Previewing IU vs. Michigan: Seven questions about the Wolverines

Ahead of Indiana’s game at Michigan on Saturday, The Daily Hoosier caught up with Wolverines beat writer Clayton Sayfie from to preview the matchup. Here’s what he had to say about UM and IU.

The Daily Hoosier: Michigan’s sitting in the cluster of teams tied for second in the Big Ten, despite a 14-10 overall record. How has that happened? How did Michigan get to this point?

Clayton Sayfie: Michigan could just not close out games early on in the season and had a disastrous loss to Central Michigan, the Wolverines’ first Quad 4 setback since 2010 against Indiana. Eight of the team’s 10 losses have come by six or fewer points or ended in overtime.

The Wolverines also saw starting point guard Jaelin Llewellyn, a graduate transfer from Princeton, go down with a season-ending knee injury December 4 against Kentucky. That thrust freshman Dug McDaniel into the most important spot on the floor, and there have been growing pains for a player who should be seeing 10 minutes per night at this point but is playing 30-plus.

They’ve gotten to second place in the Big Ten by protecting home court — Michigan is 5-1 at home during league play, with the lone loss being by five points to No. 1 Purdue — and started out the conference slate with a schedule on the easier side.

TDH: What have been the drivers behind Michigan’s three-game winning streak? What have the Wolverines done well in these last few games?

CS: Just like Indiana’s recent stretch — albeit the Hoosiers have been playing good ball for nearly a month now — it’s hard to pinpoint whether Michigan has actually turned a corner or if it’s just played the right teams at the right time in the right venue. Their three victories came against Northwestern in Evanston (the Wildcats were playing their fifth game in 11 days) and Ohio State (who’s lost 10 of its last 11 games) and Nebraska (who’s the second-worst team in the league) at home.

That’s why this is such a big prove-it game for the Maize and Blue, who can get back in the NCAA Tournament conversation with a Quad 1 win.

Still, we have seen some improvement from Michigan. It’s shooting it better from 3-point range — graduate guard Joey Baker, a Duke transfer, has provided a big boost off the bench, shooting 8 of 13 from deep over the three-game stretch — and the defense has picked up. Junior center Hunter Dickinson has also been dominant at times, highlighted by his 26-point performance in the victory over arch rival Ohio State.

TDH: The key matchup in this game is obviously Hunter Dickinson against Trayce Jackson-Davis inside. What are you expecting there?

CS: Trayce Jackson-Davis has taken a big step forward, becoming even more of a force on the inside, but his improved passing from the high post has impressed me the most (his 26.2 assist rate during league play ranks eighth in the Big Ten!). That means that, even if Dickinson does slow down Jackson-Davis, who’s averaging 14 points per game in four meetings with Michigan, he can still burn the Wolverines with his passing.

Jackson-Davis has a quickness advantage, but while Dickinson is an average defender, his size and length will help him out here, as we’ve seen in the past. And he’s actually very good at guarding the post. Michigan, which has struggled in ball-screen defense, has to be wary of the Hoosiers’ big men diving to the tin.

The battle on the inside may well determine the game.  Indiana is 1-4 against high-major opponents when Jackson-Davis makes seven or fewer buckets. Michigan is 7-7 versus high-majors when Dickinson makes seven or fewer two-point shots. The Hoosiers are 5-7 when they shoot worse than 55 percent on twos and 4-5 when opponents shoot 50 percent or better from inside the arc.

TDH: What’s the scouting report on Jett Howard?

CS: Michigan guard Jett Howard — the head coach’s youngest son who played AAU ball with Indiana freshman forward Malik Reneau — is so impressive for a freshman on the offensive end, a reason why he’s a projected lottery pick (or at least in the first round) on some mock drafts.

He’s great in ball screens (though he ranks third on the team in ball-screen volume), as a catch-and-shoot gunner and even on dribble jumpers, some with a high degree of difficulty.

Howard still has a ton to learn defensively, easily Michigan’s weak link on that end of the floor. If we were the Wolverines, we’d be a bit worried about his matchup with Miller Kopp, an elite shooter in his own right, because he falls asleep at times defensively.

TDH: Indiana will win this game if…

CS: If it can slow down Michigan’s ball-screen attack and keep the Wolverines’ guards out of the lane, as well as score on the inside against the Wolverines. Indiana shoots a good percentage from long range but plays two bigs who can’t shoot and doesn’t attempt many threes, so Michigan should be more concerned about slowing down Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson than anything else, though the others — Jalen Hood-Schifino, most notably — can still hurt it.

The Hoosiers are shooting 49.5 percent on twos in true road games this season, but it would be impressive if they can come in and buck that trend at Crisler.

TDH: Michigan will win this game if…

CS: McDaniel and Kobe Bufkin play well. The two have done a much better job as of late, especially Bufkin, which takes some of the pressure off of Dickinson, who’s had to carry this team for stretches. Michigan also needs to slow down the Hoosiers’ interior game, as we talked about.

TDH: What’s your score prediction, and why?

CS: Michigan has come to life from 3-point range lately, and as long as Dickinson is productive on the block and the Wolverines don’t go cold from deep, they should have a great chance in this one. Indiana is 3-7 when opponents score 1.05 points per possession or better, something the Maize and Blue have done in four of their last five games and 14 times this year.

Prediction: Michigan 78, Indiana 74

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