His 5.7 boards leads the team — a welcome change from last year when guard Zack Novak led the team.
The Wolverines should be licking their chops at the Golden Lions’ offensive inefficiency.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff commits almost two turnovers per assist — a staggering ratio that Michigan will surely try to exploit.
Freshman point guard Trey Burke could be the beneficiary of some of those turnovers if the Golden Lions’ guard play gets sloppy. Burke, who picked up his second Big Ten Freshman of the Week award on Monday, scored 20 points and notched his highest field-goal percentage of the season, nailing seven of 11 shots. He also tied a career high with nine assists.
“He has performed, what I say, is atypical of most freshmen,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “For him to be playing 30-35 minutes a game and still playing at a high level all 30 or 35 says a lot about his personality, his desire to win and be a good player — really become a good Big Ten player.
“We’re just continuing to give him more and more and he’s showing no frustration about when he makes mistakes, and he’s allowing himself to become a better player because he’s a great listener.”
With the starting cast filling up the stat sheet, Beilein will turn his attention to the bench to figure out roles entering Big Ten play.
The games in the next two weeks will give Beilein a chance to evaluate and decide who will see the floor come Dec. 29 when Penn State comes to Ann Arbor.
“We are still looking for what’s the best bench rotation.