Going into this season, like every one else, I was confident that Michigan would reach the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. What wasn't to love? Manny Harris was a Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. DeShawn Sims was finally living up to his billing. We had three big men ready to step in and allow Sims and Gibson time to play together. We had shooters, cutters, dunkers and a hot freshman to play point. Plus, we returned 90% of the team. The only guys leaving were walk-on seniors and Jevohn Shepherd. Granted the two walk-ons were our captians, but there was plenty of leadership to go around. Right? Another tourney berth seemed to be a guarantee.
But, like with so many guarantee and warranties, we neglected to read the fine print. No one actually quantified how important CJ Lee and David Merritt were to this team. No one took into account how much the extra playing time would affect Michigan's now sophomore starters. No one knew how success would effect John Beilein's exceedingly young team. No one accounted for how the bright lights and attention might change how Harris and Sims played. We forgot that Kelvin Grady had left the team. No one expected every big man on the roster, save Sims and Gibson, to get injured or red shirt. When you're a rebuilding basketball program, you're not going to get the breaks the established programs with depth get. And Michigan didn't get any of them this year.
Obviously not a break we got.
Even with all that said, how'd we miss so badly on this team? How'd they miss so badly every game? There have to be reasons for this. There are. After taking a look at the rosters, the numbers and the season, we came up with some interesting thoughts. We'll admit, none of this is earth shattering stuff. But taken together it helps to explain what initially seemed like a lost season. Now, in hindsight, it may still be bad, but it ain't as bad as we thought it was.
Going into this season Michigan's only losses were Jevohn Shepherd, CJ Lee, and David Merritt. The incoming class included Darius Morris PG (4 star), Matt Vogrich SG (3 star), Jordan Morgan PF (3 star), Blake McLimans PF (3 star), Eso Akunne PF (w/o). It was also anticipated that Ben Cronin, a seven footer recruited the year prior, would recover from a hip injury and contribute minutes in the 2010 season as a true center. Also in the fray was 6'11" beanpole Eric Puls, who might be able to eat some minutes off the bench. Then there was Kelvin Grady, michigan's diminuitive point guard and best three point shooter on the team to help out at the point.
Of the group, only Darius Morris contributed in any meaningful way. Vogrich was simply not ready to step in and contribute. Jordan Morgan injured himself and has redshirted this season. McLimans redshirted. Akunne played a few minutes, but hasn't been able to crack anything but the garbage time lineup. Making matters more difficult, Morris struggled at point guard out of the gate (not uncommon for freshman point guards) and was eventually replaced by Stu Douglas at point for large swaths of the season. The young guns simply weren't ready or physically capable of stepping in. Ben Cronin's career came to an end because of his hip injury. Eric Puls left the basketball team and became a regular student in the engineering program. Making matters worse, Grady left the team to concentrate on football over the summer.
What this came down to was only six players on Michigan's roster cracking 400 minutes in the 2010 season (Harris, Sims, Morris, Douglas, Novak, and Laval Lucas-Perry. Zack Gibson only registered 298. By contrast in 2009 eight players cracked 400 minutes (Harris, Sims, LLP, Douglas, Novak, Lee, Merritt, and Kelvin Grady) with Gibson posting 379 minutes. These numbers are down right shocking. When there's a nine player rotation on a team, things are going well, and a team has depth. When you're only playing six guys, you're in trouble.
So the impression that Michigan only lost three players is a fallacy. Michigan lost three players to graduation, two to injury, one to real life, and one to football. In return, they gained only Darius Morris' minutes. Bottom line, our perception that this was a deep, talented team was way, way off. This was an incredibly shallow team with no one off the bench who could contribute meaningfully.
The distribution of playing time minutes can tell a lot about the state of a team. When you're looking at a team that has evenly distributed minutes, it means you've got some depth or that you suck all the way around. When you've got a team that has five or six guys so far out in front of everyone else it means you've got yourself some purebreds on the floor, or it means you lack depth so badly that putting anyone on the bench means you'll go down by 30 before you can get them back in.
In Michigan's case, it was the latter.
For comparison's sake the Michigan State Spartans (you know, that team that won the Big Ten Title) had just ONE player exceed 900 minutes. They had four players just above or justbelow 800 minutes. Then two more at about 640 minutes. Then two more at 250. The difference is clear, two extra players contributing 600 plus minutes means a lot more rest for your starters and fresher legs.
If you want to know why Novak and Douglas couldn't hit water from a boat, look at their minutes compared to last year. Douglas logged 656 minutes in 2008 then jumped to 924 with the added responsibility of manning the point. Novak went from 799 to 954 and had to play power forward at 6'5". That is going to wear any sophomore in college out. Douglas' time jumped almost 300 minutes and Novak tacked on an extra 150. Take a look at LLP, he went from 411 to 648, meaning he was playing an extra 237 minutes this season. Thats more than three full games extra for Novak, almost six full games extra for LLP, and more than seven full games extra for Douglas. Want to know where their shots went? They lost them and their energy playing all that extra time.
One thing commenators kept saying, game in game out, was that Michigan was getting open looks. They just weren't getting the shots to fall. Everyone's seen the games and seen Novak, LLP and Douglas shoot. Their shots were alternatively flat or had too much arc. Their deliveries looked slow and wonky. That's why. Theses kids were tired, and they took the sophomore dive like just about every other college sophomore asked to play more in year two than year one. If you're looking for a reason no one "improved" it was because they were exhausted, not for lack of trying.
Had Michigan been able to spread those numbers out a little more, it would've made a huge difference. But without any depth on the bench it wasn't going to happen.
One of the things John Beilein promised us was the type of schedule that mean Michigan would never again be on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. We'd either be in or out. No questions. At the time everyone appaulded this, thinking Michigan would now cement enough wins to make the Big Dance no questions asked. We wanted tougher games and that's what we got! Woo! Awww crap.... be careful what you wish for.
From November 26 forward, it was apparent Michigan had bitten off more of a schedule that it could chew. After eeking out an OT victory against Creighton, Michigan was dismantled by Marquette and dropped their next contest to Alabama in a manner that would come to be commonplace as the season went on. After the disappointing showing in the Old Spice Classic, Boston College beat the favored Wolverines in Crisler and Michigan promptly got flattened by Utah in Salt Lake City. After splitting with Kansas and Ohio State, Michigan's season slipped away as the competition got tougher.
But if you're looking for when, you can pinpoint this stretch in January to February as the culprit:
Jan 10th - Northwestern - 2:30 PM - BTN
Jan 14th - Indiana - 9PM - ESPN/ESPN2
Jan 17th - UConn -1:30/4:30 PM - CBS
Jan 20th - at Wisconsin - 8:30 PM - BTN
Jan 23rd - at Purdue - 4 PM - ESPN
Jan 26th - Michigan State - 7 PM - ESPN
Jan 30th - Iowa - 4:30 PM - BTN
Feb 2nd - at Northwestern - 7 PM - BTN
Feb 6th - Wisconsin - 4 PM - CBS
During that stretch, Michigan went 2-7. Take away the unexpected (and overrated UConn win) and this looks even worse. Teams should be hitting their stride at that time in the season. Michigan didn't. As a result, the toughest and most crucial time on their schedule ended up costing them.
We got the tougher competition we wanted. Michigan just wasn't up to the task this year.
It's easy to overlook the keel on a sailboat. It's below the water, out of view, and ain't the prettiest thing in the world. But it's the keel that keeps the boat upright when the waters get choppy and does the work out of view to get the boat from point a to point b in one piece. Last season C.J. Lee (at right) and David Merritt were this team's keel. They kept everyone focused, they did the dirty work on defense, they did the dirty work in the locker room maintaining order, they slowed things down when the games got a little out of hand. This year we expected Sims and Harris to take up that mantle and be the leaders that Lee and Merritt were.
Maybe it was because of a soft spoken nature, or because it wasn't in their nature, but it was clear watching the games that both led by example only. Not with the loud, surprisingly forceful voices of Merritt and Lee. Harris and Sims are quiet kids, and barking instructions seems to be the antithisis of their nature. So too with Douglas, Novak, or LLP. Of all the characters on the team, only Darius Morris seemed to have the personality and animation to be that leader on the court, but it's hard for a freshman to do that. And he couldn't.
I won't belabor this point, but it was clear Michigan did not have someone who could settle the team down. instead of long deliberate possessions in the face of adversity, Michigan chucked up early shot clock threes or tried to do too much, resulting in game burying fast breaks. Without its keel, Michigan's barcos floundered when the seas got choppy.
As mentioned in the Depth section, Michigan is not a tall or sizeable team this season. There are only five players currently on the roster over 6'7". Jordan Morgan (injured), Blake McLimans (RS), Ben Cronin (injured), Zack Gibson and DeShawn Sims. Only Sims and Gibson played any meaningful minutes this season. After that it's Anthony Wright (6'6"), Manny Harris (6'5") and Zack Novak (6'5"). You're not going to win games in the Big Ten when you can only field two players over 6'6". Call it Fate. Call it Karma. Call it God punishing us for something we did. But you can't win games in this league without a healthy center, and Michigan didn't have it this year.
It All Adds Up
Regardless of what we thought we were getting going into this season, the reality was much different than perception. Michigan had no depth, no size, no leadership, and a schedule that would make or break them. Going into this season we assumed that we hadn't lost anyone of value. We were wrong. We figured there would be big men that would able to play the low post. Wrong. We thought Michigan would be on the right side of the scheduling hurdle. Nope.
Michigan lost so much more than it gained over the off-season, but no one noticed. The lights were still bright from the NCAA tournament appearance and the sudden rise to prominance. No one noticed the minutes departing or worried about the lack of depth. Every thought the sky was the limit for this team.
It wasn't. Looking at all of this now, Michigan was never going to be the same team it was the year prior. The drastic jump in minutes for Sophomores LLP, Novak and Douglas robbed them of their energy as the season wore on. Michigan had no stopper on defense. Michigan had no size down low. This was (at most) a six person team. And you can't compete that way. As a result, the pre-season accolades and all the hoopla now seem somewhat hollow and misguided. This was, at best, a .500 team with an outside chance at a Dance ticket thanks to a rediculous schedule. If Michigan underachieved, it was becasue they didn't make it into the bubble discussion, not because they didn't outright make the tournament.
Take a look. Add it up. It wasn't just Michigan's shooting that missed the mark. We expected this team to be something it wasn't, and a team it didn't have the personnel to be.