With tipoff set for Friday night at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, one thing should be clear: The No. 22 Michigan men’s basketball team is a level above Eastern Michigan, and that’s understandable.
The Eagles’ arena is significantly smaller than Crisler, they play in the Mid-American Conference and have made the NCAA Tournament just four times in program history — abysmal compared to the Wolverines’ 31 appearances. All those factors considered, Eastern can’t consistently attract the talent that a program like Michigan can.
This season, though, that’s different. The Eagles added the 2020 Gatorade National Player of the Year, forward Emoni Bates, to their roster this offseason. After a tumultuous couple of years that saw Bates reclassify, play limited games at Memphis and ultimately end up back in Ypsilanti — his hometown — Bates’ ability to light up the stat sheet remains palpable.
“(With a) great scorer like Emoni, you just have to try to do your best to make him work hard for every bucket,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said Thursday. “Knowing that there are going to be a lot of sets that they run for him, he’s going to touch the ball every time down the floor because of his skill set and how he’s presented on the floor to make plays for his team.”
Scoring just 9.7 points per game and shooting 38.6% from the field at Memphis in his freshman year, Bates didn’t live up to the hype that comes with five-star recruit status. The sophomore, though, is still just 18 years old. And after scoring 27 points in an exhibition against Grand Valley State on Oct. 27, his talent is as present as ever.
“I mean, give (Bates) credit, the young man worked extremely hard on his skill set,” Howard said. “He shows that he has a lot of love for the game of basketball and when you have a passion to play the game of basketball, you don’t have to beg a person like Emoni to get in the gym and work on his skill set.”
Now, Bates presents a tough early-season test to whatever Wolverine has to guard him. Under Howard, Michigan plays almost exclusively man defense. This leaves opposing scorers with the opportunity — if they want — to go one-on-one with perimeter defenders before getting to the lane, where help is frequently available. The task of containing Bates, though, doesn’t fall on just one player’s shoulders.
“I’m sure everyone will get a chance to guard (Bates),” Howard said.
For Michigan, this game will help prepare it for tougher opponents down the road. Its upcoming schedule is packed with dynamic scorers like North Carolina’s Caleb Love and Minnesota’s Jamison Battle. As a young team, the Wolverines can take this opportunity to learn and grow on the defensive end — something they’ve emphasized early on in the season.
“We’re just trying to get locked in,” freshman wing Jett Howard said after Michigan’s exhibition win against Ferris State Nov. 4. “There’s a lot of things on the defensive end that we can obviously fix, myself included.”
Defense isn’t something that improves overnight. It can take teams an entire season to figure out that side of the ball. Michigan fared well against Ferris State and Purdue Fort Wayne, but those aren’t prolific opponents. For a team that hasn’t really been tested defensively, the Wolverines are getting handed their first quiz.
Friday is a measuring stick for the defensive prowess of Michigan, an opportunity to see how this fresh squad is meshing early in the season. Eastern Michigan is not going to determine how good this team is defensively, nor its defensive potential. After all, it is just the second game of the season.
But if the Wolverines can’t keep Bates contained, it’s basketball. With one talented player, anything can happen.