Nobody ever said life after Trey Burke was going to be easy. Despite entering the season with both a top 10 ranking and preseason All-American, John Beilein had to know that this group of Wolverines would be a work in progress. Gone was not only the transcendent Burke, but also backcourt mate Tim Hardaway, Jr. Also of concern: The fact that this year’s preseason All-American, Mitch McGary, entered the season on the mend. The bruising sophomore is recovering from a back injury, and even with a (relatively) healthy back a season ago, he had averaged only 7.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game as he got acclimated to college basketball. Was he really ready to deliver All-American type production? Every team entered this season with question marks, but Michigan faced as many as any of their preseason top 10 cohabitants.
The Wolverines are now seven games into the season, and the top 10 ranking is gone. The same cannot be said for those pesky preseason questions. Michigan is 5-2 on the year, with an overtime victory over Florida State ranking as its lone victory of consequence (seriously, the average Pomeroy rating for the other four Wolverine conquests is 297). The back injury ultimately caused McGary to miss just two games, but his production since returning has hardly been like that of an All-American, averaging just 8.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1 block in 25 minutes per game. I’m not in the habit of judging a guy off of five post-injury games, but the jury remains out on whether McGary can live up to those expansive preseason expectations.
Nor has a verdict been offered on the Michigan point guard situation. Nobody expected Derrick Walton to become Trey Burke, but the freshman has averaged nearly as many turnovers (2.4 per game) as assists (3.3 per game), while also ceding crunch time minutes to backup Spike Albrecht. In the two Michigan losses (to Iowa State and Charlotte), Walton has averaged just 19 minutes a game. Clearly John Beilein is not ready to hand over the reins to the talented youngster, but like McGary, there’s still plenty of time for Walton to grow into his expected role.
But the Wolverines aren't without their bright spots. Nik Stauskas has displayed a more mature, well-rounded game as a sophomore, very much looking the part of an All-Big Ten caliber guard. He’s still shooting the lights out (47 percent from deep), but has showed an improved ability to get to the rim in scoring 20-plus points in five of his six games this season. Fellow sophomore Caris LeVert has also made significant strides between years one and two: the versatile swingman has already converted more field goals than he did all of last season and is the Wolverines second leading scorer, averaging 13.9 points per game.
Needless to say, it’s been a mixed bag early for Michigan. The losses at Iowa State and to Charlotte can both be forgiven (especially the former), but securing a signature victory or two should now be the order of the day. Luckily for the Wolverines, that chance -- and then some -- presents itself on Tuesday.
Despite Duke possessing a few question marks of its own, a trip to Durham is always interesting. Cameron Indoor is Cameron Indoor, and college basketball fans are quickly discovering that Jabari Parker has arrived as advertised, fully equipped to dominate games from start to finish. Matching up with Parker may be an impossible chore for the Wolverines, but it’s time for Michigan’s star to present a similar challenge to the Blue Devils. The Duke interior is inexperienced to say the least, and the 6-foot-8 Parker often operates as a de facto center in a small-ball lineup. If McGary is the All-American he has been projected as, both the matchup and stage are begging him to dominate.
It’s an opportunity – no more, no less. A loss in Durham would hardly derail the Wolverines' season, but how big might a win be? For a new band of players that has been judged a top 10 team on paper only, and for a new Wolverines' leader that has been an All-American everywhere but on the court, the upside is enormous. The ACC/Big Ten challenge was built to create this type of occasion.
ACC/Big Ten Challenge Preview
Michigan will take on Duke in Durham on Tuesday night (9:15 p.m. ET) as the featured act for night one of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. But with five other Challenge match-ups taking place Tuesday and another six set to go for Wednesday, there is no shortage of intrigue heading into the event. Here are four key storylines to keep an eye on:
First to 50 Wins?
Wisconsin and Virginia meet Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET) in what may be the most evenly matched game of the Challenge. Fans of track meets should look elsewhere, however, as both the Badgers and Cavaliers rank in the bottom quarter of D-I in possessions per game. When you consider the basketball ethos of the two men on the benches, the snail’s pace should come as no surprise. Both Tony Bennett and Bo Ryan value precise offensive execution and solid, stay-in-front-of-your-man defense above all else. Oh, and that match-up at the three between Virginia’s Joe Harris and Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker? What a dandy.
Sweet Sixteen Rematch
Indiana and Syracuse renew pleasantries at the Carrier Dome on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET), just eight months after the Orange ended last season’s Hoosier revival in the Sweet Sixteen. Roles have reversed this time around; Syracuse enters this game a prohibitive favorite after romping to a Maui Invitational title last week, while the Hoosiers are still finding themselves after an offseason of overhaul. A year ago, Syracuse overwhelmed Cody Zeller and company down low. Freshman Noah Vonleh will be charged with leading a more competitive Hoosier effort against C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant and the rest of that long, athletic Orange front line, but any real hope that Indiana has rests in the backcourt. Syracuse youngsters Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney have passed all tests to this point, but Hoosier dynamo Yogi Ferrell will offer them their stiffest challenge yet – on both ends of the court. He was but an afterthought in their meeting eight months ago, but Ferrell might need to be the best player on the court if Indiana is to avenge that March defeat.
Welcome To The Big Ten
Future Big Ten member Maryland will get a taste of what life will be like next season when it visits Ohio State on Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET). The Terrapins may not necessarily enjoy their visit to Columbus – few Buckeye opponents do – but Thad Matta’s team should offer them the quintessential Big Ten experience. Ohio State will both force turnovers (9th nationally in turnover percentage) and contest shots (4th in effective field goal percentage against) unlike any opponent the Terrapins will face this year. Aaron Craft spearheads the nation’s most efficient defensive unit but will face a unique challenge when he matches up against oversized Terrapin point guard Dez Wells. Despite the size disadvantage, expect the ultra-competitive Craft to make life plenty difficult for Wells. A similar mission will be on the mind of his Buckeye teammates, as Ohio States hopes to inform the ACC departees that life in the Big Ten is rarely easy.
To The Deeper Conference Goes The Spoils
In the last decade, only once has the conference that lost the Challenge gone on to post the higher end-of-year Pomeroy rating – the ACC in 2010. Who knew? And if you are looking to figure out which conference has the inside track to the title this season, you’d be well suited to examine the games featuring teams from the bottom halves of the two leagues. It’s not unfair to expect the big boys to hold serve on their home floors, which makes games like Illinois-Georgia Tech (Tuesday, 7:15 p.m. ET), Florida State-Minnesota (Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. ET), BC-Purdue (Wednesday, 9:00 p.m. ET), and Miami-Nebraska (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. ET) the true swing games of the challenge. They might matter more than you think.
More from Rush The Court: