When the Michigan men’s basketball team takes the floor against No. 10 Oregon on Saturday afternoon, it will have an opportunity to score its third regular-season victory over a top-10 opponent this season.
The fifth-ranked Wolverines (8-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) haven’t accomplished such a feat in six years. The last time they did came in 2013-14 — a season that ultimately culminated in the Elite Eight. The previous occurrence came only a season earlier, when Michigan advanced to its first national title game appearance since 1993.
Under former coach John Beilein, the Wolverines never knocked off a trio of top-10 teams before the last week of January. Now, first-year coach Juwan Howard’s team has a chance to do it before Christmas.
To Michigan’s advantage, Howard and his staff have already spent time scouting the Ducks this season. The Wolverines were set to play the winner of Oregon’s matchup against Gonzaga in the Battle 4 Atlantis championship, and Howard was in attendance for the Ducks’ semi-final loss.
One familiar face stood out as he took in the action. During his time as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, Howard spent time scouting Oregon point guard Payton Pritchard, who the organization identified as a professional prospect. Now a senior, Pritchard is averaging 18.8 points and 6.1 assists through nine games.
“(Pritchard) is one of the best point guards in the country,” Howard said. “ … I was impressed with his game. I’m a big fan of his toughness. He’s a tough competitor, he’s a great shooter, he’s a gamer. When the game is on the line, you want the ball in his hands.
“He’s shown that he can do special things for himself. As far as for the team, (he’s) making great decisions with the ball and creating scoring opportunities for his teammates. He’s definitely the head of the snake.”
While most of the Ducks’ offense runs through Pritchard, his supporting cast will be at a disadvantage. Starting power forward Shakur Juiston, who leads the team in rebounds with 6.5 per game, has been ruled out for Saturday’s game with a leg injury. The graduate transfer from UNLV is also averaging 8.8 points on 43-percent shooting. In his absence, freshman forward CJ Walker started Oregon’s last game and scored a season-high 18 points.
The most interesting storyline ahead of Saturday, though, revolves around freshman phenom N’Faly Dante. The 6-foot-11 five-star recruit completed high school early and tried to enroll ahead of the season, but the NCAA didn’t clear him in time. His initial-eligibility waiver was granted at the end of November, but he wasn’t allowed to join the team until the end of Oregon’s fall quarter.
That quarter came to an end this week. With questions looming, Ducks coach Dana Altman told Oregon Live that Dante will make the trip to Ann Arbor but “probably won’t play” against Michigan.
Still, the Wolverines aim to remain ready for Dante and the rest of Oregon’s weapons.
“We’re preparing pretty much that everyone is going to play,” Howard said. “And so that means that each and every guy on their roster, we’re taking a look at and we’re focusing in on. … We do not want to have any surprises.”