Outlook: Michigan comes into Assembly Hall as the No. 1 team in the nation and the best offensive team in the country. Although the Wolverines play at a pace that is among the slower in the country, this is an excellent transition team that scores opportunistically. When Michigan runs, the Wolverines finish and score at a high rate and are devastatingly efficient. The 3-point field goals the Wolverines hit in transition are deflating. Michigan is smart, runs the lanes hard and takes advantage of open space. Michigan has the best point guard in the nation and dynamic wings who can attack the rim, and shooters who can space to the 3-point line. Trey Burke is the first Big Ten player to average more than 17 points and 7 assists per game since Magic Johnson, and is a complete guard who does absolutely everything for Michigan. Tim Hardaway Jr. is an outstanding spot-up shooter and can really run the lanes on the break. He is at his best curling off his left shoulder, as a right-hand driver, and going left to pull up. Freshman Nik Stauskas is one of the best standstill shooters in the country, shooting close to 50 percent from 3-point range. Glenn Robinson III is another dynamic wing finisher and an improving defender who can affect the game with his athleticism and energy. Jordan Morgan, out recently with an ankle injury, Mitch McGary, a lefty freshman big man, and Jon Horford all can play the pivot, but none is a shooter who can screen and space. All get theirs near the basket. On the defensive end, Michigan is better than last season, and does a solid-but-not-spectacular job in slowing down, containing and challenging shots. Michigan is good defensively, but not great. The Wolverines switch a lot of screens -- and a prepared team can take advantage of that. Michigan’s ball-screen defense is OK, but the Wolverines can be vulnerable on the glass and off the dribble.
If Michigan is the best offensive team in the country, Indiana is not far off. Cody Zeller leads the way as the top scorer and top rebounder, but the sophomore is also a solid steals guy who runs the floor better than any big man in the nation. Freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell hasn’t yet shot the ball as well as he can, but he is a good shooter who has been very good on the ball defensively, and has done a good job leading at the point. Will Sheehey is one of the toughest players in the Big Ten, and can score, pass and rebound his position and defend it, too. Zeller is the best running big man in the country. He sprints downcourt and puts an enormous amount of pressure on opposing big men. Zeller sets drag ball screens and stays flat on the baseline, but remains the Hoosiers’ top scorer and rebounder, and still chases down the most offensive rebounds. Indiana runs a lot of dribble handoffs and ball screens and does a good job of penetrating defenses off the dribble. On the defensive end, Indiana plays mostly man-to-man, with some 2-3 zone and the occasional 1-2-2 or 1-2-1-1 press to slow the opposing team and get key turnovers. Indiana is among the top scoring and shooting teams in the country, and has a defensive heart and soul in Victor Oladipo, a player who makes you special with his defensive energy and prowess.
Michigan’s best: Burke. No player in the nation is better in transition and with the ball in his hands. He is a one-man break, and balances attacking the defense with dishing it to teammates in the position to make a play. Burke has an outstanding step-back move and shooting stroke. To slow Burke, you have to make him work for everything, and to take nothing but tough 2s instead of kick-out or open 3s off dribble penetration. To slow Burke, Indiana will have to use a big man to corral him in transition, and stick with shooters on the perimeter.
Indiana’s best: Zeller. He might not excite some draft observers, but he is an outstanding runner with a great motor. Zeller can drive the ball, and Hoosiers coach Tom Crean runs a few isolation plays to allow him to do that. Zeller has some areas in which he needs to improve, including hitting a perimeter shot and rebounding productivity. He is coming off a really good outing against Purdue after consecutive struggles against Penn State and Michigan State. But despite the questions of certain scouts, Zeller is Indiana’s best player and the one the Hoosiers can’t afford to lose.
Michigan’s X factor: Stauskas. The Canadian sharpshooter is very smart about making himself available for spot-up 3-point attempts, but he also attacks the rim when he gets the right read ... and he is angry when he attacks the rim. Stauskas is a better shooter than Hardaway or Robinson, and a tough-minded kid who is going to be a great player at Michigan.
Indiana’s X factor: Oladipo. Sure, Sheehey’s toughness will be a great asset, as will Ferrell’s transition ability and status as a one-man fast break. Oladipo has shown a stunning improvement from last season, especially with regard to his shooting stroke. Crean believes that there is no timetable on winning, and that it is a 365-days-a-year thing. Oladipo has been an everyday guy, and his development has been nothing short of remarkable. He is a terrific high-energy player who is primarily a driver, but also can grab offensive rebounds and knock down open perimeter shots. Oladipo’s highest and best use is on the defensive end, where he gets steals and deflections, and he is a legitimate candidate for Big Ten and national player of the year. Oladipo is a complete player and the best defender this side of Aaron Craft of Ohio State.
Key stats: Transition points, offensive rebounds and free throws. Both teams like to run, and this game is about rhythm and easy baskets. Against Michigan, Indiana’s task is to establish its own rhythm and to disrupt the Wolverines'. And whenever there is a ball that is long or loose, you have to go get it with every fiber in your being. That can be the difference between winning and losing a Big Ten regular-season title. No team shoots and makes more free throws than Indiana, and the free throw line will be a big factor in the game. If Michigan can keep the Hoosiers off the offensive glass and off the free throw line, the Wolverines can win in a hostile environment.
Who wins: Indiana is at home, and I simply don’t see the Hoosiers losing in Assembly Hall. Michigan is an outstanding team and worthy of the top spot, but I think the Hoosiers will win the rebounding and free throw battles. I think Indiana will come out on top 81-79.