KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Michigan coach John Beilein was coaching at West Virginia, his team couldn’t stop former Syracuse forward Carmelo Anthony.
In Anthony’s two appearances against the Mountaineers in 2003, he notched a combined 53 points and 22 rebounds. The freshman then led Syracuse to the 2003 National Championship and was named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
“We devised a great gameplan and then he just basically just destroyed our gameplan,” Beilein said of Anthony during this afternoon’s NCAA Tournament press conference. “He’s the first name that comes to my mind when I say, ‘What do you do?’ You can’t stop some young men when they really are that talented.”
Today, Beilein and the Wolverines will be facing a similar challenge. In Michigan’s second-round game, it will face No. 2 seed Oklahoma and star forward Blake Griffin, a leading candidate for the Naismith Award for College Player of the Year.
Griffin posted 28 points and grabbed 13 rebounds Thursday night against Morgan State. And Beilein has already made sure that devising a gameplan against the sophomore is a priority.
“It’s really hard,” Beilein said. “The individual on him has got to be very tough. Then you got to play great defense around him. He’s going to get eight points just because his timing, his instinct for the ball is terrific. You know that’s going to happen.”
Michigan junior DeShawn Sims and redshirt junior Zack Gibson will likely match up with Griffin tomorrow night. The duo shared time against Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet on Feb. 7, when the center had 17 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks. Griffin and Thabeet have different styles, but Michigan lacks size in the paint, so the physical Griffin may be able to reach his averages of 22.1 points and 14.3 rebounds.
The Wolverines (21-13) must also be aware of Griffin’s passing ability. He averages 2.3 assists per game, which is more than one assist better than Thabeet, Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair or North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough — three of the best big men in the country.
“He’s such a good passer, you don’t give up free shots to other people,” Beilein said. “But you don’t allow him to get your big guys in foul trouble or score at will in the post.”
Short turnaround: Two days isn’t much time to prepare for any game.
That’s why Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel started planning to play the Wolverines before he made the trip to Kansas City.
Michigan’s offense will spread the floor and force the Sooner big men to guard on the perimeter. Defensively, the Wolverines switch between man-to-man and the 1-3-1 and 2-3 zones.
“When you’re playing against a team with constantly switching defenses, sometimes that can knock you off balance a little bit,” Capel said. “It has you reacting instead of going out and just playing. For us, we just have to do what we do, and hopefully we can close out and make them react to us.”
On the other end, Capel knows what Michigan wants to do — shoot 3-pointers. And he knows that will lead to long rebounds, something he said his guards did poorly in the Sooners’ first-round game.
The Sooners’ three starting guards grabbed 12 boards against Morgan State, one less than forward Griffin had by himself.
One of Michigan’s biggest weaknesses is its size. The Wolverines start four players that are 6-foot-5 or shorter, and Oklahoma averages 8.4 more rebounds per game than the Wolverines.
“Just because they don’t start a big lineup, we still have to prepare the same way for what we do,” Griffin said. “They’re good at what they do. We can’t take them lightly just because they are a bit shorter. I think, hopefully, we’ll be all right.”
Michigan has had its own problems in planning to play the Sooners. After yesterday’s game, Beilein said he hadn’t yet watched any Oklahoma film.
Fresh impressions:Last year, freshman guards Stu Douglass and Zack Novak signed letters of intent with a 10-22 team.
Some might have thought they were foolish.
But one year and an NCAA Tournament win later, the Indiana natives are getting a lot of attention.
“Kind of crazy, I think I got like 60 texts last night,” Douglass said of Michigan’s 62-59 win over Clemson. “This team is doing something that’s never been done before really in the last ten years. They’re really proud of us.”
Added Novak: “Being from like a smaller town like that, everybody is really excited. … A lot of text messages, Facebook messages, everything.”
In Thursday’s win over Clemson, Harris’ heroic 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists stole the show. But Novak and Douglass played a key role in the Wolverines’ tough defense down the stretch. Douglass, who was averaging just 1.1 rebounds per game, grabbed three rebounds Thursday.
And with just 13 seconds left, Novak hit his second free throw after missing his first to put Michigan up by three.
“It’s not a fake toughness,” Capel said on Friday. “Those kids play hard. They can make shots and most importantly, they understand who they are. It’s probably just as important who they’re not.
“They don’t try to do the things they are not good at. They focus in on what they do, and do it at a very high level. Make shots, play hard, scrap, they just do all the little things that add up to being really big things.”
Tomorrow against Oklahoma, both freshmen will need to have the same intensity and toughness. But no matter where Michigan’s season ends, Douglass and Novak are a reason why Michigan is playing tomorrow in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, even if the team didn’t expect to be there.
“I came in with no expectations,” Douglass said. “Just work hard. And I know Coach Beilein’s a great coach, and he was going to have us prepared.”