Last Friday night, Shaka Smart's Texas Longhorns team picked up its first win against a major conference opponent, taking down the Alabama Crimson Tide. Things get a little more difficult tonight for the Longhorns, as they travel to face the Michigan Wolverines (6-2) in Ann Arbor in the first true road game for this young Texas squad.
Over the past few seasons the Wolverines have had Texas' number. Just a little more than a year ago John Beilein's team dropped Texas 78-72 in the Battle For Atlantis. A few years prior, Michigan ended the Texas season in the NCAA Tournament's round of 32.
But this Michigan team is a little different than those groups over the past several years. The Wolverines are still quite good (more on this below), but its early start to the season hasn't been entirely satisfying — Michigan took a 15-point road loss at South Carolina (the Gamecocks are good this season) and then gave up a game at home last week against Virginia Tech.
While Beilein's team isn't off to the most robust of starts this season, they still represent the best opponent Texas has faced to date. Like all of Beilein's teams, this is a team that can score.
Few programs have consistently been as good on offense as the Michigan Wolverines over the past few seasons. As always, this version of the Wolverines will space the floor, take care of the ball, and launch plenty of threes. Just about everyone on the floor has the green light, but senior point guard Derrick Walton and 6’6 senior wing Zak Irvin are the two that see the most chances.
The trajectory of Irvin's career at Michigan has proceeded as follows — as a freshman, Irvin was a dangerous three-point shooter off the bench. As his career has progressed, Irvin's role in the Michigan offense has gradually expanded to the point where this year he is taking more shots than anyone else and is also one of the team's more important playmakers. He has been much better so far converting near the basket, although on the season he is off to a slow start shooting from the perimeter, where he also struggled through the early part of last year before finding his stroke during Big Ten play.
Meanwhile, Walton is off to a great start to his senior campaign, and should be one of the best lead guards in the conference. He doesn't put up crazy assist totals in Beilein's offense where the ball is widely shared, but don't let that fool you — Walton is one of the best point guards Texas will face this year and the best the Longhorns face until Texas hosts Jawun Evans and Oklahoma State in early January.
Walton's strength is shooting the ball. He is a career 39 percent three-point sniper on nearly 400 attempts. He is also nearly automatic at the free throw line, a place he has a knack for finding his way to. The hole in his game is that he struggles to finish near the basket.
Beyond Irvin and Walton, Michigan has the usual cohort of skilled offensive players. You can safely assume that everyone who will see the floor for the Wolverines can do something on offense; in most cases this "something" is shooting the ever-living crap out of the basketball.
Beilein is widely and justifiably considered to be a great coach of offensive basketball (in a 2015 survey of college coaches by CBS Sports, he was picked as the best offensive coach in D-I), but a decent amount of his greatness on this end clearly derives from the fact that he never has a team with a shortage of guys who can get buckets.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I cannot tell you which member of Michigan's supporting cast is going to murder Texas — you might as well just throw a dart at the roster to figure that one out — all I can tell you is that someone likely will. Last season, it was Duncan Robinson, an underrecruited 6’8 sharpshooter who came off the bench to go 4-5 from beyond the arc and drop four assists.
This season it may be Robinson again, or it may be Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Moritz Wagner, Mark Donnal, or DJ Wilson. Any of these guys is perfectly capable of scoring should situations break in their favor.
On the defensive end of the floor, this Michigan team has been better than Beilein's recent squads. The Wolverines are finding a few more turnovers on the defensive end than usual, and are doing a good job of containing opponent offenses and controlling the defensive glass, where DJ Wilson has done exceptional work. It is hard to blast your way inside the Michigan defense, and there aren't many clean looks from three to be had so far this season either.
The Longhorns will have their hands full tonight. The game tips off at 8 p.m. CT, and airs on ESPN2.