Chris Boucher leads Oregon, the best shot-blocking team in the country, with an average of 2.5 blocks per game.
But two weeks ago, the Ducks lost their 6-foot-10 forward to a season-ending ACL injury in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, a big blow to the rotation of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s opponent Thursday.
To adjust to the absence of Boucher, Oregon coach Dana Altman shifted his star player, Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks to the ‘4’ position, going with a smaller lineup to open the game.
While shot blocking is something Michigan has struggled with, evident in close games against Minnesota and Louisville — two top-10 shot-blocking teams — Oregon’s small-ball lineup creates other problems for the Wolverines.
“They’re a very talented team,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “I’ve been watching Dillon Brooks since he was playing with the Ontario teams earlier in his career.”
With Brooks starting off the game at the ‘4,’ he will be redshirt sophomore DJ Wilson’s defensive responsibility.
While Wilson will have the height advantage — Brooks is 6-foot-7, Wilson is 6-foot-10 — Brooks shoots the ball at a 50.5 percent clip while scoring 16.4 points per game this season.
Wilson, though, says he’ll be ready, citing that he will go up against redshirt freshman guard Charles Matthews on the practice squad to prepare.
“I know Charles will imitate (Brooks) on the Scout team,” Wilson said. “I go against Charles all the time in practice. It’s nothing new to me.”
While Matthews is two inches shorter than Brooks, he possesses some of the same qualities in his shooting and passing ability, as well as his shifty ability to get to the rim.
With Brooks being a traditional ‘3,’ other Wolverines might have a chance to guard him as well, mainly senior forward Zak Irvin. Given Irvin’s defensive prowess in the last couple weeks, he’ll also be ready for the challenge.
“I feel like I’m able to guard anyone that I get put up against,” Irvin said, “Dillon Brooks is a great player, and I think DJ will be good to start off on him because of his length. DJ is so versatile as well, and he can guard a couple different positions too.”
But more than just the matchup between Brooks and Wilson, Oregon’s new offense has a certain familiarity factor for Michigan.
When junior forward Duncan Robinson is in the lineup at the ‘4,’ forming Michigan’s so-called “small-ball lineup,” players have cited that going up against it in practice makes them feel more prepared for what Oregon brings to the table.
With Brooks at the ‘4,’ the Ducks will have just one traditional big man in the lineup — forward Jordan Bell will start while forward Kavell Bigby-Willams will come off the bench — which creates matchup problems for most teams.
Michigan, though, given its affinity for the same type of lineup, says it is well-prepared.
“It’s a little bit easier,” Irvin said. “We’re used to playing small ball, and they play small ball, so I think it’ll be a good matchup for us.”
Beilein said Tuesday that the best preparation for a team is to play other similar teams.
Luckily for the Wolverines, Oregon looks to run in transition, much like Oklahoma State, and the Ducks have a lot of length — Bell is more than capable of guarding Michigan’s guards with his wingspan — much like Louisville’s frontcourt.
“Every game over the course of a season is practice for the next game, and that’s what we’ve had, two great practices,” Beilein said. “But so have they, so who responds the best, who makes their foul shots, who turns the ball over less and who gets the ball to bounce their way will determine this one.”
The Wolverines will go into Thursday’s matchup familiar with the type of game that Oregon likes to play.
But once the ball is tipped, the real test will be which team can adjust to what the other team brings.