Big Ten Summer Check In: Michigan WolverinesPosted by Deepak Jayanti on July 11th, 2012
The 2011 NBA draft was not a pleasant experience for most Michigan hoops fans. Their best guard, Darius Morris, unexpectedly left for the NBA despite not being a guaranteed lottery pick. After taking Duke to the final seconds during the 2011 NCAA Tournament, most expected the core of the team to return for a run at the Big Ten title, but Morris’ exit left many doubts entering last season. Luckily, a confident young freshman named Trey Burke not only surprised Wolverine Nation but took the Big Ten landscape by storm as he collaborated with sophomore Tim Hardaway, Jr., to lead Michigan to its first Big Ten regular season championship since 1986. John Beilein trusted Burke with the offense and he delivered in the clutch, gaining confidence with every game.
Evaluating Last Year. Michigan finished the B1G regular season by going 6-1 down the stretch, with its only loss to a desperate Purdue team at home that was on fire from the field. Beilein’s crew won every game that it was supposed to in the home stretch despite being short-handed in the paint. Jordan Morgan did his best to defend dominant big men such as Jared Sullinger or Cody Zeller and got some help from Evan Smotrycz to hit the boards in a rugged conference. The Wolverines finished the Big Ten season at 13-5 and shared the regular season title with Ohio State and Michigan State. Michigan’s magical season ran into a hot shooting Ohio team in their first game of the NCAA Tournament, and it didn’t help that Burke and company couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean that night (shooting only 30% from beyond the arc on 23 three-point attempts). One of the Wolverines’ glaring weaknesses was magnified in the Tournament as they struggled to find offense beyond that primarily revolving on jumpers. Nonetheless, John Beilein has a great foundation in place for the 2012-13 season and has the program glowing with a winning attitude.
State of the Program. The Michigan Athletic Department deserves a ton of credit for hiring coaches who truly fit with the program. Both Brady Hoke (the football coach) and John Beilein have instilled themselves into the Michigan community and assumed full accountability to turn their respective programs around and bring Michigan to the forefront of the national landscape. Hoke led Michigan to a Sugar Bowl win after just one season and Beilein has taken Michigan back to the NCAA Tournament three times along with a B1G championship since coming to Ann Arbor. In the beginning of his tenure, Beilein took Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims to the NCAAs even though they didn’t necessarily fit into his style of offense. But the last couple years have involved “Beilein Ball” – a style with consistent ball movement and oriented around players who can shoot from any spot on the floor. His style of play is evident in the team’s adjusted offensive efficiency over the past two seasons – approximately 1.13 points per possession when compared to an average of 1.07 points per possession over his first three years in the Big Ten.
Hardaway and Burke will continue to build a winning program as they are joined by a highly touted recruiting class that consists of two top 50 freshmen per Rivals – Glenn Robinson, III, and Mitch McGary. Beilein seems determined to bring Michigan back to consistent relevance in the college hoops landscape as it was before probation hit over a decade ago. Crisler Arena is turning out to be a great asset as the Wolverines are tough to beat at home, losing only one game last season. Sure, Indiana might have had a bigger resurgence as they are considered the national pre-season #1 for the 2012-13 season, but Michigan’s turnaround is just as impressive. The pollsters agree as well because Michigan is a top 10 pick and is on the upswing as Beilein brings in more talent to Ann Arbor.
Players not returning. The entire Maize and Blue fan base collectively exhaled when Burke decided to come back for his sophomore season after dangling the idea of going to the NBA after last season. Despite his return, Michigan will miss certain established players next year. Anybody who has followed college basketball over the years will tell you to never write off the value added by seniors. Stu Douglass and Zach Novak may not have had great statistics but their leadership and maturity will be missed in the locker room. Both of them were Beilein’s go-to guys for several aspects of the game. Douglass played back-up point guard to Burke and even controlled the ball in half court sets when Burke played off the ball during the second half of the Big Ten season. Novak’s 41% shooting from beyond the arc will be missed as well. Evan Smotrycz’ decision to transfer to Maryland remains a mystery. It is possible that he might have been concerned with playing time with the addition of a great freshmen class, but nonetheless, his versatile game – 4.8 RPG and 43% from three-point land will be a hole that needs to be filled.
Immediate Needs. Controlling the paint has to be one of the keys to next season for this squad. Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Michigan State’s Adreian Payne will be even better next season, so Jordan Morgan needs to learn to stay on the floor and a healthy Jon Horford will help strengthen the frontcourt. Michigan ranked tenth out of 12 teams in terms of offensive rebounding % (25.8) during conference play. Freshman Mitch McGary will certainly add more beef to this frontline and needs to own the glass consistently. McGary is known for a versatile game but scoring is not the immediate need of this team — rebounding is a higher priority. McGary will certainly get a lot of immediate playing time and might even be inserted into the starting line up at the power forward position, but he needs to fit into the offense and understand the team’s needs. Burke, Hardaway and even Robinson can score in bunches, but if Michigan wants to win its second straight regular season title, they need to hit the boards harder to fend off Indiana and Michigan State’s big guys.
Key Player(s) that need to step up. McGary’s impact will be analyzed constantly during his first season due to the high expectations placed upon him. Burke knows that Big Ten coaches will be designing innovative new schemes to defend his game. But the key to next season may just be the consistency of Tim Hardaway, Jr. Hardaway needs to improve his game beyond his jumper and must find a way to get to the hoop more often. He had a decent free throw rate of 37.8% but he only shot 28% from beyond the arc last season. The more concerning statistic might be his 187 three-point attempts despite that low shooting percentage. If he can’t find his shot, he’s shown a tendency to slump and the Wolverines need his consistency to make a Final Four run. If he can find a way to attack the rim, it will set a great leadership example to the young wings. Hardaway also needs to understand that the two freshmen will need their shots, so he needs to be more efficient and smarter with his shot selection.
Conclusion. The talent is there. The system is in place. The players certainly understand the system and buy into the philosophy. All the right pieces are in place for Michigan to make a serious Final Four run, provided that the players understand their weaknesses and play smart during the year. Burke, Hardaway and Morgan might be one of the best trios of returnees in the league but they each need to understand their specific roles and find a way to ease the talented freshmen into the team’s rotation. Beilein’s composure will definitely set the tone for the team but the returning players need to become better leaders to push this team to postseason success.