We here at Maize n Brew are pretty excited about Michigan basketball. This team is playing some of the best ball it has in years, in new a renovated facilities, with a highly touted recruiting class on the way. So yeah, we're pumped.
We all figured what better way to celebrate that than get a bunch of us together to answer questions about the team, the season, and the upcoming tournaments (Big Ten and NCAA). Today we will focus on Michigan's play and some individual players. Tomorrow will be on what the regular season, Big Ten tournament, and NCAA tournament have in store for the Wolverines.
Below are a few questions I sent out to The White Tiger, Holdin' the Rope, and Dave Ryan last week. These are their answers.
(Keep in mind that these questions went out before the Ohio State game and that the questions were answered before the Northwestern game. Technology is fast, but it isn't that fast.)
First, how does it feel to know that Michigan is playing for seeding at this point in the season and isn't on the bubble come tourney time?
The White Tiger: To be totally honest, it's a bit weird. I know that Michigan has traditionally been a very strong program so seasons like this haven't been out of the ordinary, but this is the first time that I can remember Michigan being solidly in the tournament. Growing up and watching those selection shows and seeing the perennially underachieving Amaker squads top the "Bubble Burst" lists, hearing MSU fans proclaim Michigan as the "66th best team in the country" after NIT wins, and never being able to pencil in Michigan on my NCAA Tournament bracket; it was all incredibly frustrating. It really shows how far Beilein's brought us that Michigan fans are collectively debating if we'll get a 2, 3, 4 seed and where we'll end up instead of wondering if we have enough marquee wins and what our record against the RPI Top 50 looks like.
Holdin' The Rope: I've never really had to think about this before as a Michigan basketball, so I really don't even know how to feel other than WOOOOOOO. I guess "playing with house money" comes to mind. If this was last year or two years ago and you had visited from the future to tell me that Michigan would even have the chance to be a 3-seed in 2011-12, I would've called you a very crazy person from the future indeed.
Dave Ryan: Relief. No more nail-biting on Selection Sunday. It's great to know that the biggest gripe we as fans could really have is that we ended up with Kentucky in our quarter of the bracket. Knowing that Michigan actually has the ability to beat a good deal of the 67 teams in the field is also a pretty nice thing to think about too.If anything, though, it just sets the stage for March Madness even more here in the this glorious mitten state. This program has a chance to do some serious damage over the next month, and we haven't been able to definitively say that in a while.
Zach Travis: Being the oldest in the group I can still vaguely remember Michigan being an NCAA tourney caliber team year after year, but sitting in the Maize Rage for the Amaker years makes it feel like that was a century ago, not a decade and a half. Needless to say I would much rather be focused on Michigan's chances at making a deep run than simply sneaking in the tournament.
The Michigan offense seems to get bogged down at times and rely too heavily on single player isolation to get into the lane and create shots. What do you think is the cause of this? My theory is that Darius Morris was better at dealing with pressure on the parimeter than Burke is and that allows the rest of the team to work more effectively from the offense and take advantage of the seams inside that extra pressure in the backcourt creates. Am I right, and if so is it Burke's age, size or just his style of play that are having a detrimental effect and keeping the offense from running smoothly?
TWT: It seems like Michigan's offense usually goes through a couple stages on each given possession. 1.) Try to push the ball in transition off of a turnover or rebound, usually with a guy like Burke, Hardaway, Novak or Douglass leading the break. With numbers, Michigan usually attacks the rim or finds the shooter. 2.) Run a set with some motion and screening off of the ball, and Morgan and Hardaway usually gets a couple of looks out of these sets. 3.) When there are ten seconds left on the shot clock, Michigan usually gets Burke the ball and has him run a high pick-and-roll with Morgan; Burke is ideally able to either get to the rim or kick it out to a spot-up shooter. Lately, Stage 3 has been defended a lot better by hard hedges from the bigs on pick-and-rolls, and Burke hasn't been able to get around them because of his size. Fortunately, Burke looked much more aggressive and drove the ball more quickly against Aaron Craft and OSU, negating the hedge by Sullinger. Hopefully this trend continues, because most of the stagnancy on Michigan's offense has come from the lack of production from the last-ditch plays on each possession.
HTR: Sometimes the offense just breaks down because of defensive pressure (e.g. the MSU and OSU games on the road); that'll happen. A large part of it is a lack of play-making ability off the dribble outside of Trey. Darius, while not as good when shooting the ball, was able to shrug off even the most persistent defenders and/or hedgers on the ball screen, and this will lead to a lot of situations where the clock will be a :06 or so and the ball will be 30 feet away from the basket. When you have multiple "hot potato" players, as I call them (i.e., guys who catch and pass right back if their shot isn't there), seemingly everything goes through Trey. When it works, it looks great, but, when it doesn't, you get flailing, purposeless possessions. Also, earlier on it seemed that the Buckeyes weren't really paying attention to Morgan on the roll; I may be remembering that wrong, but it will be interesting to see how teams attack the pick and roll going forward.
DR: I'm not sure it's that much different from last season to be honest. Morris was very deliberate in the way he operated at times and was obviously not as quick coming around screens as Burke is. I think this led to us seeing Morris move the ball quicker in the possession when there was nothing there, whereas now you'll see Burke try to get deeper into the defense and possibly force something. I think Beilein wants to see Burke continue to do this though, especially because of how well it opens the wings, but also because he's so gifted at attacking the basket.
ZT: I'll go ahead and answer my own theory here. After watching the way the offense dealt with a stellar Ohio State defense on Saturday I feel better. Burke looked more comfortable dealing with ball pressure out top and Michigan was able to attack creases inside with greater ease. I still worry that the offense is prone to dry spells, and that is before Trey Burke leaves the game for any reason. If the team was able to do much of anything on the offensive glass against great teams I wouldn't worry so much, but when the well is dry of second chance points you had better make your one shot per possession count.
What is wrong with Tim Hardaway Jr.? He leads the team in points per game but his offensive game has been extremely ineffective for long stretches and his touch from outside is almost completely gone. Is this just a sophomore slump from a guy thrust into a number one role after flying relatively under the radar last season, or is there legitimate worry that Hardaway is at best a second or third option and doesn't have the first step to be a go-to scorer? Are you still holding out hope that he snaps out of his funk, or should fans resign themselves to waiting for next year for Hardaway to get back to playing efficient basketball?
TWT: I definitely think that a lot of the issues with Tim Hardaway stem from him being thrust into the role as the go-to guy as a sophomore. Perhaps his torrid shooting had to regress to the mean somewhat, and the amount of hype he received entering the year was too much, but he still has done very poorly relative to preseason expectations. I hate to psychoanalyze Hardaway, so I won't -- I'll just say that it's not uncommon for shooters to start missing, wind up taking more, and worse, shots to try to make up for it, and for everything to spiral downward from that. Hardaway still has the most talent of anyone on the roster, and hopefully these past two games against Illinois and Ohio State are indicative of a turnaround. If he improves his shot selection, draws fouls, gets to the line, and uses his stellar mid-range game, Tim Hardaway will be an extremely valuable asset in March.
HTR: I've said this before and I'll say it again: as much as I hate sports cliches, having "confidence" is one that can actually be relevant in certain situations. I don't think anything is "wrong" with THJ. The shots haven't been falling, but the shooting pace he held throughout the second half of last season built up some unrealistic expectations, in my opinion. His shooting percentages won't be nearly as good as last year's, but he will find his shot. He's had some very good shooting performances sprinkled in here and there throughout this slump (the Northwestern and Illinois games, for example). Part of the problem is that I think his handle isn't as refined as people might imagine it to be, and that his shooting struggles have exacerbated this even further (in addition to affecting his defensive effort, at times). In short, ALL IS WELL...mostly. In any case, this would be the perfect time to start turning his season around for good.
DR: It's been a confidence thing. Nobody figured Burke would morph into the alpha scorer on this team so quickly. It almost felt like Hardaway was the last one on Earth to realize that Michigan had become Burke's team in a sense. I think it was hard for him to adjust. Tim put in serious work over the summer playing overseas, and there was a time when it looked like Michigan would need him to take 16-20 shots this year.And when the jumpers weren't falling and the No. 1 role on the team appeared to be slipping away, I think that's when we saw the sulking and visible frustration. Hardaway strikes me as a player who could absolutely explode in the next month, so it seems premature to write him off before the most important part of the season actually happens.
ZT: The most troubling thing to me isn't that Hardaway is missing shots, it is that he is taking some of the shots in the first place. Hardaway isn't a classic shooter and I think sometimes he settles for contested outside shots and stepback 18-footers rather than getting to the rim. Obviously there aren't always going to be lanes to the basket, but I think Hardaway is the kind of player that plays himself into a funk. When he settles for tough outside shots and they don't fall he begins to force them. The last two games have been better, so I am hoping that this is a sign that Hardaway is finding a bit of a rhythm on offense. If this team is going to make any noise in March he will be an important component.
Is it safe to say Zack Novak is the most hated player in the conference? How much more does that make you like him?
TWT: I wouldn't be surprised if he is. Everybody -- except for Michigan fans -- seems to think he's a dirty player. I guess a 6'4" white power forward needs to do something to stay competitive, and I wouldn't doubt it if Novak is the most physical player in the conference. I'd say that Novak is my favorite basketball player regardless of what other fans think about him, so I couldn't care less if they hate Zack Novak.
HTR: I really have no idea how much other players are hated around the conference, but it's safe to say that Novak seems to be up there. I'm not sure why, but he is. It's amusing, but it doesn't really make me like him more; his play on the floor, leadership, and fire-breathing tenacity are enough for me. I don't need opposing fans to validate that for me.
DR: He's definitely top five. There's still plenty of hatred for a guy like Jared Sullinger though, and a quick perusal of the comments he gets on Twitter serves as a fairly decent indication of that. But Novak almost has a Greg Paulus level of unlikability to him in my mind, so I'm sure there are a bunch of rival fans that are counting down the days until he graduates and fades into irrelevance. But as a Michigan fan, Novak is a pretty spectacular player to watch out there overachieving and doing the dirty work every night. From Blake Griffin to Draymond Green to Jordan Taylor, you almost have to laugh at the laundry list of guys, big and small, that Novak has guarded over his career. The kid takes on anyone. It's a shame he won't be around next year.
ZT: As much as I love Trey Burke right now it would be hard for anyone to surpass Zack Novak as my favorite player (Stu is a close second). I love the story of the player everyone passed over, the fact that he was thrown into the fire early, and despite everything he has built himself into one of the most versitile defenders in the conference as well as one of Michigan's most reliable options. I can see where HTR is coming from when he says that he doesn't need opposing fans to validate his feelings for Novak, but I respectfully disagree. Some Big Ten fans might hate Novak because they think he is dirty and some might hate him because they don't think he is any good. But I love the fact that they hate him most when he is killing their team --- think last year in East Lansing --- and that he feeds off that and plays even better. If you are an athlete and opposing fans don't hate you you're doing it wrong.