John Beilein says he doesn’t decide until a season’s end which games are more important than the rest. It seems safe to assume, however, that Thursday’s trip to No. 20 Purdue (1-1 Big Ten, 13-2 overall) will make the list.
It’s the Michigan men’s basketball team’s (2-0, 12-3) second visit of the year to a team ranked in the top 25. The first one — an 82-58 shellacking at the hands of then-No. 19 Southern Methodist — left plenty of room for improvement.
“You all can just go through your books,” Beilein said. “How many times has Michigan beaten a ranked opponent on the road? You won’t find very many times. I don’t care who the coaches were and who the players were. It is difficult to do.”
It won’t help if senior guard Caris LeVert remains unavailable as he recovers from an unspecified injury to his lower left leg. The plan, Beilein said, was for LeVert to attempt to practice Wednesday and do the same Thursday in West Lafayette prior to tipoff. Beilein declined to elaborate further on LeVert’s status or the nature of his injury, saying only that LeVert will play if he can practice without pain prior to tipoff.
With or without LeVert, Purdue’s perimeter defense presents a tall task. Though Michigan shooters such as redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson have excelled in recent games from beyond the 3-point line, the Boilermakers’ size from top to bottom will likely create a space crunch for the Wolverines. Michigan is shooting 42.8 percent from beyond the arc as a team, but Purdue is holding opponents to 28.3 percent 3-point shooting.
To combat the size disadvantage, Michigan has been practicing with sticks and pads that extend defenders’ reach by inches or even feet.
“(Purdue) can do a great job of containing you off the dribble,” Beilein said. “And they can take chances, because if you ever do beat them, you always have a back-line guy. That just makes a huge difference.”
Junior forward Mark Donnal’s inspired performances in recent games have given Michigan fans more reasons for optimism regarding a shaky rotation in the frontcourt, and the ability of the Wolverines’ big men to body up against more physical squads. Thursday’s game, however, is a far better measuring stick than Illinois or Penn State.
“We’ll find out,” Beilein said, stressing that Michigan has yet to face an opponent with Purdue’s physicality. “I’m not confident yet.”