When asked about upcoming “higher-profile” opponents after the Michigan men’s basketball team’s win over Jackson State last Wednesday, Michigan coach Juwan Howard shot that notion down.
“I look at every game that we play (as against) high-profile opponents,” Howard said.
But even if Howard considers every team the Wolverines have played thus far high-profile — no matter their ranking, conference or record — Michigan’s opponent Tuesday night is undoubtedly its highest-profile adversary to date.
No. 3 Virginia comes to Ann Arbor unbeaten, with quality wins over No. 6 Baylor and No. 16 Illinois already under its belt. The Cavaliers are tried and tested early, and will give the Wolverines their stiffest matchup so far as the young season gets rolling. On the other hand, only one of Michigan’s opponents through its first six games cracks KenPom’s current top-100 list.
While the Wolverines have battled adversity already — playing a handful of close games and suffering a blowout loss to Arizona State — it’ll be Virginia handing Michigan its first major test. And it’s a test Howard has been studying for since before the season even started.
“We have one returning starter, and like a lot of schools with the turnover of the NBA and transfer portal it’s tough to keep one team intact,” Howard said at Big Ten Media Day on Oct. 12. “There’s one school that has all five starters back that I’m aware of, and that’s Virginia. … That’s rare, all five returning starters, that’s special.”
With a veteran lineup, the Cavaliers already have an upper hand. The Wolverines’ young lineup has a ways to go before becoming fully comfortable with each other and cohesive on the floor. In a meeting with reporters on Monday, Howard said he’s “still evaluating” rotations.
That’s a stark contrast to Virginia. Its veteran lineup makes for less trial and error, less learning by failing and more consistent execution. That creates a reliable system, one that is already proving effective. Four of the Cavaliers’ starters are averaging double-figure scoring to start the year, and the one who isn’t? That’s guard Kihei Clark, who leads Virginia in assists and was a member of its 2019 National Championship-winning team.
It’s a stable offensive unit without a clear weak point, and one that’s sure to test Michigan’s work-in-progress defense.
“Continuing to work on our defense and playing hard and communicating is a big area of emphasis,” graduate guard Jaelin Llewellyn said on Nov. 23. “… So we’re taking it step-by-step.”
Those steps must quickly become strides — on both sides of the ball. Perhaps an even greater beneficiary of the Cavaliers’ veteran roster than their offense is their defense. Built on communication and connectivity, any defense benefits from playing together at-length, and Virginia exemplifies that. While the Wolverines’ shooting has been inconsistent all year, they’re keenly aware of the well-oiled machine looking to stifle them.
“I’ve really been impressed with how connected (the Cavaliers) are on the defensive side of the ball,” Howard said Monday. “… They do a good job of making you work hard for every bucket that you try to get.”
Simply put, Virginia is a complete team. It plays as a unit and has hit the ground running to start the year. The Cavaliers boast the ninth-best assist to turnover ratio in the country, while also sporting the best scoring defense and team field goal percentage in the ACC — on top of allowing the lowest opponent field goal percentage in their conference.
Virginia serves as more than just Michigan’s biggest test; it serves as a blueprint for where the Wolverines want to be as the season goes on. Michigan’s young roster wants to improve on the defensive end and keep building trust and rapport, all aspects that the Cavaliers already excel at.
“They also know how each other’s hearts beat, because of the connection that they have,” Howard said. “… The trust is there, not just player-to-player but also (the) coaching staff with players.”
As the Wolverines continue to build that connection, they face a tall task against a veteran team that has already done so.
But with a tough challenge comes an opportunity to make a statement, and a chance for Michigan to pull off its highest-profile win thus far.