Instead of giving each player a specific preview story, they'll be grouped together by class, position, level of contribution, or some combination of those. Today, we have the Sophomores who play the four and the five: Jordan Morgan, Evan Smotrycz, Jon Horford, Blake McLimans, and Colton Christian.
Perhaps the biggest concern before the season a year ago was the state of Michigan's frontcourt. The only true centers on the roster were two redshirt freshmen, Jordan Morgan and Blake McLimans, and one true freshman, Jon Horford. The only players who could play the four were Evan Smotrycz, Colton Christian, and Zack Novak: two true freshmen and a 6'4" guard playing laughably (yet somehow effectively) out of position. To sum it up, that's three true freshmen, two redshirt freshmen, and one shooting guard playing the four and the five in the rough Big Ten. The thought of these guys trying to hold their own against the likes of Jared Sullinger, JaJuan Johnson, Trevor Mbakwe, and Jon Leuer was terrifying. On a team that was supposed to be extremely weak, Michigan's interior looked to be the weakest link.
We all know the story, Jordan Morgan turned out to be surprisingly effective on both offense and defense after overcoming serious knee and shoulder injuries. Going into the season, Michigan fans hoped that the best case for Morgan was that he would be able to stay healthy for the whole year. Not only did he do that, he turned out 9.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in addition to going toe-to-toe with the powerful big men that lined up against the Wolverines last year. In my opinion, Morgan -- not Darius Morris -- was the most valuable player on the team last year, just because Michigan could not afford to lose him for extended periods of time. His performance over the year would be good for an upperclassman in the Big Ten, but for a lightly-recruited, redshirt freshman coming off of serious injuries, it was great. Aside from Morgan, the other fives didn't adjust to the level of play in college basketball very well. Jon Horford was too skinny to be effective and seemed a step behind mentally, and Blake McLimans didn't have the rebounding ability and his supposed outside shooting prowess never really showed up. Evan Smotrycz started out at the four, eventually lost his starting spot, and wound up splitting time at the four and the five down the stretch. It was an up-and-down year for the pretty highly-touted true freshman, but good performances at the end of the year and a very good year from behind the arc showed Smotrycz's potential. Colton Christian was a marginal contributor and the prediction that he was too raw offensively to be a serious contributor was prophetic. He was seen as more of a project coming into Ann Arbor, so it was unsurprising that he needed some time to develop his game.
2011-2012 Previews after the jump...
#52 Jordan Morgan, RS SO, plays the 5
PORPAG stands for Points Over Replacement Player for an Average Game. Explanation and Methodolgy here.
LAST YEAR: Morgan provided a solid, reliable inside presence that Michigan sorely needed. Foul trouble limited his minutes, and when he was out, Michigan really struggled inside. Other than the foul troubles, there wasn't much to dislike about Morgan on either side of the court; his rapport with Darius Morris was great on offense, he was lethal inside and on pick-and-rolls, and he was a solid defender and defensive rebounder. A lot of his production was catalyzed by Darius Morris' ability to make great passes, but he also showed a nice hook shot at times to go along with his thunderous dunks.
BEST PERFORMANCE: Coming off of a big road win against Penn State, Michigan traveled back home to face a Northwestern team that had blown them out less than a month beforehand. Easily the best game of Morgan's season, he missed a layup and proceeded to go 11-12 from the floor after that to the tune of 27 points. It was a dominant performance against an overmatched opponent inside, and Morgan's stellar game helped build on the momentum from the win against PSU. Adding the best dunk of the season on a transition alley-oop from Morris was just icing on the cake. Game Recap Video.
ON OFFENSE: It seemed like a lot of Morgan's production came as a direct result of the playmaking ability of Darius Morris. The pick-and-roll with Morris and Morgan was one of Michigan's most effective plays, and Morgan -- who is an excellent screener -- was able to get easy looks off of the roll when his defender sank off to defend Darius. Now that Morris is gone, that play is obviously out of the playbook, but Hardaway ran the pick-and-roll a few times so his three-point shooting will give it an added dimension and Morgan should get more good looks in theory. Other than that, most of Morgan's scoring opportunities came on nice passes on drives from Morris when Morgan's man left him to help, but Jordan also showed that nice turnaround hook a few times. If he can add more back-to-the-basket moves, he'll be a guy that Michigan can count on to take a man one on one in on the block, but that's a big if. Morgan's mentioned that he's been working on a mid-range shot and if that comes around, he'll be able to stretch the defense a lot more. He was also the team's best offensive rebounder with just over two per game, but he was the only one as Michigan was one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the country.
ON DEFENSE: For all of the offensive production that Morgan provided (which was fairly significant), his defensive abilities were even more important to Michigan. He struggled with silly fouls, which is obviously something that freshmen struggle with at pretty much every position, but Michigan's defense was always at its best when Morgan was on the court. He was the only guy on the roster with the ability to go toe-to-toe with guys like Sullinger and the Morris twins from Kansas without getting thoroughly dominated. He won some, he lost some, but he held his own on defense against some of the best. His strength, toughness, and aggressiveness helped a ton at this end of the court, both in denying the opposing big men easy looks at the basket and in boxing them out so that the guards could clean up the glass. I don't think there's much of a question that Morgan was Michigan's most important defensive player, and despite some frequent foul trouble he still had an interior presence that was sorely needed.
BOTTOM LINE: Morgan is still an invaluable part of this team; until other big guys start prove themselves, he's unquestionably Michigan's best option at the five. It'll be harder for him to get easy looks like he did last year without Morris around to get him the ball, but hopefully he can make up for it with an improved ability to create his own shot. I don't think that he can become that much better than he already is on offense -- he's not going to be a guy that will put in 15 points a game -- but if he can become a bit of a savvier rebounder and a smarter defender (read: no bad fouls), I think we'll see him improve as an all-around player. He's a great, very opportunistic role player on this team, and if he can stave off Horford from taking some of his minutes, he'll be as good as he was last year.
#23 Evan Smotrycz, SO, plays the 4 and 5
LAST YEAR: Smotrycz entered the season as the most highly-touted recruit to ever take the floor under John Beilein, so there were high hopes for him last year. At 6'9" with an impressive (yet sort of awkward-looking) three-point shot, Michigan fans were really excited to see him play on the perimeter in an offense that seemed like a perfect fit for his skills. It was a mixed bag for him, as he seemed to go feast-or-famine with good performances and bad performances. In retrospect it seems pretty logical that this would happen, it's not often that a big true freshman that plays on the perimeter sees much success, and if Smotrycz's shot was on he had good games, but if it wasn't he didn't. Still, glimpses of his potential in some of his bigger performances gave Michigan fans hope that he'd develop into the player that they thought he'd be.
BEST PERFORMANCE: Easily the Clemson game. The Wolverines traveled down to South Carolina for its first true road game in a hostile environment after losing both games in the Legends Classic in Atlantic City, and not many people thought that Michigan had much of a chance against the Tigers. Michigan built a huge lead in the first half behind a career day from Smotrycz (18 points on 6 of 7 shooting, including 2-2 from three-point range) and didn't look back as they gave the Big Ten its most surprising win in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. For his part, Evan did a great job shooting, driving to the rim, and getting to the line in his most complete offensive performance of the year. Game Recap Video.
ON OFFENSE: Bombs away! Smotrycz took over half of his field goal attempts from behind the arc, and converted at a very good 38.1% (good for third on the team but just off of Vogrich's mark of 38.7%). He's equally adept at spotting up and firing away and shooting the ball in transition, and getting a tall shooter in Beilein's system is extremely important. Other than his shooting, the rest of his game needs a lot of polish. He didn't seem to have the strength or athleticism to consistently get to the rim, and he had very few times where he was able to to drive to the hoop and score. He's got a solid pump-fake, so that opportunity is there, but he still had a very difficult time getting looks near to the hoop, especially for a player that's as tall as he is. He's a decent passer for his size, but his rebounding ability was not as good as it needs to be. He's five inches taller than Novak, but Novak was a much better rebounder than Smotrycz was. Basically, he's a very good shooter but needs to work on the other elements of his offensive repertoire.
ON DEFENSE: There's good news and bad news with Smotrycz on the defensive end of the court. The good news: he evolved into a competent replacement for Morgan over the course of the season, holding up well down low despite being undersized. He wasn't a great defensive rebounder, but he did a better job over the course of the season at preventing really easy looks from opposing offenses. Unfortunately, it seemed like Smotrycz's lack of speed and agility also hurt him defensively: he was slow to rotate and help on defense and was beaten off of the dribble several times by quicker opponents. Foul trouble was also a huge issue for him; he had 13 points against Duke in the NCAA Tournament but only was able to stay on the court for 14 minutes before fouling out. Smotrycz really was a typical freshman defender: he improved over the course of the season but still seemed a step behind and not quite physically ready to compete with the best offenses in the Big Ten. The good thing is that he's a smart guy with a lot of defensive potential, he just needs to get adjusted to the speed of the game a bit more.
BOTTOM LINE: Out of all of the players on Michigan's roster (except for maybe Hardaway and Trey Burke), Smotrycz has the most potential. I'm kind of seeing Smotrycz's career mirroring that of Darius Morris: a decent freshman year is followed by a breakout year. I can't really see him having as much of an improvement as Darius did, but Evan has the recruiting hype, the potential, and the smarts to make a big jump this year. If I had to choose the most surprising player for this upcoming year, I'd pick Smotrycz. Reports of added size (almost 40 pounds) and more athleticism will pretty much wipe out most of his deficiencies and make him an All-Big Ten caliber player. Preseason hype should always be taken with a grain of salt, but I'm still predicting a big improvement from Smotrycz.
#15 Jon Horford, SO, plays the 5
OUTLOOK: Last year Horford looked like he wasn't ready to compete at a BCS level, mostly due to his lack of size and strength. After beating up on the weaker teams non-conference, Horford pretty much disappeared unless Morgan and Smotrycz were in foul trouble. The potential is there: Horford has the height and the frame of a Big Ten starter, bit he needed to put on a lot of muscle to be able to handle playing inside. It looks like he's done that -- I've seen him around campus and he looks much bigger than he did as a true freshman a year ago. He's got the skill to step out and hit a long-range shot, and in limited appearances he looked to be a good, instinctive rebounder, and the team's best shot-blocker. His brother Al only had about five and a half points per game for Florida as a freshman before turning into a double-digit scorer and future NBA All-Star after his sophomore year. That's probably the best possible case for Jon, but he's going to be way better than he was last year and will probably cement himself as the backup center, and he could push for time behind Morgan. He'll get many more opportunities as it looks likely that he'll see way more than garbage-time minutes and minutes against weak non-conference teams.
#22 Blake McLimans, RS SO, plays the 5
OUTLOOK: McLimans was reputed to be the best outside shooter of the three candidates to play the five last year, but that never really transitioned to the floor as he hit only one three-point shot on the year. He still filled in for Morgan a bit, but as the year wore on he looked like he was the fourth option behind Morgan, Smotrycz and Horford. He'll need to improve his shot and his rebounding ability if he wants to see the floor, but as for now, it looks like a large share of the minutes at the five will go to Morgan and Horford and it looks like McLiman's won't be much of a contributor. Fortunately he still has time to improve his game -- you can't ever write off a freshman -- but there are two guys in his class in front of him on the depth chart at his position. Significant contributions from McLimans would be a pleasant surprise.
#45 Colton Christian, SO, plays the 4
OUTLOOK: After decommitting from Tulane and committing to Michigan, Christian's reputation was that of a really athletic yet pretty undersized defender with a very undeveloped offensive game. That turned out to be the case; Christian was a very good rebounder for his size when he saw the court, but he was too much of an offensive liability to threaten for serious playing time. Like McLimans, it appears that Christian's development will be more long-term than short-term, but if he can improve his offensive game enough to get on the floor more often, I wouldn't be surprised to see him establish himself as one of the best lockdown defenders and one of the best rebounders on the team. It doesn't look like he'll contribute too much this season though -- he's one of the guys on the fringe of making the 10-man rotation.