In our never ending effort to mix things up in case our standard preview has in some way jinxed Minnesota’s season, Dylan from UM Hoops and I have decided to exchange questions, answer them, and then post the results on the internet. My answers to his questions can be found here. It isn’t quite as entertaining as Slate’s breakdown of The Wire, but it should be close.

If you aren’t reading UM Hoops, you’re missing out on some fine commentary that is frankly just too good for a team that shoots as poorly as the Wolverines. So go check it out, if for no other reason than the fact that he is one of the few independent, basketball only writers that cover the Big Ten.

1. Michigan took the college basketball world by storm with wins over UCLA and Duke. Now they are in very real danger of being on the wrong side of the bubble. What happened?

Michigan got off to a really good start this year thanks to playing really good basketball and catching a couple good breaks in terms of scheduling. UCLA and Duke are probably the two smallest top-15 teams in the country and Michigan’s biggest weakness is post-play. Couple the match-up strengths and a couple very good performances and you have a recipe for some early success.

The Big Ten season has been a bit of a trip back to reality for Michigan. There are some pretty clear holes in this roster and Big Ten teams have done a lot to expose them. Teams like Ohio State and Wisconsin were too much for Michigan inside. Michigan starts a 6-foot-5 (if that) freshman power forward and a 6-foot-8 center. Now add in the fact that Michigan can’t seem to hit three point shots anymore and you are going to struggle to win games.

Luckily with Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims I think this team is capable of playing with and probably beating anyone in the country if a couple of the secondary players step up. The downside is that they are capable of losing to just about anyone as well because Manny and DeShawn can’t do it all.

2. John Beilein’s teams play a unique style of basketball. What sort of progress have the Wolverines made in their second year, and what is up with the poor shooting?

Beilein’s teams definitely play a unique style of basketball, they like to spread it out and beat you with cutting, spacing, and three point shots. Last year was a debacle, Michigan went 10-22 and lost games to the likes of Harvard, Central Michigan, and Northwestern. This year has already shown dramatic improvement. The offense has had its ups and downs in terms of shooting numbers but it still looks much better than last year’s version.

Beilein brought in Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, and Ben Cronin (medical redshirt). Douglass and Novak both have the ability to shoot the ball but they have been extremely streaky. Novak has had some huge games but seems to be wearing down from guarding opposing power forwards. Douglass has also been streaky, he hit some huge shots against UCLA and had his career high against UConn but despite how pretty his stroke looks he has had plenty of o-fers.

3. Northwestern made Minnesota look silly with their 1-3-1 defense. Michigan was known for this style of defense, but seems to reverted back to a traditional man to man. Is this true, and if so, why the change?

Beilein really likes to mix up the defenses. We typically start out with the 1-3-1 after every made basket and if it works we stick with it. Beilein doesn’t hesitate to throw the whole thing out if it isn’t effective. The 1-3-1 was key in the UCLA and Duke upsets and sometimes it can really take a team out of their comfort zone. But for every game it worked well there are games where Michigan just scrapped the whole thing like Ohio State.

Starting with the UConn game we have also mixed in a little 2-3 zone. This worked well in Storrs but Michigan State picked it apart pretty well. Michigan has made big strides on the defensive end since CJ Lee was inserted into the lineup for Kelvin Grady. Lee is a 5th year senior and the best on the ball defender on the entire team. Stu Douglass is another guy who has stepped it up on defense, he played great defense on Stanley Pringle and Craig Moore. I think we saw a lot of man against teams like Penn State and Northwestern because they just have so many weapons from the perimeter and you don’t want to let them get hot.

4. Michigan finds itself in a similar position to the Gophers, in the second year of a rebuilding process that some might say is ahead of schedule. How would you rate the rebuilding process so far?

I would definitely say we are ahead of schedule. I honestly expected this team to squeak into the NIT rather than be on the bubble. A lot of Michigan fans changed their expectations after the UCLA and Duke upsets but I don’t think that is fair to the program. Beilein has followed a pretty steady trend everywhere he has gone and the third year is usually the breakthrough year.

Next year we lose Dave Merritt, CJ Lee, and Jevohn Shepherd. Two walk-ons, and a rarely used wing player. They will be replaced with Darius Morris (top 150 point guard) and Matt Vogrich, one of the best shooters in the country. Beilein is also bringing in a pair of big men who may be project-guys rather than instant impact guys, Jordan Morgan and Blake McLimans.

We should definitely be dancing next year and I think that this season is nothing less than an over achievement. That said, at this point if we can manage to win three more games I would assume we are in pretty good shape for a tournament spot. When you haven’t made the dance since 1998, you start hoping that this is the year.

5. We know Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, who else should we know?

I mentioned Douglass and Novak, the two freshmen shooters. Either one of them is capable of having a big game, but they have yet to both have big games at the same time. Laval Lucas-Perry was supposed to be the third scoring option when he transferred from Arizona but he has struggled after joining the rotation mid-way through the season. CJ Lee has moved into the starting point guard role but he isn’t much of a threat offensively. 6-foot-10 center Zack Gibson has shown flashes but he’s also very inconsistent. It’s basically a guessing game as to what (if any) secondary piece shows up. The key for Michigan is really to get Sims and Harris going because without them this team just can’t score enough points.

6. Any predictions for Thursday night?

This is a game that Michigan needs, no sugar coating it. I’m just not sure they have it in them. Minnesota got the sweep last year and I just don’t know that we can score enough points to pull off the win. The team is going to need to bring their A game and it starts at the top. I don’t want to see this season die though so I’ll go Michigan 62-Minnesota 61.

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