The last time the Michigan men’s basketball team played an opponent from the Southeastern Conference, former Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison stuck a dagger in the Wolverines’ heart, hitting a 3-pointer with two seconds left, sinking Michigan’s hope of making consecutive Final Fours.
The stakes will not be nearly as high when the Wolverines (4-0) travel to South Carolina (4-0) on Wednesday, but that won’t make Michigan take this early-season clash lightly.
After two decisive victories in New York over Marquette and Southern Methodist, the 25th-ranked Wolverines hope the momentum from their impressive display in the Big Apple will carry over as they face their first true road test of the season.
The Gamecocks also enter Wednesday undefeated through four games, but they have taken some punches getting to this point.
South Carolina needed a buzzer-beater to beat Monmouth at home last week, after it blew an 18-point second-half lead and allowed the Hawks to come back and force overtime.
South Carolina still has the pieces to go toe to toe with Michigan, though. Guard Sindarius Thornwell leads the Gamecocks in scoring, putting up 21 points per game thus far.
At 6-foot-5, Thornwell will be one of the taller guards the Wolverines have faced to date, and he will give junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and senior guard Zak Irvin a difficult defensive assignment. South Carolina expects to get a performance out of Thornwell similar to what Michigan gets out of Irvin, a solid shooter who has many offensive capabilities and can hold his own defensively as well.
“(Thornwell) is a consistent 35- to 40-percent shooter over his career,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “(Thornwell and Irvin) are two seniors that really know how to play. He’s probably shooting the ball a little bit better than Zak is right now. I don’t know if his assist-to-turnover is quite as good, but he’s just a good player. When you have a senior that’s been starting for a few years, that’s what (he) should be.”
Guard PJ Dozier, who hit the winning shot against Monmouth, brings a skill set and body similar to Thornwell’s that could also trouble the Wolverines. Beilein tried to recruit Dozier to Michigan back when the guard was in prep school, but due to family ties, Dozier chose to play for the Gamecocks.
“I saw him as a multi-position player,” Beilein said. “A guy that was more (Caris LeVert)-like who could see the floor. He’s just a player, a 6-(foot)-6 player.”
In the frontcourt, forwards Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar will match up better with the Wolverines than Marquette or Southern Methodist did. Silva is the more dangerous of the pair, averaging 10 points and seven rebounds. The 6-foot-9 forward will most likely be guarded by junior forward DJ Wilson, who has been Michigan’s most versatile defender through its opening games.
The Wolverines will also be exposed to the most aggressive defense they have seen so far this season. South Carolina currently tops the SEC in rebound margin, grabbing 12.5 more boards than its opponents each game, while also forcing an average of 14 turnovers. With that said, Michigan will have to limit the Gamecocks in transition, especially having to watch for outside shooting threats.
“Although (South Carolina is) not big in steals, they are a pressure team,” Beilein said. “And they’re going to try and run us out of our stuff, and we’ve got to be really good making that extra pass. We need to keep our turnovers down. They’re forcing 14 or 15 turnovers a game. They also have 14 or 15 a game so if we can play one of those games where we’re at nine or 10 turnovers … we’ll be in good shape.”
South Carolina will be a tough test for the Wolverines, especially on the road. But handling the Gamecocks may only be part of the challenge Michigan will face in Columbia. After their triumph in New York, the Wolverines will need to stay grounded, as excitement around the program has risen to levels unseen since that game against Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
“In the grand scheme of college basketball, we haven’t done anything,” said senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. “I think everyone has a great sense of that and nobody’s walking around and lollygagging and saying we’ve accomplished anything. We haven’t accomplished anything because there’s still a good 25 to 30 games left. We’re excited about what we have accomplished, and we’re just eager for more.”