Big Ten Wrap-Up: Lasting Impressions and an Early Top Five

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 6th, 2018

Has Donte DiVincenzo stop hitting shots yet? Okay, good. Now that Monday is behind us, let’s take a moment to reflect on the season that was and look ahead to 2018-19.

Michigan had another year to remember. (PHOTO BY AP/DAVID J. PHILLIP)

  • Michigan is an elite basketball program. Before John Beilein took over in Ann Arbor in 2007, Michigan hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1998, a nine-year drought that made the historically great football school seem like just that — a football school. But that’s changed. Since the drought ended in 2009, Beilein has led the Wolverines to eight NCAA Tournaments, including finishes in the Sweet Sixteen (2017), Elite Eight (2016), and twice in the National Championship game (2013, 2018). After years of mediocrity, Michigan basketball now represents offensive efficiency, outstanding player development and clutch play in March. This season, Beilein — always considered an offensive mastermind — took an unproven collection of talent and won big with his defense, suggesting that the 65-year old coach is still evolving both as a tactician (he recently moved away from the 1-3-1 zone) and manager: His hiring of Illinois State assistant Luke Yaklich as “defensive coordinator” was crucial to the Wolverines’ run. With a decade of excellence under its belt and plenty of talent returning next season, Michigan has firmly established itself among the Big Ten’s elite programs.
  • This season will forever sting for Michigan State and Purdue fans. Michigan State went 30-5 and won the outright regular season Big Ten championship. Purdue finished at 30-7, at one point winning 19 straight games. And yet, this season will probably leave a bad taste in both programs’ mouths for some time. For the Spartans, 2017-18 was a Final-Four-or-bust kind of year, with the return of Miles Bridges alongside future NBA lottery pick Jaren Jackson ostensibly giving Tom Izzo his best chance at a National Championship from a talent perspective since 2000. Instead, a season of offensive inconsistency led to an offensively-inept loss to Syracuse in the Round of 32. For the Boilermakers, bad luck prevailed when 7’2″ center Isaac Haas fractured his elbow in the First Round against Cal State Fullerton, his absence proving too much for Purdue to overcome against Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen. On paper, both seasons appear successful. In actuality, postseason disappointment will likely overshadow their 60 combined wins.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Michigan 99, #7 Texas A&M 72

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 22nd, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) is in Los Angeles for the West Regional this weekend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Michigan Could Not Miss For Long Periods on Thursday Night (USA Today Images)

  1. When Michigan is Clicking… The Wolverines can play with anyone. You look up and down the roster and there are some nice pieces and all, but on paper they’re not super scary. Yet under the masterful direction of John Beilein, this is the type of team that maxes out its talent. For example, they’re playing the best team defense (by a wide margin) of any team in Beilein’s coaching career. Sophomore pest Zavier Simpson may be the star on that end of the court, but everybody on this team is adept at being in the right place at the right time to make life difficult for opponents. And offensively, while the season-long numbers aren’t to the level of some of the elite Beilein teams, they are plenty capable. Tonight it was Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Mo Wagner leading the way with 24 and 21 points, respectively, but five Wolverines scored in double figures and eight hit at least one three in the game in their blistering and highly efficient pace. Sure, Texas A&M didn’t provide much of a test for the Wolverines tonight, but when Michigan is playing like this, look out world.
  2. Bombs Away. While this team isn’t quite as dangerous from deep as the best-of-the-best under Beilein (think Burke, Stauskas, Hardaway or Pittsnogle, Gansey, Beilein), they are still very dangerous. They space the floor, move the ball as a way of life and they’ve got four guys on the roster who have hit more than 20 threes this year at better than a 37 percent clip. Tonight’s 14 threes (on just 24 attempts) combined with their style of play everywhere else meant the Aggies never had a chance.
  3. Take the Fight Out of Them. Texas A&M came out of the gates tonight a little flat. Maybe it was nerves or perhaps a little hangover effect from their big win last weekend in Charlotte over North Carolina. Whatever the case, after three turnovers and some sleepy defense they found themselves down 9-4 when the first media timeout rolled around. But rather than find an alarm clock during the respite, they hit the snooze button as the Wolverines reeled off a 12-2 run over the next three-plus minutes to take a 13-point lead. The game was never close again, and somewhere in the middle of the first half, the Aggies seemed ready to throw in the towel — visibly shaken and regularly caught giving less than their best effort. While Billy Kennedy got his guys to give some better effort in the second half, there was no point after that first Texas A&M timeout when this game was ever remotely in doubt.

Star of the Game.  Zavier Simpson. There were a lot of stars in maize and blue tonight, but Simpson was the catalyst on both ends of the court. Defensively, he is an ever-present pest that makes even the simplest offensive maneuvers for opposing guards difficult. When he’s got the ball in his hands, he is quick, decisive, smart and dangerous. Tonight he contributed 11 points, five assists and six steals, numbers that only begin to describe the positive impact he had on the game.

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Five Reasons Why Michigan is For Real

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 15th, 2018

After losing three of its top four scorers from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team — including point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. — Michigan was a mystery heading into this season. An NCAA tournament bid seemed likely but debatable; a Big Ten title seemed out of the question. After upsetting Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday and nearly toppling Purdue earlier in the week, though, expectations have changed. Now 15-4 (4-2 Big Ten) with wins over the Spartans, Texas and UCLA, Michigan — ranked higher in KenPom now than it finished last season — is in position to compete for a conference championship and a favorable seed on Selection Sunday. The Wolverines have come a long way fast, and here’s why they’re legit.

Moritz Wagner shredded the Spartans on Saturday. (UM Hoops)

  • They play defense. Michigan is playing some of its best defense in years, ranking 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, which — if the season ended today — would be the second-best ever under head coach John Beilein. His stingiest team wound up as the 2013 National Runner-Up. Against the Spartans over the weekend, the Wolverines fought through ball screens, rotated consistently and limited Michigan State’s looks from the three-point line (especially Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford, who attempted just three triples). Down low, the Michigan big men prevented Nick Ward (four points) from catching the ball in the deep post, where he’s been nearly unstoppable this season. Perhaps most importantly, Beilein’s group limited transition buckets and forced the Spartans to work hard in the half-court. Even while Beilein’s offense is somewhat less efficient this season, the Wolverines’ improvement on the defensive end could ultimately make them more complete.
  • They finally found a point guard. If there was any question left as to who had won Michigan’s point guard battle, it was put to rest this week. After averaging just 18 minutes per game prior to January 2, Zavier Simpson saw 30-plus minutes of action for the fourth straight game on Saturday, scoring 16 points and dishing out five assists in the win over Michigan State. In Michigan’s near-miss against Purdue on Tuesday, the sophomore scored 15 points and secured a career-high six rebounds. In both games, Beilein’s offense was firing on all cylinders. “Zavier Simpson has been key for us,” the coach said on Saturday. “He’s been able to make plays. Especially in the second half.“ Not only is Simpson playing his best basketball of the season, but he’s doing so against the best teams in the conference — if not the country. What began as a dead-even three-man race between Simpson, Ohio transfer Jaaron Simmons and freshman Eli Brooks has now become Simpson’s job to lose. And Michigan’s the better for it.

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Big Ten Christmas Wish List: Buckets, Defense & a Little Good Fortune

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 21st, 2017

As Santa’s elves wrap presents and non-conference play comes to an end, let’s examine which Big Ten hopefuls could use a little magic from the jolly man in the big red suit.

The defensively-stout Scarlet Knights need guys like Geo Baker to make more shots. (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Rutgers (10-3): All I want for Christmas is… a shooter (or two). The Scarlet Knights picked up their biggest win in years on Saturday, upsetting intrastate rival Seton Hall, 71-65, at the RAC. Steve Pikiell called it “a very good day for Rutgers Nation” as his team held the Pirates to just 0.89 points per possession, their worst offensive performance of the year. Now if only Pikeill’s group could put the ball in the basket. While the Scarlet Knights rank 27th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, their offense is by far the Big Ten’s worst, ranking 219th in efficiency despite a low turnover rate. The problem? Shooting, plain and simple. Rutgers ranks 334th in effective field goal percentage (44% eFG), including paltry numbers from outside the arc (29.4% 3FG), inside the arc (44% 2FG), and at the free throw line (65% FT). More than anything else this holiday season, Pikiell could use some consistent shooting, whether it be from top-scorer Corey Sanders — who shot a very good 9-of-16 FG against Seton Hall — or fellow guard Geo Baker, who’s quietly been one of the league’s best freshmen. If the Scarlet Knights can improve those shooting numbers, their days in the Big Ten cellar might soon be over. Especially considering their stout defense. 

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