What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he (or she) answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Drew from Maize n Brew, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Michigan.
1) First things first: what's the status of Caris LeVert? Is he likely to play on Sunday? And if not, who will be asked to fill the void that his absence creates for the Wolverines? Duncan Robinson and Zak Irvin filled up the bucket admirably against the Terps and Derrick Walton, Jr. had a very solid game.
DREW: Caris LeVert is doubtful to play. He's missed the last three games with what Michigan has classified only as a "lower left leg" injury, which he suffered late in the second half in Michigan's Big Ten opener against Illinois when he stepped on an Illini player's foot. Though John Beilein has been asked about LeVert's status frequently for the past two-plus weeks, Beilein has revealed very little about the injury. Basically, his message has been that LeVert still feels lingering pain when he practices and, until that pain disappears, Michigan will not rush LeVert back onto the court. As for Sunday, Beilein wanted to wait to see if LeVert could practice on Friday before determining his status.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman will be the starter in LeVert's stead, but Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton will attempt to fill the void. LeVert does so many different things so well for Michigan, but he's by far U-M's best playmaker. Not only does that include scoring in isolation late in the shot clock, it includes creating open looks for his teammates whether he's penetrating and dishing or running the pick and roll. As a result, LeVert leads the team in APG (5.2) and assist rate (30.0 pct.). With LeVert likely to be out, Michigan will rely on Irvin (18.2 ast%) and Walton (21.7 ast%) to run the offense smoothly, find Mark Donnal for layups underneath, and connect with Duncan Robinson, who's an excellent three-point sniper, on the perimeter.
2) Michigan picked up a fantastic win over a top-5 opponent (Maryland) earlier this week. Picking up that win without LeVert was even more impressive. Michigan had also struggled mightily in their past games against KenPom top 20 opposition this year -- what worked so well for the Wolverines in this game? And can it carry over to the Iowa game?
DREW: Basically, it boiled down to Michigan making its jumpers and Maryland missing them. Led by Zak Irvin (22 points, 8-of-14 FG) and Duncan Robinson (17 points, 6-of-10 FG), Michigan constructed a 13-point lead early in the second half after knocking down 10 of its first 19 threes (52.6 pct.). However, Maryland erased that lead quickly because the Wolverines went cold (missed eight of their final 10 threes) and couldn't get easy looks in the paint while the Terrapins fed Diamond Stone, Robert Carter, and Jake Layman (combined 55 points) down low. But Michigan held off the Terrapins at the end thanks to some enormous jumpers by Irvin and Derrick Walton and Maryland's starting guards (Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon) totaling 10 points on 4-of-17 shooting (23.5 pct.). Some of Trimble and Sulaimon's subpar effort should be attributed to solid defense by Walton and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, but much of it was just Trimble and Sulaimon missing open threes. If they shoot their normal averages, Maryland wins. But they didn't, so Michigan earned the upset.
Obviously, this could carry over to the Iowa game. Michigan shooting well from the outside is no surprise even without Caris LeVert. The Wolverines have six different players that have attempted at least 20 triples and made at least 40 percent of them this season and a seventh in Zak Irvin who's a much better shooter than his 27.3 3P% suggests. And Michigan is not a streaky three-point shooting team either, making at least 40 percent of its threes in nine of its last 10 games. So expect the Wolverines to fire lots of threes and a good chunk of them to go down, and, if Iowa has an off shooting night, things could get interesting.
3) All five Michigan starters played 33+ minutes against Maryland earlier this week. Is that common or a function of LeVert's absence? Who on the Michigan bench could step up and make an impact for the Wolverines?
DREW: It's common as John Beilein typically uses a short bench, especially with his guards. Derrick Walton, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson, and Zak Irvin each should play at least 30 minutes against Iowa unless they get into foul trouble. It's more of a surprise that Mark Donnal played at least 30 minutes because Beilein has a swift rotation for his centers, particularly as they pick up fouls. However, Donnal has performed so well this Big Ten season (14.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG) that Beilein wants to keep him out there as long as he can.
Aubrey Dawkins is the reserve most likely to make an impact for Michigan because he's the only one that has averaged more than 10 MPG in Big Ten play. Dawkins is a 6-foot-6 wing that thrives behind the three-point line. After making 43.2 percent of his triples as a freshman last season, he's drilled 45.7 percent of them as a sophomore. He can make some of those off the bounce, but he's much more effective in catch-and-shoot situations. Also, watch out for Dawkins in transition. He's a high-flyer and can throw down some scintillating dunks when he has space in front of him. However, don't expect that to happen in Michigan's half-court offense because his handle isn't strong enough to maneuver through traffic.
4) Michigan has a very good offense (no surprise), but the defense has been lagging behind -- they rank just 106th in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. What's been a particular problem for the Wolverines on that end of the floor? What could Iowa look to exploit on Sunday?
DREW: It's difficult to narrow it down to one problem. Michigan's four-guard lineup makes its offense lethal, but U-M suffers against opponents that can overpower defenses in the post and crash the offensive glass. That's what Xavier, UConn, SMU, and Purdue all were able to do against Michigan. Heck, even Maryland was doing it when it made a concerted effort to get the ball down low. I know that Iowa is more of a perimeter-oriented team despite its size, but it's in the Hawkeyes' best interest to get the ball to Jarrod Uthoff on the block. He will have a three-inch height advantage over Zak Irvin, so he should be able to score around the rim and on fadeaways without being bothered too much. Also, if Uthoff, Adam Woodbury, and Dom Uhl hit the offensive boards like they did against Michigan State, U-M is in trouble.
Further, Michigan's perimeter defense isn't that grand either. The Wolverines have had problems preventing dribble penetration and closing out on shooters. This will be a concern against Iowa because Mike Gesell is one of the Big Ten's best passers and the Hawkeyes are a terrific three-point shooting team (16th in 3P%). If Gesell is able to break down Michigan's defense and kick it out to open shooters on the three-point line, well, uh oh.
5) What are the expectations for this Michigan team? Is this a transitional team where just making the NCAA Tournament would be a respectable season, or is there hope that Michigan could do a bit more damage in the postseason?
DREW: There's hope Michigan can do more damage in the postseason. Michigan missed the NCAA Tournament (and the NIT) last season, but significant injuries to Derrick Walton and Caris LeVert were to blame. With the entire roster back except for Max Bielfeldt, who transferred to Indiana for his fifth year, this season was viewed as a do-over. A mulligan. And last season's preseason expectations were that Michigan could be a Sweet 16 team, so that's what they were this season, too. That's still possible because Michigan has the talent, especially if Mark Donnal continues his inspired play. However, the dark cloud hanging over Michigan's head is LeVert's health status. He's missed the last three games, and there's no indication as to when he'll return. That Michigan has been so secretive about the injury -- it's the same left foot he's fractured twice in the last two years -- raises concerns that it's much more serious than believed. If LeVert is out for an extended period, Michigan will be happy just making the NCAA Tournament. But, if he returns soon and performs as he did before the injury, Michigan will seek to advance past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
DREW: Iowa is a much better matchup for Michigan than, say, Purdue, who beat U-M by 17 points in West Lafayette, was, but the result will be similar. Iowa is the hottest team in the nation and will be playing in front of a sold-out Carver Hawkeye Arena, which hasn't treated the Wolverines nicely at all in the past decade or so. Michigan also likely will be without Caris LeVert, who opens up so much of the offense inside the arc when movement is stagnant on the perimeter. And, though Iowa is not the type of team that bullies opponents in the paint, the Hawkeyes' perimeter defense can give Michigan enough fits that threes don't drop as frequently as they usually do. All of this leads me to believe that Michigan is in store for a tough evening in Iowa City. Michigan will fight, but Jarrod Uthoff and Iowa will be too much.
Iowa 83, Michigan 69
Thanks for being a good sport, Drew, but I still hope your team gets mollywhopped this afternoon. You can check out the MnB crew at Maize n Brew. You can also follow MnB on Twitter at @MaizenBrew and Drew on Twitter at @DrewCHallett. The Iowa-Michigan game is in Iowa City, IA on Sunday, January 17, and is scheduled to start at approximately 3:30 pm CT, with TV coverage from BTN.