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Unique Michigan a challenge for UT

Tennessee’s first try at stopping Michigan’s offense ended miserably.

Evan Smotrycz, at 6-foot-9, is one of Michigan's rare frontcourt players with good size.

Fortunately for the Volunteers, those tough lessons were learned against their own scout team.

“I thought the scout team did really well,” Vols coach Bruce Pearl said. “Unfortunately, they did too well.”

If Friday afternoon’s NCAA tournament game in Charlotte looks anything like Monday night, UT’s starters might be in trouble.

An optimist would suggest three days is an eternity in basketball. A pessimist would point out the Vols have a long way to go.

“Michigan’s stuff is hard to guard, and it’s different than what we normally see,” Pearl said. “A lot of the principles that you need to have in the SEC about being away from your man and toward the ball and up lines, you’ve got to throw all that stuff out when you go up against that Princeton/Georgetown stuff. It was good to see it. We went against it. We’ve also taped it. What we’ll do now is we’ll put their action in our scout tapes, show our guys how we guarded it — where we guarded it well, where we struggled with it — and it’s going to have to be a learning process that will take place throughout the week, because we haven’t seen anything like this all year long.

“It’s very, very beneficial for us to play Michigan on a Friday, as opposed to Thursday. It is, because they’re a tough scout, because what they do is so unusual.”

The Wolverines’ personnel is even more unusual.

Michigan’s 6-foot-4 point guard is bigger than its 6-2 shooting guard. The Wolverines’ 6-5 small forward is bigger than their 6-4 power forward.

Tobias Harris can glide with anyone. But can Tennessee's 6-8 freshman forward defend Michigan's smaller frontcourt?

And all four players can shoot.

“Their backup 5 shoot 3s. Everybody on their team shoots 3s,” UT senior center Brian Williams said. “Their point guard gets like seven assists a game. We’ve got our hands full, 1 through 5.”

Many basketball fans would see the Wolverines’ lack of size in the post and consider that a major advantage for the Vols. Statistically, that could be the case. Michigan is a rare NCAA tournament team that was out-rebounded in the regular season.

It’s not difficult to make that assumption. A few Vols certainly did, considering their starting power forward is versatile, 6-foot-8 freshman Tobias Harris.

“We’re ready for Tobias to have a big night in there, ya feel me?” junior guard Scotty Hopson said. “Obviously we want to expose that, because Tobias is obviously one of the best players on our team. We’re looking forward to getting the ball inside more and taking advantage of (Michigan’s) lack of posts.”

Added sophomore guard Skylar McBee: “We’ve got to go inside, because they’re a little bit smaller, so we have to kill them on the glass.”

But Hopson, McBee and other teammates — as well as their coach — noted the flipside to that point. That means a power forward has to defend a guard on the other end of the court, which often causes problems.

It wasn’t so long ago that UT started 6-4 Dane Bradshaw at power forward, and the Vols won the SEC and advanced to the SEC with that lineup.

“Obviously it’s awkward,” Vols senior guard Josh Bone said. “Coach Pearl told us today, ‘When you go out there and look at them, you’re going to see a 4 man that’s (Steven) Pearl’s size or shorter, and you’re going to think we’re going to get every rebound and do what we have to do. But it’s not going to be easy, because they slow it down, and they’re disciplined. We got a little taste of that today in practice, just running through their stuff, and they’re getting wide-open shots, and we don’t know how, because we’ve yet to face a 4 man that can really step outside and shoot the 3.

“Their movements coming off of double screens, and trying to read those screens, they’re able to ready it, backdoor it, flair — do whatever they want to, really, and it’s tough.”

Bradshaw was a converted point guard who happened to be a tremendous rebounder at his size, so he bothered defenses with his ability to penetrate and find open teammates. But Bradshaw wasn’t a good perimeter shooter, and Michigan’s Zack Novak shoots 37 percent from behind the arc.

Michigan runs various ball screens and dribble hand-offs with Novak and the center. Bruce Pearl quickly noticed that on film Sunday night and pondered the possible matchup issues.

“Novak is kind of like Steven Pearl or Dane Bradshaw with a jump shot,” UT’s coach said. “He’s a tough, tough kid. There’s no way to duplicate than other than to say he’s a lot like Pearl, except he’s got a jump shot — a terrific jump shot. Again, that’s very unique. We just haven’t seen that. One of the things that made Dane so unique is that he was a tremendous dribble penetrator, such a tremendous defender and creator, and a great rebounder.

“He played so much bigger than his size, and that’s what Novak does.”

Bruce Pearl said Novak, like Bradshaw, is a solid post defender despite his lack of size.

“Bradshaw fouled you every time,” Pearl said with a grin. “Novak gets inside, and we’ll run Tobias Harris down there, and we’ll post him up, and Novak will foul him every time, and they’ll let him get away with it because he’s smaller. And then they’ll rotate different people down there and double up the post. But it’s still something you’ve got to look at. Everybody’s going to look at it. But you’re right — just because he’s a little smaller doesn’t mean it’s (an advantage).

“It’s hard to get it in there, and it’s hard to score down there, even though you’ve got an advantage in the post.”

Williams noted another obvious point. It’s March, so playing with a small lineup is nothing new to the Wolverines.

“Even though they’re a small team, they’re in the Big Ten, so they know what physical basketball is like, and they’ve obviously dealt with it if they made the tournament,” UT’s 6-10 senior said. “Obviously they’ve played some bigs this season and dominated them. They played (Oakland’s) Keith Benson and limited him to whatever — I mean, they beat them by 20 points.

“You can’t take nothing for granted right now. Size don’t matter. It’s only about the size of your heart.”

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