SEC M5: The National Title Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 7th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Of all the accolades that can rightfully be given to people connected to Kentucky, the man in charge should be first in line. Though I don’t agree with it, I do understand the vitriol John Calipari receives from often random places. But what do his detractors have left to point to, other than simple dislike? We’re still waiting for that 2011-12 title, or 2010-11 Final Four, to be vacated. And the “he can’t coach” sentiment probably needs to be put to rest. He just improved to 18-2 in the tournament at Kentucky, and five weeks ago the Wildcats lost at South Carolina and looked dead in the water. The players are still the same, but the situation is far different. I’m not smart enough to know exactly what happened, but the change has to begin with Calipari.
  2. Willie Cauley-Stein’s situation is the one sour note in the Wildcats’ run to the title game. Deep in this Louisville Courier-Journal article is a sad, sad quote from the sophomore when he was asked about giving advice to the team. “I can’t really speak to them like I’m a player,” Cauley-Stein said softly, “because I don’t feel like a player anymore.” Cauley-Stein was one of the lone bright spots for Kentucky late last season, and it’s frustrating to see a guy not be able to fully enjoy a run like this after sticking around. Will missing out in playing in the Final Four enough to pull him back for a third season in Lexington? It wouldn’t be the smart business decision, but you never know.
  3. Despite a roster loaded with top nationwide talent, Kentucky’s 2013 Mr. Basketball contributed 11 minutes Saturday night against Wisconsin. Dominique Hawkins wasn’t the typical Calipari recruit, carrying only three stars from Rivals, and offers from Murray State, Western Kentucky and Morehead State. But in what was surely, at least in part, a shrewd move to appease the fan base, Calipari got himself a valuable piece going forward. Hawkins only scored two points against the Badgers, but he’s gaining important experience and by the time he is an upper classman should be, at the least, a productive defensive player.
  4. DeAndre Daniels will get a rare opportunity tonight against Kentucky: facing the team he nearly signed with in the national championship game. John Calipari mentioned in his postgame interview that he had recruited some of the Huskies’ players, and one of those was Daniels. Surprisingly, the 20 points and 10 rebounds Daniels recorded against Florida was the first double double in the Final Four since Carmelo Anthony did it over ten years ago. Considering the track record Julius Randle has in that department this year, we may not have to wait as long for the next double double.
  5. Alligator Army has a comprehensive look back, and look ahead, after the Florida’s disheartening loss to Connecticut. One interesting question is what the legacy of this Florida team will be. Will they be remembered as one of the greatest SEC squads of all time? As Andy Hutchins points out, the undefeated conference season the Gators pulled off is a rarity in this era. Each of their three losses came to a Final Four team, and they may end up owning three wins over the eventual national champion. That’s a heck of a resume for a team, even if it did fall short of winning it all.
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Three Lessons Wisconsin Should Leverage from the Michigan vs. Kentucky Game

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on April 5th, 2014

Wisconsin can’t score when needed in the postseason. Wisconsin can’t handle athletic teams in the postseason. Wisconsin tries to slow the game down too much, which doesn’t work in the postseason. In addition to not having great luck, the aforementioned reasons had conspired to keep Bo Ryan from a Final Four. But after the Badgers’ wins over powerhouses such as Arizona, Baylor and Oregon in the first two weekends of the NCAA Tournament, the Badgers have proved that they belong in the Final Four and can beat anybody. Having said that, a peaking Kentucky team took down the AAC and Big Ten champions on its way to North Texas, so they will pose issues for the Badgers. If it hopes to play on Monday night, Wisconsin could stand to leverage a few lessons from last Sunday’s Elite Eight thriller between Kentucky and Michigan.

The following are three areas where Wisconsin should have paid close attention to Kentucky’s win over Michigan.

Frank Kaminsky needs to take Julius Randle off the dribble.

Frank Kaminsky needs to take Julius Randle off the dribble. (AP)

  1. Force Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson to move laterally on defense. While these forwards can dominate the paint on the offensive end, they should be challenged on the defensive end. If both are on the court at the same time, one of them will have to defend Frank Kaminsky or Sam Dekker. During certain possessions when Michigan’s Glenn Robinson was aggressive with the ball, he comfortably drove into the lane, which forced Randle and Johnson to pick up a foul because the freshmen are not used to defending wings who can put the ball on the floor. Kaminsky has been masterful with his ball-handling over the past month and his main goal ought to be to put Randle into uncomfortable positions defensively. Pump-fakes off the pick-and-roll and driving the lane going to his right should be a play that will be easy for the Badgers to execute, but the key will be to stick to it consistently throughout the game. Robinson settled for the jumper too much and gave the Kentucky forwards a pass here, but this is an area of the half-court offense that Wisconsin can and should definitely try to exploit. Read the rest of this entry »
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UConn and Cincinnati: Trading Places in the Postseason

Posted by Will Tucker on April 5th, 2014

On March 8, 2014, Cincinnati and UConn looked like two teams headed in opposite directions. Having just hung 97 points on Memphis to complete a sweep of Josh Pastner’s team, the Bearcats went on the road and clinched a share of their first conference championship since 2004. That same day, Connecticut suffered an 81-48 drubbing at the hands of Louisville – the kind of humiliating end-of-season defeat that might spell doom for a team’s postseason.

AAC Men's Basketball Championship

Mick Cronin and Kevin Ollie: diverging paths (Richard Messina / Hartford Courant)

To the Huskies’ credit, they had just beaten Cincinnati a week before, capping a 6-1 stretch that followed a road loss to the Bearcats in February. But Kevin Ollie’s team exhibited red some flags even before being massacred in Louisville. They had eclipsed 70 points during regulation only once in the past seven games. DeAndre Daniels, who in January I predicted was poised for a breakout season, scored in double figures only twice during the same time frame. UConn had been outrebounded in their previous six games by an average margin of 8.3 boards per game.

Cincinnati, conversely, looked like a physically imposing, battle-tested, and veteran squad that was prepared to usher the program beyond the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1996. Rebounding from consecutive close losses to Louisville and UConn, All-American Sean Kilpatrick was firing on all cylinders in his subsequent two games, averaging 29 points on 68 percent shooting. Fellow seniors Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles appeared up to the task of complementing Kilpatrick in the frontcourt. And after winning the number one seed in the AAC Tournament by way of a coin flip, the Bearcats seemed destined for a rematch with de facto home team Memphis, whom they had already twice beaten soundly.

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Conducting a Reset on Kentucky’s National Championship Aspirations

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 4th, 2014

I have been wrong before. Many times actually, but the most recent time was a real doozy. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was playing basketball in the gym after work. I was doing my best Willie Cauley-Stein impression when I landed on one of my teammate’s foot and my ankle rolled onto its side. I knew instantly this was a reasonably bad injury. My best guess, based on my experience and susceptibility to reading Web MD, was to diagnose myself with a high ankle sprain.  I went about my entire weekend, standing on my feet to do some yard work, went grocery shopping, and walked 12,000 steps each day based on the Fitbit around my wrist. I did what I normally do on any given weekend because I am stubborn and had already determined that I had a high ankle sprain, and nothing more.

Was I also wrong about John Calipari's Wildcats?

Was I also wrong about John Calipari’s Wildcats?

Of course, the bruising and swelling in my right foot worsened from the activity, and the pain became excruciating. My ankle and toes had almost turned completely purple (I will spare you the pictures I was tempted to include). Based on the appearance and the pain, I finally succumbed to my wife’s pressure to go to the doctor about 72 hours after the injury occurred. To make a long story short, after a couple of x-rays and a CT scan, I found out I fractured my distal fibula and cracked my tibia. My certainty of a high ankle sprain could not be more untrue.

The self-diagnosis of my ankle is vaguely familiar to my erroneous analysis of Kentucky.  I did not anticipate the tweak working. I did not envision Aaron Harrison learning to shoot in the season’s last six games. I never imagined Andrew Harrison would become a pass-first point guard with vision and leadership. I did not foresee Julius Randle getting away from back to the basket post moves where he has not been as effective this season, and instead focus on putting himself in positions where he is efficient. In short, I did not predict Kentucky making a huge splash in the NCAA Tournament.  I certainly knew the Wildcats had the talent and interior presence to compete with Wichita State. I realized they had beaten Louisville before and could certainly do it again. I recognized Kentucky could dismantle Michigan’s porous defense if it played to its potential. But who knew it would all come together for four straight games in the manner it did? It was just too late for all of these elements to come together, I told myself, but you know I have been wrong before. Now that I have admitted the error of my ways, it is time to do a reset on Kentucky’s prospects of a national championship.

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After Lackluster Season, ACC Must Improve Depth to Have the “Best Ever” Conversation Again

Posted by Lathan Wells on April 4th, 2014

Prior to the beginning of the college basketball season, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski infamously proclaimed that the ACC had the potential to be the greatest college basketball conference of all-time. That was a bold proclamation at the time, as we covered here, and with the 2013-14 season now drawing to a close, it’s become painfully apparent that the conference this year did nothing to stake such a claim. So the question then becomes, what does the ACC need to do in coming years to proudly proclaim itself the best basketball conference ever assembled? Here’s a road map for the league’s coaches and administrators.

Virginia's ascendance will only help the ACC's argument that it's the premier basketball conference (USA Today Sports)

Virginia’s ascendance will only help the ACC’s argument that it’s the premier basketball conference. (USA Today Sports)

The conference’s elite have to dominate the non-conference slate and enjoy copious postseason success. While there were a handful of marquee wins spread around prior to ACC play (North Carolina’s defeats of Michigan State, Kentucky, and Louisville; Duke’s defeat of Michigan; Syracuse handling Villanova), the league’s postseason results were anything but stellar. The conference managed to get six teams into the NCAA Tournament, but the upper tier didn’t produce much success when they got there. Duke lost in the opening round; North Carolina and Syracuse fell in the round of 32. Virginia, the regular-season and ACC Tournament champion, may have drawn a rough match-up in the Sweet Sixteen with Michigan State, but it could not advance (and UConn was able to handle the Spartans in the nexts round). The embarrassing result was that there was no ACC teams in the Elite Eight. These teams have to produce in postseason play in addition to their non-conference victories to help the perception of the conference return to an elite level.

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Houston’s Smartest Move: Hiring Kelvin Sampson

Posted by Mike Lemaire on April 4th, 2014

It has been rumored for some time but multiple reports have seemingly confirmed it – former Oklahoma and Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson is making his return to the college basketball ranks as the head coach for Houston. Sampson doesn’t even have to change area codes for his new job as he has spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach right across town with the Houston Rockets. Why was he coaching in the NBA when he has such a proven track record at the collegiate level? Well, if you are a college basketball fan, you should have at least some idea how to answer that question.

Kelvin Sampson is a Strong Hire for Houston

Kelvin Sampson is a Strong Hire for Houston

Sampson made headlines in 2008 when he was hit with a five-year show-cause penalty for basically calling and texting recruits even after the NCAA had repeatedly told him to stop doing so. He was also at the center of the Eric Gordon recruiting saga after bringing the star to Indiana despite Gordon’s verbal commitment to Illinois. There may be some hand-wringing over Houston’s decision to bring a repeated NCAA felon on board, but he has served his time away from the collegiate ranks and if other coaches like Bruce Pearl are being given second chances, there is no reason Sampson doesn’t deserve one as well. Frankly, the marriage looks like a savvy move from both parties.

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SMU Seeks to Build in Sudden Return to Relevance

Posted by CD Bradley on April 4th, 2014

SMU fell just short of the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday, then fell just short of an NIT title in Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. And yet the Mustangs exceeded everybody’s expectations for this season and suddenly have a bright future, an unusual place to be for a squad with no discernible success in decades. All of that, of course, is thanks to the surprising decision of Hall of Fame head coach Larry Brown accepting the top job two years ago. The Mustangs had one winning record in the nine years before he arrived, and his 15-17 record last season suggested more of the same. That all changed this time around, when the Mustangs became a national story with the type of success that merited stories in the ;New York Times. It was probably the biggest story involving SMU athletics in the national paper of record since the program received the death penalty for Porsches, polos and ponies in the mid-1980s.

Associated Press Larry Brown coached SMU to the NIT Final at MSG, where he used to coach the Knicks. He hopes to get to another place he's coached: the Final Four.

Larry Brown coached SMU to the NIT Final at MSG, where he used to coach the Knicks. He hopes to get to another place he’s coached: the Final Four. (AP)

A late season swoon (and a weak non-conference schedule) cost SMU its first NCAA Tournament trip since 1993 – the Mustangs were the last team left out this year – but the turned right around and made the most of their #1 seed in the NIT. That earned them the chance at three more home games at the newly renovated Moody Coliseum, where they had suffered only one loss all year, and they won all three. They then mounted a huge rally to knock off Clemson in the NIT semifinals before falling to Minnesota in a close loss in the championship game. Even though it ended in a defeat, the season was a landmark campaign for the school. SMU finished 27-10 overall and 12-6 in the AAC; those 27 wins were the second-most in SMU history, and the 12 conference wins tied for the most in any conference it has played in. They unveiled the “new” Moody to rave reviews and sellout crowds, and they played their first season in the AAC, which offers plenty of future TV opportunities and marquee match-ups with the likes of Final Four entrant UConn (who SMU swept this year), Memphis and Cincinnati.

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Five Crucial Wisconsin Moments That Shaped Its Run to North Texas

Posted by Brendan Brody on April 4th, 2014

However things turn out in North Texas this weekend, Wisconsin has had a season to remember. The Badgers started the year at 16-0, rose to No. 3 in the polls, and generally dispelled any previously-held stereotypes about their brand of basketball under head coach Bo Ryan. This was a different kind of unit, filled with dead-eye shooters, tremendous ball movement, and a fun team to watch. Four players averaged double figures and no one particularly cared who got the credit for the team’s prodigious success. As a sort of tribute from a writer covering this program for the first time, here are my top five moments from Wisconsin’s Final Four campaign, presented in no particular order.

When Frank Kaminsky scored 43 points against North Dakota, the college basketball world took notice.  (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

When Frank Kaminsky scored 43 points against North Dakota, the college basketball world took notice. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

  1. Frank Kaminsky scores 43 points against North Dakota: If you have a second or two to kill, check out the thing of beauty that is Kaminsky’s shot chart from this game. He put on an absolute offensive clinic, going 16-of-19 from the field, hitting all six of the three-pointers that he attempted, and making the whole college basketball world take notice of “Frank the Tank.”
  2. Traveon Jackson hits a game-winner against Michigan State: Coming into this February 9 match-up, Wisconsin had been in the midst of a 2-5 slide where it had started to undo the credibility it had built up during the non-conference schedule. They had just lost to Northwestern and Ohio State at home, and simply couldn’t afford to drop another one in Madison at this point in the season. After falling behind in the first half, Jackson effectively ended a close game with a deadly pull-up jumper from 17 feet. The Badgers went on to win six more games in a row after this one, and in many respects, saving the season. Read the rest of this entry »
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UConn and the ACC: The One That Got Away

Posted by Chris Kehoe on April 4th, 2014

When the most recent jumble of conference realignment was underway, the ACC squarely targeted the Big East for its newest conquests. Commissioner John Swofford wanted to add programs that were strong in the revenue sports of football and basketball, holding distinctive geographic locations that would open up the conference to new fans and marketing possibilities. The ACC won out in a big way, snagging prominent athletic programs at Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh from the old Big East. While these programs are have had varying degrees of success in the sport that drives realignment, Notre Dame is the only football name brand (and the Irish retained their football independence). So while the current athletic landscape is shaped by the financial juggernaut that is college football, the ACC locked up some of the country’s most elite basketball programs.

UConn has a rising star in Head Coach Kevin Ollie (credit: CT Post)

UConn has a rising star in Head Coach Kevin Ollie (credit: CT Post)

So while the ACC may have sought greater football legitimacy as its primary goal, the league also landed two massively successful basketball programs in Syracuse and Louisville. As a result, the ACC may very well have positioned itself as the basketball conference of the future, made up of most if not all of the best programs up and down the East Coast. That is, with one notable exception. As the league plundered the Big East, it may have made a drastic mistake from a basketball perspective. The ACC left behind a basketball powerhouse in its own right, Connecticut, a school that all but pleaded for entry into the ACC and a Final Four participant in a season when no conference team made it past the Sweet Sixteen. Recall the silly preseason talk about how the ACC was supposed to be ‘the best ever’, and it leaves you wondering if the exclusion of a program like UConn was the right move. The basketball program based in Storrs has had continued and sustained excellence in the sport over a long period of time, winning the national title three times since 1999 (as well as 2004 and 2011), and putting 13 players into the NBA as lottery picks since 1994. Few programs can match that record.

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SEC M5: 04.04.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 4th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Arizona had no answer for Frank Kaminsky despite an athletic frontcourt and defensive wunderkind Aaron Gordon. Kentucky must now deal with the Badgers’ seven-footer without Willie Cauley-Stein in the lineup. Not only is Cauley-Stein the Wildcats’ best interior defender, his feet are quick enough to stay with Kaminsky when he fades out to the perimeter. “Oooh. … tough match-up for us,” John Calipari said on Thursday. “Really skilled. … He’s going to be a handful. Wish we had Willie.” Of all the great individual match-ups this weekend, how Kentucky handles the versatile Wisconsin center without Cauley-Stein available might be the most intriguing.
  2. Some of that responsibility with fall on Marcus Lee, Kentucky’s “forgotten All-American” who came out of nowhere to contribute in a big way against Michigan. As skilled and as big as Dakari Johnson is, it is Lee who has the quickness to better deal with Kaminsky. One scout told SI.com that he is the “X-factor” in Saturday night’s game against Wisconsin. Lee has a decent block rate (5.2%) in very limited time this year, and given his athletic reputation, it’s not likely that the 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks he posted against the Wolverines were a fluke. If Lee ends up playing a big role in one or more Kentucky wins this weekend it’ll be an incredible story for a guy who logged all of 39 minutes in SEC play. It would also be a great launching pad to a starting spot on next season’s team.
  3. If Kaminsky vs. the Kentucky frontcourt isn’t this weekend’s top match-up, then Scottie Wilbekin vs. Shabazz Napier must be. Napier dropped 20 points on Florida before the then-on-the-mend Wilbekin got injured in the first meeting between the teams. Prior to the SEC Player of the Year trying to lock down the NCAA Tournament’s hottest player, the Gainesville Sun’s Kevin Brockway took a look back at Wilbekin’s “unlikely road” to the Final Four. It’s almost unbelievable to think that just under a year ago Billy Donovan asked Wilbekin to transfer. “He needed to build his credibility back with the rest of our team,” Donovan said. Kasey Hill has shown that Florida would have still been dangerous had things turned out differently, but there’s no chance the Gators would be entering the final weekend as the favorites to win it all without their rock solid senior point guard.
  4. The players slotted in picks #43 to #45 in DraftExpress’ latest mock draft have something in common: They’re all SEC juniors who are leaving early. Missouri’s Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown, and LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant are all expected to go pretty deep into the second round, which makes you wonder if staying another year would have been beneficial for each player. To be fair, telling someone to pass up the chance at bundles of money is foolish, and there very well could be family issues at play for any one of these players. But leaving early when you are not guaranteed to become a first round pick is a big risk, especially for players who stand to improve and enter a supposedly weaker 2015 draft. O’Bryant showed significant growth in the range of his jump shot this year and could keep that up if he stayed another season. Brown similarly looked more comfortable attacking the basket, and Clarkson would make himself infinitely more valuable as a big, athletic point guard with more refinement at the position. As of now, we’ll just have to wait until June and hope it works out for each player.
  5. Talk about a busy day. Missouri junior forward Zach Price, who sat out after transferring from Louisville last year, managed to get arrested not once but twice on Thursday. Right now it doesn’t appear that any of Price’s charges are felonies, so if he is convicted it won’t result in an automatic removal from the team. Still, Frank Haith may need to take extreme measures to get his team in line. The Tigers’ offseason has been about as disastrous as the end to their season. Price is now the third Tiger to be suspended after Shane Rector and Wes Clark were caught with marijuana before Missouri’s NIT opener. This isn’t the type of movement Haith needed in what will be a crucial 2014-15 season for him in Columbia.
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Sizing Up the Future: A Glance at Next Year’s ACC Recruiting Classes

Posted by Chris Kehoe on April 3rd, 2014

While the ACC took a beating in its reputation over the course of the season, the league ended up with four very good teams (regardless of their early exits in the NCAA Tournament) that all spent some time in the Top 25. The league was top-heavy with a clear upper quadrant this year, but that didn’t stop the bottom from occasionally feeding on the weaknesses of some of the top teams, as Wake Forest beat Duke, Boston College and Georgia Tech beat Syracuse, and UNC lost to Wake and Miami. The ACC has traditionally run through Tobacco Road, but with the inclusion of powerhouses Syracuse and Louisville, the league will have a much more diverse, East Coast feel to it. The new rivalries that will develop among those schools are practically bred for prime time, with some of the sport’s most magnetic and well-known coaching personalities clashing on the sidelines, Hall of Famers with thousands of combined wins at this level. Their players aren’t halfway bad, either.

Louisville's Rick Pitino has to be pleased (contrary to his facial expressions above) with his well-rounded 6 man recruiting class(Getty Images).

Louisville’s Rick Pitino has to be pleased (contrary to his facial expressions above) with his well-rounded  six-man recruiting class(Getty Images).

Most other basketball conferences will be hard pressed to match the star power and coaching prowess that programs like Syracuse, Duke, UNC, and Louisville will bring to an already tradition-rich ACC. Much of the the league’s success can be laid on the shoulders of the incoming recruits that will provide these future made-for-TV moments. The 2014 recruiting class among the league’s programs seems to be fertile and deep, full of stars and instant impact performers who will enhance the collegiate landscape during their time on campus. The McDonald’s All-American game, played on Wednesday night in Chciago, featured seven future ACC players, all headed to Tobacco Road. While Duke’s top-ranked class has received much of the early accolades, North Carolina also is bringing in a potent blend of athleticism and shooting ability.

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John Beilein Continues to Prove Himself as a Players’ Coach

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on April 3rd, 2014

Before taking the Michigan job, John Beilein was known for running a fast-paced offense that can outscore anybody on a given night. His West Virginia team with Kevin Pittsnoggle and Mike Gansey surprised opposing defenses on its way to the Elite Eight in 2005. Based on his seven-year record in Ann Arbor, it is high time to recognize and appreciate his ability to coach players with diverse skill sets. Customizing the offense to accordingly cope with personnel turnover and injuries has been his forte in leading Michigan basketball back to relevance in the Big Ten and on the national stage.

John Beilein is more than just an offensive minded coach. He is a great players' coach.

John Beilein is more than just an offensive minded coach. He is a great players’ coach. (AP)

There was no specific game or season that started this transformation, but if we were forced to pick one, we should review the last six weeks of the 2010-11 Big Ten season. After losing six straight games in January, the Wolverines appeared to have only a slight shot of making the NCAA Tournament. But led by a sharpshooting freshman in Tim Hardaway Jr. and a relatively unknown point guard named Darius Morris, Beilein’s crew made a furious charge into the Big Dance and nearly upset Duke in the round of 32. That season showed how Beilein could string together young players to mesh with seasoned veterans like Stu Douglass and Zach Novak, slowly changing the culture of the long-dormant Michigan program.

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