PARADISE ISLAND, The Bahamas — Texas men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart and three assistants sat courtside for Michigan’s day-two matchup against Charlotte on Thursday night. The Longhorns (2-2) would take on the winner on Friday in the final day of the Battle 4 Atlantis, and it quickly became clear that would be the Wolverines, as Michigan rolled past the 49ers.
So for two halves, the Texas coaches jotted down notes and looked for ways to exploit the Wolverines (3-2). One Texas assistant admitted to another that he hadn’t studied Michigan coach John Beilein’s offense much and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
Smart, in his first year with the Longhorns, leads a coaching staff that’s new to the program. On the court, though, he has adopted a team with loads of experience — it features 10 upperclassmen.
The last time Michigan and Texas met, the Wolverines rolled to a 14-point win in Milwaukee in the Round of 32 in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. The only starter left on Michigan’s team from that game is senior guard Caris LeVert. The Longhorns, meanwhile, will strut out four starters from the 2014 matchup when they take on Michigan on Friday night — each one-plus season more experienced than last time.
Two years ago, the only Texas player the Wolverines couldn’t contain was then-freshman guard Isaiah Taylor who scored a game-high 22 points in a losing effort.
“I only remember them from a couple years ago,” Beilein said. “I don’t know if they’re as big as they were back then. But I know the point guard they had as a freshman, well now he’s a junior, and so they’re a good basketball team.”
This year, Taylor is averaging 14.3 points per game, pacing Texas’ offense.
After Michigan’s win over Charlotte, Beilein said he hadn’t watched any film of Texas but planned on doing so all day on Friday. And he’ll quickly learn that the Longhorns are just as big as he remembers them from two years ago.
Starting center Cameron Ridley is a 6-foot-10 rebounding machine, averaging 10 boards per contest. On the offensive side, he uses his 290-pound frame to body into the paint.
When Michigan faced him in Milwaukee, many doubted that then-fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan would be able to compete down low with him. Morgan didn’t listen to the naysayers, limiting Ridley to six points in 32 minutes.
On Friday, the pressure will be on the Wolverines’ bigs, again. And Ridley won’t be their only problem down low. Connor Lammert paces seven points and five boards per contest for Texas and the 6-foot-10 forward can also shoot, going 6-for-12 from deep this year.
Michigan’s ‘5s’ were overpowered a week ago against a bigger Xavier team, getting outrebounded, 47-29. Since then, sophomore forward Ricky Doyle has replaced junior Mark Donnal in the starting lineup, and freshman Moritz Wagner has replaced redshirt freshman D.J. Wilson as Beilein’s first big man off the bench.
If the Wolverines’ bigs are able to limit the Longhorns’ opportunities in the paint, they’ll put their offense in a position to win. On the other side, due to Texas’ size, Michigan will need to rely on its shooting. Two years ago, 14 3-pointers helped the Wolverines to victory.
In two games in the Bahamas, Michigan has gone from a team that forgot how to shoot, going 18-for-56 from the field in its opening game against Connecticut, to a team that forgot how to miss, going 23-for-32 in the second half of its win over Charlotte.
With efficient shooting and solid play down low, Michigan can salvage this early-season tournament after its first-round loss. Anything less than that, and the Wolverines will head from sunshine to snow as a three-loss team.
Michigan tips off against Texas at 7 p.m. on AXS TV.