The Michigan men’s basketball team ended the first half of the Big Ten season with a four-game sweep against the bottom half of the conference, downing unheralded Minnesota, Nebraska, Rutgers and Penn State teams.
Now, sitting at exactly the midway point in conference play, the Wolverines (7-2 Big Ten, 17-5 overall) face a two-game stretch of top-25 talent, hosting No. 22 Indiana on Tuesday and No. 10 Michigan State on Saturday.
The Hoosiers (8-1, 18-4), led by senior guard Yogi Ferrell, come to town atop the Big Ten standings following a six-point win over Minnesota on Saturday. Ferrell, who opted to return for his final year at Indiana instead of entering the NBA Draft, has been one of the conference’s top performers, pacing 17.5 points and nearly six assists per contest.
The Indiana native has a history of torching Michigan. In five games against the Wolverines in his career, Ferrell has shot better than 60 percent and averaged more than 16 points per game — and he’s done it in a number of ways. Last year, he used a variety of made jumpers to tally 14 points against Michigan; the season before, he knocked down seven 3-pointers to put up 27 to help take down a then-10th-ranked Wolverines team.
“His quickness is such that, yeah, there’s a lot of things you do (to try to stop him),” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “What’s really good is you have a really good player playing against him that can stay in front of him, and that’s our hope, that a combination of (junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. and sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman) can do that and that we don’t have to give as much help. But he’s going get his points; he’s going to get to the foul line; he’s going to get his assists. Try to not let the other guys beat you, that’s another thought.”
The biggest problem for Michigan is that those other guys who surround Ferrell are just as dangerous. Indiana has two other starters averaging 12 points or better in sophomore forward Troy Williams (13.1) and freshman center Thomas Bryant (12.4). It will take a team effort for Michigan to contend against the country’s second-best shooting team.
“(We need to) try to stay out of foul trouble and not make it a 1-on-1 matchup,” Walton said. “Remember that it’s all about winning. There’s going to be some times tomorrow (Ferrell) makes a really good play or I make a really good play or either of us go on a tear, making three or four plays in a row. It’s all about just staying with the team goals of the night and game plan. … When the game is over, the better point guard is the one that wins.”
What could be the biggest lift for Michigan, though, is the potential return of senior guard Caris LeVert. Beilein has been cryptic about LeVert’s return date since he injured his left foot against Illinois on Dec. 30, causing him to miss the last eight games. But Monday, Beilein said that his return could be soon.
“Caris did more (Sunday) than he’s done at all,” Beilein said. “This was the first time he really tested himself more than he has. So it’s day-to-day, and we’ll wait and see when he’s ready to go. It’s ultimately going to be his decision. It could be soon. It could be later.”