With football season, life and illness getting in the way of many things, the start of the 2010-2011 Michigan basketball season has gone sadly underreported here at Maize n Brew. Well, no more. With the Big Ten basketball season set to tip off against #13/#14 Purdue (10-1) this afternoon at Crisler, it's time get caught up on what's been going on.
Going into the season if you were able to find anyone predicting anything better than a below .500 horrid season for the Wolverines, you were likely reading last season's predictions. Coming off a horrific 15-17 season where Michigan lost its two best athletes to the pros and the team showed all the cohesiveness of a Yugo at high speed, there was good reason for the lack of optimism. Michigan was returning only two upper classmen who'd seen any significant playing time (Stu Douglass and Zack Novak). They lost their two leading scorers. They could play defense to save their lives. At this point last season Michigan was 6-5 and clearly limping into the Big Ten season en route to a disappointing finish.
What a difference a year makes.
Twelve games into the 2010-2011 season Michigan has already exceeded everyone's expectations. With wins over Clemson (road), Utah (home), and Oakland (home) the Wolverines have proven they can compete against and beat tournament calibre teams. They've also shown they can hang with the elite teams, coming within a last second three of sending #5 Syracuse to overtime on the road. No one thought that was possibly in the cards headin into 2010.
That said, Michigan's also shown there are going to be times where we're left shaking our heads and wondering what the hell is actually going on. Michigan barely scraped by an overmatched, Tommy Amaker led Harvard team and they were thoroughly manhandled by UTEP following their loss to 'Cuse (at one point tailing by 20!). UTEP may well be a tournament team, but the fact Michigan was whipped that bad on a neutral court isn't exactly a resume builder.
But let's stay on the positive side, shall we? Going into conference play, Michigan has already accomplished what it took them until January 17th to accomplish last season. Win 10 games. Michigan's also shown something critical that never appeared on the court last season. Cohesion. This year's team is playing better as a unit than any team John Beilein has fielded in Ann Arbor. That's tall praise when you consider the kick start that Michigan had in 2008-2009, but it's true. Michigan is playing stellar man to man and zone defense, ranking 4th in the conference overall and 1st overall in field goal percentage defense.
There's also the crisp ball movement around the key and Michigan's incredible ability to find the open man consistently. That open man consistently finding the bottom of the bucket though is another issue. Poor three point shooting aside, they're playing as though they know where each other will be. There are no more blind gashes into the lane that result in offensive fouls or turnovers (cough.. Manny... cough). The offense is controlled, deliberate and surprisingly efficient at generating open looks.
One thing that also stands out is that Michigan finally seems to have depth and presence in the post. As much as I loved DeShawn Sims, he had a lot of Courtney Sims in him and had a sadening ability to disappear. In fairness, that also had to do with the fact that Sims and Honky Magic (Zack Gibson) were the only big men in Michigan's arsenal for two years. (miss you big guy, xoxoxoxo). Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford, and Blake McLimans are all contributing down low and we're seeing strength on both ends of the floor near the basket.
In comparison to last season, and this is the important part, it's actually a fun team to watch play basketball.
Star of the Season So Far
Unquestionably, it's Darius Morris and he's been nothing short of spectacular this season. Morris leads the league with a 7.50 assist/game average and trails Illinois' Demetri McCamey by two assists despite play one less game. He's 8th in conference scoring and 10th in field goal percentage. He's also taking care of the ball, Morris has just 30 turnovers to his 90 assists. Frankly, if Michigan could start knocking down its treys, Morris' assist numbers would skyrocket. He's also been outstanding onthe defensive end. His length has given just about everyone he's faced trouble and he's getting steals and tips as a result. He's 6th in the conference with 20 steals. Honestly, he's been that good. Morris may not warrant BTPOY mention yet, as the season is just underway and he's only a sophomore, but it's readily apparent that he is that type of special player.
Zack and Stu Lead the Way
There's something awesome about watching Stu Douglass come off the bench and drill 43% of his three pointers and watching 5'4" Zack Novak led the team in rebounds. You look at these kids and your first impression is, "Really? They're two of your best players?" But they are. Measureables in sports are the gold standard. 40s. Percentages. Body fat. Etc... But it's the intangibles that make players great.
You cannot explain to me in logical terms how Zack Novak is 6th in the league in rebounding. You can't. All you can say is that he wants the ball worse than anyone else on the court and leave it at that. Finally freed from defending 6'10" centers, Novak is feasting on his shorter matchups and leading Michigan to the rack with his... how shall we put this delicately... "F#%k It!" style of play. The man has no fear and apparently no sense of pain. He just makes things happen. In hockey we call guys like Zack "grinders", but that doesn't seem to do him justice. He's a leader vocally and by example. He's always working harder than everyone else. And he's talented enough to try to throw one down on an NBA bound center because someone was dumb enough to tell him he couldn't do it. #00 is the bomb son. Don't ever forget it.
Then there's Stu Douglass. Thrust into the point guard position last season because Morris simply wasn't ready and Harris simply wasn't capable of doing it, Stu had a rough 2009 season. Minutes were up, points were down. It wasn't pretty. This season seems to be an entirely different story. Stu's minutes are down but his contirbutions are up. I think there's a pretty clear corelation at play here, and I've touched on this previously. At 25 minutes a game (down from 31.4 last season), Stu seems to have found his comfort zone. He's leading the team in three-point shooting and is currently .100 better than he was last season. Maybe it was just needing a year to grow. Maybe it's being ableto concentrate on shooting the ball rather than distributing it regularly. But Stu is an entirely different player in 2010 than he was in 2009 and it's been great to watch. As the season goes on, I think we'll start to see a lot more of Michigan's veteran shooter and hopefully see more of what he's shown us this year.
What About All Those Freshmen?
They've been pretty good. The big contributor so far on the season has been Freshman Tim Hardaway Jr. Timmay's been pretty good so far on the season, currently 23rd in the conference in scoring. He's gone through some rough patches here and there, but over all is showing a lot of promise. To be honest, he reminds me a lot of Manny Harris. The same gangly frame, same goofy leg kick out when he launches a bad trey, the same type of "the wiring hasn't caught up to the frame" movements. He's going to go through peaks and valleys, but overall he's a very promising freshman.
There's also the continuing development of freshman Evan Smotrycz. The rangy sharp shooter has likewise gone through some shooting slumps, but seems to be finding his range at the college level. Smotrycz' is another one of Beilein's lengthy recruits whose shown capability inside and outside the arc. I still think his shot is a little too stiff and he's not getting a lot of leg lift on it, but screw it, he's hitting right now. Like Hardaway, I think Evan will see his production dip in conference play as he sees bigger, stronger, more expereinced defenders, but he's really looks to be every bit the 4 star prospect he was billed as.
You Mentioned the Post, Why No Talk of Jordan Morgan?
I'm getting to that.
Ok, so get to it.
If you're looking for a bigger suprise on the season, you'll be hard pressed to find one. Jordan Morgan is third on the team in scoring, second on the team in rebounding (82), and first on the team in field goal percentage. He's playing 22 minutes a night and providing decent defense along with some serious pop on the offensive end. As you wouild expect from a red shirt freshman, there are some bad fouls, mental mistakes, etc. But overall he's been a more than capable replacement for DeShawn Sims and appears to have an upside that many didn't think he had. The caveat to all this is that Morgan, despite this praise, has been dismantled on occassion by no name, D2 centers. I am leary of what's going to happen when he starts facing real big men during conference play. He's been a nice story so far, but it'll be a bigger story if he can keep it up when forced to defend the Big Ten's best on a night in night out basis.
So Should We Get Our Hopes Up?
Michigan has 10 underclassmen on it's roster and is very, very inexperienced. While the team's overall size has improved tremendously, it's still a young team competing in a big and experienced Big Ten. While Michigan's overall record is pretty, this season's schedule has been far more forgiving than Michigan's schedule last year. The 2010-2011 schedule is hovering just above 200ish nationally according to KenPom.com. As a result, wins have been a lot easier to come by this year and those wins a re far less telling of the type of team Michigan is than the type of team it isn't.
Importantly, this isn't a flop on your face, win-ten-games-only team. Is this a NCAA Tournament team? Probably not. I suspect this is a NIT team, but I'm not putting it past Michigan to go on an inexplicable run and find their way into the Dance. We've seen the inexplicable out of Beilein before, so ruling it out would be foolish. But realistically, this will be a competitive NIT team going forward. Likely finishing a game or two below .500 in conference play, but being damn exciting to watch.