When the Michigan basketball team traveled to Fayetteville, Ark. for a midseason tilt against the Razorbacks last season, it didn’t know what it was in for.
No matter how much Michigan prepared for the speed and ferocity of the middling SEC foe, Arkansas stormed out to a 29-10 lead — making its first 11 shots — before the Wolverines could even blink.
Arkansas stretched its lead to 20 in the first half and led by 13 with under seven minutes left before Michigan’s frantic comeback ended with then-freshman Trey Burke missing a would-be game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Most fans remember Zack Novak’s hard foul on B.J. Young as he attempted a fast-break dunk during the 66-64 Arkansas victory, but when asked about the game on Tuesday, Burke shook his head. All he could remember was the way the game started.
“We weren’t prepared for that,” he said. “No matter how much we prepared in practice, Arkansas’ pressure is tough. They’re a really good team. They’re long and active — very athletic.”
Michigan coach John Beilein, known for his X’s and O’s and the way he readies his teams in practice, also hasn’t forgotten how the game opened.
“I haven’t watched much tape,” Beilein said of last year’s contest. “All I know is (it was) a blur last year, the first few minutes. Our defensive transition, with our scout team … was not like guarding them.”
But Novak is gone, and instead of playing in the hostile Bud Walton Arena, the game will be played at home in Crisler Center, where the Wolverines (8-0) have won 24 of their last 26 games.
And that Michigan team last year wasn’t the No. 3 team in the nation, and didn’t have the trio of freshmen — guard Nik Stauskas and forwards Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary — that have turned the Wolverines into a formidable transition offense capable of scoring points in bunches.
That was something that stuck out to Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, who spent the previous nine seasons at Illinois, after Michigan beat the Wildcats in the NIT Season Tip-Off two weeks ago.
“They are their best in transition,” Weber said. “In the years I’ve watched (Beilein’s) teams and competed against them, he went from walking the ball up, grinding it out, to now their best thing is their transition.”
In last year’s game, Burke scored 13 points but shot just 6-of-19 from the floor while junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. was held to nine points on 3-of-8 shooting. Redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan had one of the most efficient offensive games of his career, scoring 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting while pulling down six boards.
Young, who returned later in last year’s contest after Novak’s flagrant foul, scored 15 points and currently leads the Razorbacks (4-3) with 19.5 points. Forward Marshawn Powell, who missed most of last year, including the Michigan game, after knee surgery, is second on the team with 16.1 points but burst onto the scene with a 33-point outing in an upset over Oklahoma on Tuesday.
The win snapped a three-game skid for Arkansas, which included losses to Wisconsin and a 91-82 barnburner against No. 4 Syracuse.
Despite the mediocre record, the Razorbacks average a whopping 82.1 points per game and, with their intense defensive pressure, force more than 18 turnovers per game — nine of them coming off of steals that help Arkansas counter quickly in transition.
But with a more experienced Burke, and a team more apt to not just handle a high-tempo playing style, but excel at, Michigan might even be able to beat the Razorbacks at their own game.
Still, Beilein is still approaching the game with an air of caution.
“They’re going to really force the tempo,” he said. “We’ll find out (if we’re more ready than last year). They run up and down on everybody.
“We’re going to simulate the best we can, and then hopefully we can adjust as well as we did last year, but just not get down early.”