The Michigan basketball team knew it was entering a tough stretch in the season when it boarded its plane to the Bahamas last week.
The Wolverines would play three or four potential NCAA Tournament teams in a week, and have trips to the Bahamas and Raleigh, North Carolina with just one full day at home in between.
Things tough got tougher on Saturday, however, when the team’s charter bus broke down for nearly 11 hours at the Nassau airport. Though it disrupted sleep and shortened the already-short stay in Ann Arbor, the trip did produce senior guard Spike Albrecht being Spike Albrecht.
Monday evening, less than 48 hours after returning to campus but with two more practices under their belts, the Wolverines were back on the road, this time traveling to Raleigh to take on North Carolina State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
“It was a great week we spent in the Bahamas, we grew a lot as a team,” said Michigan coach John Beilein on Monday. “Now we have to go into the Big Ten/ACC Challenge for our first true road game. We’ll have the music blaring today, it’ll be loud … I don’t care how many times you’ve done it, the first time you go on the road is always unique again.
“It is what it is. … Frankly I’d rather just play right now (than rest).”
Though the Wolfpack (4-2) don’t look quite as stout as Xavier and UConn, the short rest can make it tricky for Michigan to keep up. Fortunately for the Wolverines (4-2), of all the issues the team has had, depth and energy aren’t among them.
NC State, on the other hand, is quite the opposite, boasting seven players that are averaging more than 20 minutes per game, but not much else off the bench.
“When I look at them I see a seven-man rotation,” Beilein said. “Do they have depth? No. But do they have chemistry and symmetry? Absolutely.”
On short rest against its fourth potential tournament team in 10 days, Michigan will need its depth to shine through in Raleigh.
Post presence a necessity
A common theme this season, the Wolverines also need their post players to step up Tuesday night. Only two Wolfpack players have shot 3-pointers this season, so the vast majority of their offense will run through the post — a notable weak spot in Michigan’s lineup.
“We’re seeing a lot of the same types of things with big bodies inside,” Beilein said. “It’s tough.”
Since leaving for the Bahamas a week ago, Beilein has shifted the hierarchy of forwards, and freshman Moe Wagner has surpassed redshirt freshman D.J. Wilson and junior Mark Donnal as the first big off the bench.
Sophomore Ricky Doyle remains the starter, but the suddenly-hot Wagner doesn’t need much time to provide a spark for the Wolverines.
“(Wagner’s growth) has really been encouraging for all of us, you guys saw what I saw,” Beilein said. “He’s still got to learn a bit about defense, especially (facing) the body-length kids he has to face. We’ve got more guys that are 6-10, 240, one guy 280 that he may match up with at times, but they have to match up with him too.”
The Wolfpack are averaging 45 rebounds per game and a 39.7% offensive rebound rate (by comparison, Michigan is averaging 33 rebounds and a 28.6 ORR), so Doyle, Wagner and the rest of the forwards have their work cut out for them in one of their biggest seasons yet.
Zak back, Spike shut down
Though a less common theme as the season progresses, Michigan is still looking for players to both mentally and physically recover from injury.
Not all of the rehabs have been easy. Beilein noted that senior guard Spike Albrecht may have gone full-speed too soon, and will be shutting Albrecht down from practices, deferring to physical therapy instead.
“We’re really going to shut Spike down for right now,” Beilein said. “He may play in games, but we’re going to do different things with him rather than practice so he can hopefully get ready for the Big Ten season.
“I’m concerned with anybody who’s been out that long, it’s not an easy thing to come back from.”
Beilein noted that there was no official timetable for Albrecht’s return to practice, but said the guard could see game action to eat up minutes or help out in foul trouble.
Zak Irvin, on the other hand, is opening up rather than being shut down. After a slow start, the junior forward has scored 25 points on 60-percent shooting in Michigan’s last two games. He also chipped in four rebounds and six assists in those contests — both wins.
“I’ve never had this before, (rehabbing) four guys,” Beilein said. “They’re out for a long time and all of a sudden (people think) ‘Ooh, they’re back. The doctor cleared them!’ No, they’re not back until they’re back. He’s still not back, but he’s getting better every day.”