The second part of our conversation will post tomorrow.
Zach: Before the Nebraska game I felt my confidence in this team start to rebound from what had been a pretty disappointing (mostly in comparison to last year) non-conference season. While Michigan failed to get over the hump against some of the better teams on the schedule and dealt with the season ending injury to McGary, things began looking pretty bleak. However, nice wins against Stanford, Minnesota, and Northwestern all had signs of this team coming together and beginning to find itself. Nik Stauskas continues to be Not Just a Shooter, and emphatically so, bringing all sorts of play-making ability to Michigan's offense. Glenn Robinson III finally seemed to come alive starting in the Arizona game, and while he still struggles a bit to get into the lane consistently off the dribble, he has let the game come to him in other ways. Even Michigan's reserve big men have played well in place of McGary.
However, watching Michigan fail time and time again to close out a Nebraska team — until the very end when the Huskers had a shot and two put back attempts to win — I have to now start wondering: is defense going to be a problem the further we go into Big Ten play? Last year's team under-performed late in the season in games against Penn State (1.08 and 1.24 ppp in the regular season) and Purdue (1.09 ppp). This is to say nothing of how Michigan defended in a handful of games against the upper-echelon of the Big Ten. Do you think that life without Mitch McGary is going to be tough on the defensive end for Michigan, or do you think there are better times ahead for this defense after an underwhelming road performance against Nebraska?
Fouad: I think the tournament run kind of got people to forget that Michigan played some brutal defense at times last season; after watching the Nebraska game, everyone was reminded of last year's Penn State game for a reason. In both games, Michigan was completely unable to defend the pick and roll, or even any sort of dribble drive at all. The fact that they lost at Penn State wasn't even the worst part, it's that the defense looked so helpless in the process.
Obviously, when you come away with a win, like they did in Lincoln, things are a little less grim...but not by much. Without Mitch McGary, Michigan lost a shot-blocker and, simply, another big body. The defense will probably get better, simply by virtue of young players being more likely to improve throughout a season than, say, a 4th or 5th-year senior. Derrick Walton, for example, has the quickness to be a good defender, but he's gotten beat off the dribble far too many times, which I think was in part why it became so easy to give Spike Albrecht minutes.
Unfortunately for Michigan, things won't get any easier. Everyone in the Big Ten save Northwestern has guys as dangerous (or significantly moreso) than the guys Nebraska threw out there. In fact, defending Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill on Tuesday won't be an easy task. On the bright side, Michigan does have an offense that, when firing on all cylinders, keeps them in games even as the defense consistently fails to defend a simple pick and roll.
Speaking of offense, how good do you feel about Derrick Walton's development, especially with Michigan's brutal schedule throughout the rest of this month? Scoring the game-winner in a Big Ten game is a big step forward for a freshman point guard.
Zach: Walton has always suffered more from being the point guard after Trey Burke than he has by any big worries of being a bust. That isn't to say that his performance this year has been judged too harshy in general, but that perspective is hard to maintain when the last guy you saw run the offense was one of the best players in program history. While there have been plenty of struggles as well as a short-lived movement to maybe kinda think about starting Spike Albrecht (which at the time I was talking myself into as well), my feeling is that Walton has come through all of this rather well and has begun to really carve out his own role on this team. I like his aggressiveness in transition and his size and athleticism has proven to be a defensive asset at times — something you couldn't always say about Burke and a big strike against Albrecht receiving substantial playing time. At the end of the day it makes sense to take a step back and remember that playing point guard in the Big Ten isn't easy for anyone, much less a guy who was still playing high school ball a year ago.
However, it is easier to say all that after the last three games where Walton has quietly asserted himself and posted ORtgs of 108, 122, and 107 in Big Ten play. He isn't controlling games and he is still prone to mistakes and blown assignments, but over the last four games he has 13 assists to just six turnovers and he has been more effective in what he has been tasked with. Thankfully, Michigan has Nik Stauskas there to help create offense for the rest of the team and Glenn Robinson III has started to assert himself as a scorer. The more these two players thrive, the more Derrick Walton will be allowed to just be his freshman self. He will get more open looks while still getting a chance to push the ball in transition. If you want one sign of progress, the best I can point to is that with under a minute left against Nebraska, Walton turned the ball over and allowed Nebraska to take a one point lead. Instead of shying away, he lived up to the moment on the next possession and took the lead right back by driving aggressively to the basket, scoring the basket and drawing the foul. You can't ask him to be Trey Burke, but if Michigan's sophomores continue to progress offensively, it opens the door for Derrick Walton to just be himself, and I think that will be a net positive for this team over the course of the Big Ten season.
While two of those sophomores have staked a claim to being this team's offensive alpha dogs, there is one — Caris LeVert — that is hard to understand. It seems he either has a monster offensive game or is almost completely absent. So what do you make of 2013-14 Caris, and what do you think the rest of this season holds for him?
Fouad: LeVert has had a really strange season. It started out early with some people half-jokingly wondering if he was actually Michigan's best player this season, and how significant his freshman to sophomore year leap seemed to be. Then the Duke game happened, in which LeVert was basically the only thing separating Michigan from being completely blown out in the second half. With Walton's early struggles, you even had (still have?) people clamoring for him to get serious time at the point.
Excluding Houston Baptist and Holy Cross, since the Duke game LeVert has averaged 7.4 ppg on just 33 percent shooting from the field (14-of-42) and 27 percent from beyond the arc (3-of-11). On the bright side, he had an efficient night against Nebraska, with a much better stat line than I remember him having: 10 points, 5-of-8 from the field and five assists. That last number is the most important one to me. Earlier in the year, when it became time for LeVert to do something with the ball, it generally meant him dribbling the air out of the ball. Sometimes it worked (e.g. Duke), simply because he's a talented player with that deceptive sort of Durant-esque lanky quickness. But, lots of times it doesn't, usually resulting in a tough contested shot or a turnover.
If LeVert, like Stauskas, can continue to be a capable distributor, like he was against the Cornhuskers (and Stanford) then Michigan will have quite the offense, with assist-making by committee, if you will. With GRIII coming on as a scorer, the need for LeVert to be a primary scorer is not as urgent as it was earlier in the season. The difference between LeVert being a plus player or not will be decided by whether or not he can find the open guy when he does put it on the floor. He hit a bit of a rough patch in December, but I think he can be expected to improve as the season goes on and individual roles become increasingly defined.
(Check back tomorrow for part two of our discussion where we get into GRIII's emergence as a primary offensive weapon, Michigan's reserve big men, and general thoughts for how the Big Ten season goes from here.)