Привет! (Hello!) Давно не виделись! (Long time no see!)
Why the Russki? Well, for 18 days in the summer of 2013, Michigan head coach John Beilein and Carolina head coach Frank Martin shared a dorm room in Kazan, Russia at the World University Games.
Talk about a bonding experience.
The coaches recently enjoyed another bonding experience: you can make a good argument that it was Michigan who “took” our place in the 2016 NCAA Tournament after we dropped the third loss of the season to UGA.
Well today brings yet another opportunity for the old dorm-mates to reconnect, as Beilein takes his 4-0 Wolverines (AP # 25 / # 24 USA Today) to the Colonial Life Arena to meet the 4-0 Gamecocks with a national audience on ESPNU. The wiseguys are favoring the visitors (+ 1.5 to +3.5 depending on the service) - not that I pay much attention to such things.
Beilein (pronounced Bee-Line) is in his 10th season at Michigan after having successful runs at Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia. In his nine previous years at the helm in Ann Arbor, Beilein’s Maize-and-Blue squads have earned an impressive six NCAA invitations - which include an appearance in the the 2013 National Championship game (bowing 82-76 to Louisville) and an Elite Eight in ‘14.
Frustratingly for the fans in Ann Arbor, over the last two seasons the Wolverines were unable to sustain that top-flight level of success - mostly due to untimely injuries more than reloading. The Wolverines missed the post-season entirely in ‘15 and had to back-door their way into the ‘16 Tourney via the “First Four” play-in match [despite a strong 22-12 (B1G 10-8) record] before being bounced by Notre Dame in the Round of 64 - after blowing a 12 pt half-time lead.
What this year’s UM squad brings to the table is (1) depth, (2) balance and (3) maturity. True, Michigan had a lot of turnover during the off-season for both the staff [losing two assistants to head-coaching jobs] and players [both to graduation and transfer], but the core of last year’s NCAA team is back and healthy - and joined by some extremely talented newcomers. Maybe the shake-up was just what UM needed.
Seniors F Zak Irvin and PG Derrick Walton, Jr. have emerged this season as the stars they were always expected to be; so far they are averaging 14.5 and 14.0 points per game respectively and are the undisputed team leaders - and both played lights-out in their last two starts against Marquette and SMU.
Likewise, starting Jr. 2G Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Jr. C Mark Donnal [the Wolverines’ 6th man] are both averaging 11 ppg on the season, and two other Juniors are heavy contributors - F. D.J. Wilson (who has 10 blocks already on the young season) and Jr. G Duncan Robinson (a deadly 3 pt specialist). Robinson has been relatively subdued this year, but we all know how a date with the Cocks seems to be catnip for opponents’ perimeter aces to light us up.
Off the bench, the Wolverines have Fr. G Xavier Watson and Fr. F/G Ibi Wilson - a pair of young sensations recruited out of Ohio (take that Thad Matta!) - who are already attracting favorable attention and can also call on Soph. C Mark Wagner from Germany who is developing into a force in his own right in the paint.
These guys can shoot and rebound; they are athletic and long; and they are unselfish with the assists. Even more importantly, they are playing hard-nose defense. In the age of “one and done,” Beilein is a throw-back to how teams used to be built - and really how they should be. This has all the makings of a Sweet 16 caliber squad - or perhaps better.
I’ll be honest - I’m really worried how we will respond to this game. This is the toughest test so far for either squad, but while it is billed as the Wolverines’ “first” road game, the Maize and Blue have already been solid away from Ann Arbor - easily dispatching Marquette 79-61 and SMU 76-54 in NYC last weekend at the “2k Classic” at Madison Square Garden. Mentally, they get some easy home opponents next, while we have to travel to Syracuse next; that has to be in Michigan’s favor.
If we deliver a lackluster crowd and take another mental night-off like we did against Monmouth, the Gamecocks could easily end up like Marquette and Southern Methodist - staring at a double-digit half-time deficit and watching the Wolverines coast in the second. However, if we can rock the CLA and focus on grabbing a big OOC victory, then we have an opportunity to make this a statement game for the Tournament Committee come March. No matter what, I think our guys know its going to be a whole-other level of physicality tonight.
I expect us to get out-boarded; so the big question in terms of match-up is whether our backcourt trio of Sindarius Thornwell, P..J. Dozier and Duane Notice can out-play and out-hustle the UM backcourt ... and if Chris Silva and Maik Kostar can hold their own in the post by avoiding foul trouble and getting their share of rebounds and put-backs. Thornwell might be the best all around-player on the floor, but his teammates must step up. Interestingly, Dozier was heavily recruited by Michigan so they know him very well.
Well, as they say in Kazan, lets get ready for some Баскетбол!