ANN ARBOR, Mich. — So who’s the favorite here, really?
The Arizona Wildcats, with their No. 1 ranking, smoking-hot rebounding edge and defensive tenacity?
Or Michigan, the national runner-up last season, with dangerous three-point shooting, a nonconference home winning streak of 20 games and a huge logistical edge — considering Arizona had to play Wednesday, then fly in Friday evening and set up for a morning game on their body clocks?
Las Vegas has no idea. The game opened as a “pick ’em” at Nevada casinos.
And it’s not even clear who’s under the most pressure.
Maybe it’s Arizona, carrying that increasingly big target on their backs into chilly Big Ten country. The Wildcats know a loss today could take away that top ranking, at least until what is expected to be a rugged Pac-12 season.
Or maybe it’s Michigan, which raised expectations by reaching the national championship game last season, then dropping three games so far this season. The Wolverines have no bad losses but no résumé-building wins, either.
“This is the kind of game we need to have,” Michigan senior forward Jordan Morgan said. “We haven’t had any big wins like this in preseason nonconference except maybe Florida State (in Puerto Rico), so it’s important to get some of those key nonconference games.”
So far, the Wolverines’ performance could be viewed as being about what was expected. After all, Michigan lost a pair of NBA first-rounders from the backcourt in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., and has had NCAA tournament hero Mitch McGary coping with a sore back.
On top of all that, Michigan decided to schedule a road game at Iowa State, which just happened to be getting off to its best start in a decade. The Wolverines lost by seven in Ames, Iowa, then lost to Charlotte by two points in the final of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten/ACC Challenge sent the Wolverines off to Durham, N.C., where Michigan lost to Duke by 10.
“I think it’s time for us to turn things around,” Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III said. “It’s not like we’ve had a terrible season but we have to continue to get better every day.”
In Michigan’s ideal world, here’s three ways that happens (Arizona players and UA coach Sean Miller were not available for comment after Wednesday’s game with New Mexico State):
• The Wolverines limit Arizona’s offensive boards. The Wildcats are not only out-rebounding opponents by an average of 14.3 per game, but also are pulling down 42.7 percent of their missed shots.
In order to run their effective transition defense most effectively, the Wolverines can’t afford that to happen.
“People aren’t running on them because they’re only getting the ball out of the net, and not off the backboard,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “So if we can just find a way to get stops so we can get the ball up the floor … that’s a big issue. Our defense is gonna be the key to our offense. It’ll be so much about field position. Defensive rebounding is a strength of ours and a strength of theirs is offensive rebounding.”
• They get off their three-point shots. Michigan is shooting 38.6 percent from three-point range, with guard Nik Stauskas having hit exactly half of his 48 long-range attempts, but Arizona has kept its first 10 opponents to just 27.2 percent on average from beyond the arc.
Even Duke hit only 4 of 14 against the Wildcats, while New Mexico State was 2 for 11 on Wednesday.
One reason, the way Beilein sees it: Arizona’s length and athleticism on defense.
He was so concerned, in fact, that he actually had his shooters work around long sticks during Friday’s practice.
Arizona has “a tremendous length in their gaps,” Beilein said. “So you’re going to see them in gap defense … (and) their length at the other positions helps in the gaps. They can help and recover so well out of those gaps, you think you’re open for a three … (but) they can close back out and get there.”
• They believe in themselves. Robinson said the Wolverines are a particularly close-knit group this season, while he and Stauskas said they believe they are close to making good things happen on the court now, too.
Maybe starting today.
“I think we’re pretty close,” Stauskas said. “Last year at this time we were undefeated … we kind of felt invincible. But we’ve got a lot of guys who like each other, like playing with each other, and we look forward to working together to pull this thing off.”