Pitt. Michigan was able to pull away in the later segments of the game to secure a win, but the Wolverines will definitely be looking to avoid such a close finish in their NIT Championship game against Kansas State. This game has a few interesting story lines but perhaps the most intriguing is the return of Bruce Weber. Weber coached Illinois for the last 9 seasons, winning the Big Ten Championship twice, making the NCAA Tournament 6 times, the Sweet Sixteen twice, the national championship game in 2005, and holding a record of 5-5 against Beilein during that his tenure in Champaign.
Of course, Weber is now at Kansas State and his time at Illinois is in the past. The Wildcats have actually been pretty consistent over the last few years. Former coach Frank Martin decided to leave for South Carolina during the offseason, but he had secured 5 straight NCAA Tournament berths, a few solid tourney runs, and brought back a talented lineup for this season. Personally, I'm not completely sure why he left, but the bottomline is that it leaves Weber in a pretty good place for his first season.
Following last season, Kansas State finished #25 in the Kenpom ratings and with the #21 rated defense. Considering that Weber is considered a defensive coach, he should have a lot to work with this year. So far, the Wildcats have held their opponents to 55.2 pts per game and just 33.9% field goal shooting. They're not the best defense in the country, but they should shape up to be a solid unit as the season progresses. As of Wednesday, they had the #14 defense according to the Kenpom ratings.
What also helps them is the fact that just about everyone returns from last year's last year's NCAA Tournament squad. The only key loss is Jamar Samuels, who was a solid big man for the team last season. However, this team will have Jordan Henriquez and Adrian Diaz who are both 7-footers. Michigan played pretty well against Pitt's Steven Adams, who is a 7 footer, but both of these players have a lot more experience than Adamas. Henriquez is a senior and Diaz will be a sophomore. There's no doubt that Michigan's frontcourt will be challenged again. One thing thing to note is that I said Michigan's frontcourt would be challenged in my Pitt preview and Michigan's frontcourt actually held up pretty well, especially once they got two big men out there. Along with this, Henriquez and Diaz only combined for 6 pts and 6 rebounds last night against Delaware.
Kansas St may have a talented frontcourt, but they also have one of the most dynamic wing players in the country in Rodney McGruder. He averaged 15.8 points per game last year and has the ability to light up the scoreboard at anytime. He does have the same tendency as Hardaway, to disappear at times, but Michigan will have to dedicate some serious time to guarding him. He was not much of a factor in their game against Delaware, but he still had 8 pts, 5 rebs, and 3 steals.
And that leaves us with the most talented part of the Wildcat roster, the backcourt. Will Spradling and Angel Rodriguez make one of the best backcourts in the Big 12. Both had 12 pts against Delaware and they had a combined 12 assists. Along with this, Rodriguez made one of the key plays of the game to get the Wildcats up by 5 points in crunch time against Delaware. I still strongly believe that Michigan has the advantage in the backcourt with Burke and Hardaway, but slowing down these players will be key, especially since Michigan had some trouble against Pitt players like Trey Zeigler.
Overall, Michigan should still have an advantage against Kansas St on Friday. Yes, they have solid and experienced players around the court, but Michigan has more than enough to match their roster. They have a deep frontcourt, but Michigan has already shown that they can play well and rebound well (Michigan out-rebounded Pitt 31-21) against big teams. Michigan will probably never have a decisive advantage against teams in the frontcourt until McGary develops more, but I think this is a lot closer to a push or even than many people will say.
And of course, Michigan has a clear advantage in the backcourt and probably on the wing as well. Michigan still has a lot of areas to improve, but if they can play defense like they did in the second half and be more effective on the offensive side, I really think Michigan should win this game. Kansas St is pretty deep, but Michigan just faced one of the deepest and bench "friendliest" teams in the entire nation. I expect this game to be relatively close, but if Michigan can rebound well, get some consistent play going, and knock down a few 3-pt shots, I think they will be able to have a solid win.
Prediction: Michigan 68-62