There’s no such thing as a “must-win” in November. But with a 3-2 record, the Michigan men’s basketball team suddenly finds itself with a lower margin for error, especially with a non-conference slate that includes road games at Utah and top-ranked Kansas in the next three weeks.
Coming off a pair of losses in last weekend’s Old Spice Classic tournament, the Wolverines are taking a measured approach into tonight’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup against Boston College, a game that now carries much more weight than it did just one week ago.
“There’s probably a little more of a sense of urgency,” sophomore forward Zack Novak said. “I hate to think of it as you’ve got to make one up (against Boston College), but it’s just a big game.”
The Eagles (4-2) enter Crisler Arena in a similar bind. They have also already dropped two games and are in need of an early-season statement win to prevent any serious blemishes from staining their NCAA Tournament résumé.
Boston College also brings some potential schematic advantages over the Wolverines. Coach Al Skinner’s flex-motion offense emphasizes repeated screens down low to free up shooters in the high post and cutters along the baseline. It’s an attack that Michigan coach John Beilein admits he had a lot of trouble planning against when coaching at West Virginia, and the Wolverines’ 1-3-1 zone defense struggled at times last weekend in reacting to opposing guards slashing through the lane.
“I think our understanding of it (must improve),” Beilein said. “A lot of it is trying to figure out who plays well in areas (of the floor). You don’t know until you get to playing against really good teams who’s going to perform the best in it.”
Senior forward DeShawn Sims said the Wolverines struggled against the flex during the two teams’ last meeting, in the 2007 ACC/Big Ten Challenge – a 77-64 loss – and said the key this time will be having a strong feel for the game flow.
“Everyone knows the flex offense,” Sims said. “(It’s) just discipline and not watching the ball, because there’s so many cuts in a flex offense. If you watch the ball, that’s how you get buried.”
Boston College also features a bulky frontcourt, led by juniors Corey Raji and Joe Trapani, who has been fighting illness recently but is expected to play tonight. The two are averaging a combined 30 points and 13.5 rebounds per game, and lead an aggressive corps of big men that have dominated the glass this season with a plus-11 rebounding margin.
Despite that, Beilein said he will stick with his four-guard lineup and focus on ball movement to create open looks from the outside. Novak has attempted just 23 shots in five games, and the Michigan coaching staff wants to give him more touches along the perimeter in hopes of jumpstarting a three-point attack that shot just a combined 5-of-45 behind the arc against Marquette and Alabama.
“It’s a given that if we’re not shooting 37 percent from three or making eight to 10 a game, it’s very difficult for us to win,” Beilein said. “With our size, it’s hard to stop some people because they’re going to get offensive rebounds.
“There’s times we need to outscore people when we’re playing against really huge teams that can get us on the backboard a little bit.”