Considering that two of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s three wins away from Crisler Center have come below the Mason-Dixon Line, there are worse places for Michigan to play a game this weekend than Fayetteville, Ark.
The Wolverines (5-2 Big Ten, 15-4 overall) have yet to win a true road game, but they will be looking for their first when they head to Bud Walton Arena to take on Arkansas for their only non-conference game during Big Ten play.
“I do know that it’s usually very good if you’re going to get into the NCAA Tournament,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Winning on the road is usually very important. Teams have gotten in without being real successful. I prefer to be successful on the road.”
The Wolverines are spending their weekend off from Big Ten play differently than most other teams in the conference do when they get a break from the conference schedule.
Instead of using its bye weekend to get rested and gear up for trips to Purdue and Ohio State next week, Michigan is headed south to take on the Razorbacks, who have yet to lose at home this season.
Arkansas (2-2 SEC, 13-5 overall) has been playing well despite losing its leading scorer, Marshawn Powell, for the season to a knee injury in November. Underclassmen guards B.J. Young and Mardracus Young have picked up the scoring burden since then. Both are shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc, which is better than any of the Wolverines’ marks. Senior guard Zack Novak has Michigan’s highest 3-point percentage at 37.5 percent.
But the Razorbacks ran into a brick wall when they went to Rupp Arena on Tuesday and were blown out by No. 2 Kentucky, 86-63. Arkansas was out-rebounded by 15 and was no match for Kentucky’s size down low. Freshman sensation Anthony Davis dominated the Razorbacks all night, putting up 27 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks.
“We’ve got to get this taste out of our mouth,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson told the Arkansas Traveler after Tuesday’s loss. “It’s got to hurt ’till midnight. We’ll turn our attention to get ready for a Michigan team. We’ve done well at home so maybe that’s what this team needs — a little dose of home medicine.”
The Wolverines had different luck on Tuesday. They took down No. 9 Michigan State, 60-59, to earn their third straight win over their in-state rival. Freshman point guard Trey Burke vaulted himself into the national Freshman of the Year discussion, scoring 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting and notching the game-winning assist when he pulled down a rebound, dribbled the length of the floor, and dished it to senior guard Stu Douglass for the decisive layup with 35 seconds left.
Anderson, however, is concerned with the rest of the Michigan backcourt.
“They have size and they have great players in the (Tim) Hardaway (Jr.) kid and the Novak kid,” Anderson said. “So we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
While the non-conference contest gives Beilein an opportunity to rest his starters and tinker with his rotation without being hurt in the Big Ten standings, he must also be wary of how a loss can affect the Wolverines’ resume as it looks ahead to the NCAA Tournament.
On Tuesday, Beilein moved struggling sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz out of the starting lineup in favor of Douglass.
Douglass responded with nine points, which included a four-point play and the game-winning layup. Smotrycz only saw 10 minutes and made two of his six shots, both coming on consecutive layups off the dribble in the first half.
“It was two things in mind,” Beilein said of his decision. “We want to put our best five on the floor from the beginning and most importantly, the guys that we felt understood our defense, understood what we were doing the best. And Stu is such a great defender that I wanted him on the floor from the very beginning. We hadn’t had a good start against Northwestern, we hadn’t had a good start against Iowa. We just said, let’s change this up and let them match up with us a little bit.”