The Michigan men’s basketball team entered Tuesday’s game against No. 3 Virginia without an impressive run after a second-half upset. But on Sunday, the Wolverines have an opportunity to step up their eye-catching game against another highly-ranked opponent. As Michigan seeks a different result in its upcoming matchup against No. 19 Kentucky, it will do so in a different setting — unfamiliar to both teams.
The Wolverines are going to face the Wildcats Londoncontest planned three years ago in what was supposed to be a three part series in which each team hosted their opponent before the match in England. The match in London was originally scheduled for December 2020, but was canceled due to COVID-19. The difficulties caused by the pandemic prevented Michigan from accepting Kentucky 2021-22 season, but this year, without the problems caused by the pandemic, the two teams will finally meet across the pond.
“Hopefully the fans in London will embrace the Michigan basketball team and the spirit of Michigan basketball,” Michigan State coach Juwan Howard said Monday. “I think it’s going to be great, now you have two powerhouses, Kentucky and Michigan, playing overseas.”
Only a day after them losses for the Cavaliers, the Wolverines were forced to turn around, leaving the country — and with it — any regrets about Tuesday’s loss.
While Michigan enters Sunday’s game with a loss, it is also coming off one of its strongest showings of the season – despite adding a tally to the loss column.
“The way we competed, the effort we had for 40 minutes, that’s a big positive you can take away from the (Virginia) game,” Howard said after Tuesday’s loss to Virginia. “To see our energy (and the energy) that our fans brought tonight … that energized our band.”
Against the Cavaliers, the Wolverines came out strong, shooting well from beyond the arc, something they had struggled with in previous contests. They also found ways to slow down Virginia’s high-powered offense, which seemed to be finally starting to take shape in the defensive center. But Michigan went cold from the three-point line in the second half, and the Cavaliers’ high-powered offense proved too difficult to stop.
Regardless of the outcome, facing rivals of the caliber of Virginia and Kentucky will give the Wolverines key experience as Big Ten play approaches.
After falling to the level of lowly opponents in previous non-conference games, this was Michigan’s first glimpse of competing against its rivals. If he can put forth the same effort and energy as he did in the first half and grow from his shortcomings in the second half, he will have a chance to not only challenge the WildCats, but upset them.
“I would say (Tuesday) was probably the biggest step we’ve taken,” junior center Hunter Dickinson said after Tuesday’s loss to Virginia. “I think it was a very good performance for us, in our discipline, I think that’s what we lacked in the first part of the season. … Virginia has a good offense, … so they’re going to force you to be tough and patient defensively, and that’s something we lacked before this game.”
But Wolverines have no work to do if they are to take another step forward on Sunday. Four of Kentucky’s five starters — including last season’s AP Player of the Year, forward Oscar Chibwe — are seniors, giving the Wildcats an experience advantage over Michigan’s young core.
Kentucky’s ability to get a variety of players to score is another of its strengths. Five Wildcats are averaging more than 10 points per game. On the other hand, the Wolverines found most of their offense through Dickinson and rookie wing Jett Howard, who averaged 34.2 points per game. Finding other sources of production will be key for Michigan to find success against a Kentucky team.
“I think (Virginia) was a good building block,” Dickinson said. “Especially for the next game we play because it’s going to be another great team as well.”
If the Wolverines can take that building block and continue to improve, maybe they can pull off what they came close to Tuesday and get a quality win over a ranked opponent. But if they can’t contain the Wildcats’ commanding offense and find consistency behind the arc for the full 40 minutes, it’s going to be a long plane ride back to the Colonies.