Opponent Tracker: Five Key Games

The college basketball season is fluid. Not all teams live up to their preseason hype, and many under-appreciated squads aren’t content on settling for bottom-dwelling expectations. Because of this fluidity, the quality of specific wins and losses can change greatly throughout the course of a season, dependent on how each opponent’s season unfolds.

Typically, this space will be reserved for tracking the progress of Michigan’s last five opponents and its next five foes. Since the sample size isn’t big enough to do so this early in the season, this week’s Opponent Tracker offers a current look at the five most important games for Michigan this season.

December 3rd: at No. 3 Louisville

KenPom Prediction (as of Nov. 9): Louisville 76 - Michigan 65

KenPom U-M victory percentage (as of Nov. 9): 15 percent

The 2019-20 season offers a deluge of firsts for Michigan head coach Juwan Howard. The early-December matchup against the Cardinals represents the Wolverines first trek into a hostile road environment, first matchup with a bonafide Top-10 team and NCAA title contender, first appearance in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and also the first opportunity for a signature win.

The nationally-televised tilt provides a first glimpse at how Howard’s Michigan squad will respond in a big-game environment, and may also provide a first look at highly-anticipated freshman guard Franz Wagner—who was projected to miss 4-6 weeks after fracturing his wrist on Oct. 21. Although a competitive loss here won’t break their season, keeping up with UL on the road for 40 minutes would certainly bode well for the rest of the Wolverines’ season.

December 14: vs. No. 29 Oregon

KenPom Prediction (as of Nov. 9): Michigan 69 - Oregon 66

KenPom U-M victory percentage (as of Nov. 9): 62 percent

Michigan faces a wildcard in No. 29 Oregon, which was picked to finish first in its conference in the preseason PAC 12 Media Poll. The Ducks are tasked with replacing five of their top six scorers from a year ago, but return talented senior point guard Payton Richard, who flirted with the NBA Draft over the offseason. 

The 2019 PAC 12 Tournament Most Outstanding Player averaged 12.9 points, 4.6 assists and 1.8 steals per game as a junior while leading the country in minutes played (1,349), and will provide a tough early-season test for U-M senior point guard Zavier Simpson.

A key aspect of this game to keep an eye on is tempo. Last season, Oregon ranked 328th in the country with a 64.2 Adjusted Tempo, according to KenPom, while the Wolverines are determined to open the game up and run the floor much more so than in recent years. 

Michigan’s ability to dictate the pace against the Ducks could prove to be an early-season indicator of how their new, faster offensive philosophy will fare against some of the more deliberate teams that they will face in conference play.

February 4: vs No. 11 Ohio State

KenPom Prediction (as of Nov. 9): Michigan 67 - Ohio State 66

KenPom U-M victory percentage (as of Nov. 9): 53 percent

Michigan begins the second half of its conference slate with a critical home matchup against rival Ohio State, and by this point we should have a fairly accurate idea of where the 2019-20 Wolverines stand in the Big Ten pecking order. If the team is still within striking distance of the league’ top spot - or at least a top-four finish and two-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament - a victory would offer valuable momentum heading into the stretch run. 

Conversely, a loss would present a realistic possibility, if not a probability, that Howard begins his head coaching career 0-2 against U-M’s traditional rivals with a trip to East Lansing on Feb. 8. If the past tells us anything, struggles against OSU and MSU can quickly become a source of angst for Maize and Blue faithful, especially if the Wolverines are experiencing more growing pains than anticipated under their first-year head coach.

February 8: vs. No. 1 Michigan State

KenPom Prediction (as of Nov. 9): Michigan State 73 - Michigan 68

KenPom U-M victory percentage (as of Nov. 9): 32 percent

Michigan finished 0-3 against the Spartans last season and, while not out of the realm of possibilities, defeating MSU at the Breslin Center Jan. 5 is going to be a tall task for any team in college basketball this season. U-M will likely be staring at the possibility of a fifth consecutive loss to it’s in-state adversary when the Spartans visit Crisler Center for a nationally-televised Saturday matinee.

Similar to when John Beilein and the 2011 Wolverines snapped a four-game losing streak to Michigan State with a win that seemed to affirm and propel the direction of the program, a victory would provide the signature moment in the first year of the Howard era. The most important game of the 2019-20 regular season, the contest has the makings of one that could mean more than just a notch in the win-loss column.

March 8: at No. 17 Maryland

KenPom Prediction (as of Nov. 9): Maryland 74 - Michigan 69

KenPom U-M victory percentage (as of Nov. 9): 33 percent

In a perfect world, Michigan will cap its regular season in College Park with an opportunity to wrap up the Big Ten regular season crown. A more-likely best-case scenario is that the Wolverines will be vying to improve their conference tournament posture and bolster their NCAA Tournament resume when it visits preseason Top-10 Maryland.

In addition to the season finale against the Terrapins, Michigan’s final five games include contests at preseason Top-25 Purdue and Ohio State, and home games against Wisconsin and Nebraska. Should the Wolverines struggle during that final stretch, a road victory against what is likely to be a Top-15 Maryland team would go a long way in negating any thoughts by the NCAA Tournament Committee of U-M being a team limping towards the finish line.