Once again, the Big Apple is beckoning for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
Last season, the Wolverines traveled to Madison Square Garden to take part in the Big Ten’s inaugural “Super Saturday” event on Jan. 30, which featured a basketball and hockey doubleheader against Penn State. Michigan won that contest, 79-72, and now, it is returning to The World’s Most Famous Arena on Thursday to tip off against Marquette in the 2K Classic Championship Round.
“I can’t wait,” said senior guard Zak Irvin. “(We are) 1-0 since I’ve been in the Garden. (It was) nice to play there last year against Penn State. It’s always nice going to New York because it feels like a home game, just from the alums and fans we have across the country.”
The Wolverines notched two wins against Howard and IUPUI in the tournament’s Ann Arbor regional, but those programs are a far cry from the competition they will be facing as the season rolls onward.
The matchup with the Golden Eagles, on the other hand, could provide the first true barometer of where Michigan stands.
Outside of losing Henry Ellenson, who led the team in both points and rebounds per game his freshman year before being drafted 18th overall by the Detroit Pistons, the Golden Eagles are returning most of their major contributors.
Center Luke Fischer and guards Haanif Cheanham and Traci Carter figure to be the most notable of that mix.
Fischer and Cheanham finished second and third, respectively, behind Ellenson in both scoring and rebounding last year, while Carter is entering his second year as Marquette’s point guard after averaging 4.6 assists through 33 games during his freshman campaign.
Though it’s a limited sample size, the Golden Eagles have elected to start four guards alongside Fischer through the first two games this season.
With ample scorers on the perimeter, Marquette is poised to be Michigan’s first real opportunity to see how far it has come defensively after hiring assistant coach Billy Donlon. It’s not often that the Wolverines are the bigger team on the floor, but the Golden Eagles’ personnel could prove beneficial for Michigan.
“I think all of our guys have done a great job just holding each other accountable and just knowing that defense does win championships,” Irvin said. “That’s one of the huge things that we want to have a point of emphasis on this year, is be able to defend people, and I think this is going to be a good test for us, going against Marquette tomorrow.”
Added Michigan coach John Beilein: “They’ve only got the two big guys that are playing, Fischer and Heldt — he’s 6-foot-10. We’ve got five of those guys on our roster. They’ve really got more depth on the perimeter. Hopefully, our size at some of those positions may affect some things, especially DJ (Wilson) and Duncan (Robinson) at 6-foot-8, 6-foot-10.”
While it may have an advantage on the boards, especially with Wilson averaging 11 rebounds per game, there are still some aspects that could spell doom for Michigan.
The Wolverines have been plagued by slow starts so far this season. Against Howard, Michigan couldn’t get on the board until junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman sank a 3-pointer over five minutes into the first half. In their matchup with IUPUI, it was more of the same, as the Wolverines traded baskets with the Jaguars until shots started to fall in the final four minutes.
That issue could be compounded by Marquette’s aggressive defense, which is tied for 23rd nationally with 10.5 steals per game.
“For some reason, we’ve come out and haven’t got off to a type of start we want to get to, but we can have those good runs at the end of the half,” Beilein said. “I know Marquette, their steals are really high. They’re going to come out and try to impose their will. If we do not take care of the ball and make the shots we’ll get behind early. We’ve got to really take care of the ball from the very beginning.”
If the Wolverines come out sleepwalking Thursday, they could be staring at their first loss of the season.
Depending on its outcome against Marquette, Michigan will face either Southern Methodist or Pittsburgh on Friday.