The Virginia men’s basketball team (5-1) has held six straight opponents under 60 points for the first time since 1948-49.
Now, one could argue that none of the Cavaliers’ foes thus far has been very imposing, and that’s why – even though Virginia is less than a quarter of the way through a 30-game regular season slate – Tuesday night’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge contest against No. 14 Michigan (5-1) at John Paul Jones Arena is somewhat critical for a squad with NCAA tournament aspirations.
The Wolverines, who have beaten No. 22 Memphis and UCLA and hung tough against No. 3 Duke, in all likelihood will stand as the most prominent non-conference opponent Virginia faces this season.With few opportunities to boost its Rating Percentage Index – a metric based on a team’s wins and losses and strength of schedule used to help select the 68-team NCAA tournament field – during its non-conference slate, Virginia’s fortunes in March could be significantly affected by Tuesday night’s outcome.
Led by sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (17.2 pgg) and freshman guard Trey Burke (4.2 apg), Michigan is a squad that likes to shoot three-pointers more than most, though its three-point shooting percentage (32.8 percent) is roughly the same as Virginia’s (32.5 percent). The Wolverines also mix in a fair amount of zone defense with their man-to-man defensive efforts.
Michigan has scored 73 points or more in each of its past three contests, so Virginia’s defensive stinginess seemingly will be tested. Here are three things to keep an eye on:
1) Virginia’s ability to defend the perimeter. Roughly 41 percent of Michigan’s field goal attempts this season have come from beyond the three-point line. By comparison, 29.7 percent of Virginia’s field goal attempts have originated beyond the arc. Virginia’s three-point percentage defense (23.8 percent allowed) has been solid, but again, the Cavaliers have yet to face a team the caliber of Michigan. Five of the Wolverines’ top six players are capable three-point shooters. Senior guard Zack Novak has been Michigan’s best long-range shooter (44 percent).
2) Rebounding battle. With neither team exactly lighting it up from three-point range, it’s possible there will be an abundance of second-chance scoring opportunities. Fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott is averaging 10 rebounds per game for the Cavaliers, but he’ll likely need some help. Scott has tallied 17 offensive rebounds in six games; no other Virginia player has grabbed more than six. Michigan has three players – sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz, redshirt sophomore forward Jordan Morgan and sophomore forward Jon Horford – who have grabbed 10 offensive rebounds this season. The Cavaliers will need strong efforts on the boards Tuesday from senior center Assane Sene, as well as reserve forwards Akil Mitchell (a sophomore), Darion Atkins (a freshman) and James Johnson (a redshirt freshman). Guards Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon also should be able to provide Scott meaningful rebounding assistance.
3) Turnovers. Virginia has more turnovers (79) than assists (70), including 16 turnovers in a 60-52 win Nov. 21 over Drake and 19 in a 57-55 loss against Texas Christian on Nov. 18. Granted, Michigan does not employ the same high-pressure defensive system that TCU did, but the Wolverines have forced their opponents to commit an average of 15 turnovers per contest. That’s roughly the same amount as the Virginia defense is forcing (15.2). One factor that could aid the Cavaliers is the availability of fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski, who re-injured his ankle during Friday’s win over Wisconsin-Green Bay. Zeglinski’s status for Tuesday night’s game is unclear, though he said he expects to be able to play. Third-year coach Tony Bennett has lauded Zeglinski’s steadying hand and spoke highly of the value Zeglinski’s experience brings to the team.