With the Purdue matchup looming, Michigan has a big problem on its hands.
In fact, it actually has two.
The Boilermakers boast one of the best frontcourt tandems in the country in Trevion Williams and Zach Edey. Williams has put up solid numbers this year, averaging 12.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Edey, using his towering seven-foot-four frame, has been even better, putting up 15 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 70.2% from the field.
While the Wolverines have a formidable set of big men in sophomore center Hunter Dickinson and freshman forward Moussa Diabate, they haven’t faced anything quite like Purdue.
“We don’t have a 7-(foot)-4 guy,” associate head coach Phil Martelli said. “We have Hunter who’s listed at 7-(foot)-2, but he can’t play against himself. So you have to stay conceptual. You have to identify their strengths and attack their weaknesses.”
The Boilermakers, though, are a team with very few weaknesses. They average 84.6 points per game and shoot 50.7 percent from the field, both best in the Big Ten, and the offense starts with their frontcourt.
Purdue also runs a unique rotation where Edey and Williams almost never share the court. They each average around 20 minutes a game, meaning one of them is likely playing at all times. When Dickinson and Diabate do go to the bench, one of Purdue’s big men will still be out there, wreaking havoc for whoever stands in their path.
With Dickinson and Diabate both on the floor, Michigan has a chance to slow down the Boilermakers. But that can only work if they can stay out there. Otherwise, as previous matchups have shown, interior defense has been hard to come by.
Against Nebraska, Dickinson got into early foul trouble and had to sit most of the first half. The onus was then on Diabate to protect the paint with a rotating cast of underwhelming forwards beside him. The Wolverines ended up surrendering 36 points in the paint to the Cornhuskers.
When Dickinson was out due to COVID protocols against Illinois, Michigan equally struggled to protect the rim. The Illini scored 30 points in the paint, including 21 from star center Kofi Cockburn.
Cockburn was the best big man the Wolverines had faced coming into this game — and they did not fare well. The chances to win the paint battle against Edey and Williams are even slimmer, regardless of who’s out there.
Instead, they may have to invoke a different strategy.
“I actually think our best defense in this game is our offense,” Martelli said. “We just have to score the ball.”
Martelli believes that Michigan’s best hope to win may be getting in a track meet. But when the Wolverines tried that approach in their matchup a week ago against Michigan State, they lost that race handily.
Purdue has lost just three games all season, and those were the only three games that it failed to reach 70 points. It’s a monumental task for Michigan to pull off the upset, and to have any hope of doing so, the Wolverines will have to hit shots from the perimeter and at least come close to matching the Boilermakers’ production in the frontcourt.
They also have to play that way the entire game, which has been a difficult task for Michigan as of late.
“(We have to) make sure that we stay locked in the whole game and not just one half play or just for a low period of time,” Diabate said. “Just trying to stay locked in as long as we can.”
If the Wolverines can find a way to do all that, then maybe a victory is within grasp. But if Edey and Williams have their way — as they usually do — Michigan will be steamrolled right out of West Lafayette.
Martelli’s outlook on what the Wolverines could ultimately do to stop the duo was bleak:
“Other than prayers, I don’t know.”