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Looking Ahead to the Future of Michigan Basketball

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As you may have noticed, Dave has been a little busy lately. He approached me this summer about joining Maize n Brew as the basketball contributor, and I readily accepted. After posting frequently on MGoBlog, I decided to start up my own blog, Maize-Colored Glasses. Ace Anbender -- formerly of The Wolverine Blog and now currently at MGoBlog -- brought me on to The Wolverine Blog as the basketball writer for that site. I took a hiatus after Ace left TWB, but now I'm excited and ready to start with Maize n Brew as basketball season rolls around. A little bit of background on me: my name is Alex Cook, I'm a freshman at U of M in the Honors College, and I've bled Maize and Blue since birth. You can follow me on Twitter @Alex_MnB.

Well, that was a fun year. Coming into the 2010-2011 basketball season with no expectations whatsoever, the Michigan basketball team shattered even the most optimistic fans' hopes by notching a .500 record in a very tough Big Ten, sweeping the hated in-state Michigan State Spartans, and coming within two points of upsetting Duke to make it to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. To call this past year surprising is doing it a disservice -- the one-year turnaround from an underachieving, sub-.500 disappointment in '09-'10 to a resilient young group of winners in '10-'11 was shocking. Weathering the loss of Manny Harris and Deshawn Sims wasn't supposed to be this easy, but a new cast of stars spearheaded by Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway made those guys an afterthought. That season brought Michigan's basketball program back in the right direction, and now, the future couldn't be brighter in the newly renovated (and now properly lit) Crisler Arena.

If Darius Morris would have stayed, the narrative as this basketball season approaches would have been simple for "experts" around the country: "the whole team is returning from a really surprising -- but really good -- Michigan team a year ago." Michigan would have been a consensus Top-15 team at worst. They would have been a trendy darkhorse pick to unseat Ohio State in the Big Ten. Some people might have even pulled the trigger on Michigan as a Final Four contender. As it is, Morris isn't here in Ann Arbor and last year's team will not be this year's team. Losing Morris is a big blow to Michigan's chances to do all of those things, but as it is, it's imprudent to count out a John Beilein team.

The potential across the board on Michigan's roster is encouraging. Tim Hardaway headlines this 2011-2012 group of Wolverines for good reason -- as a freshman last year, he struggled early on before willing the team to victory on the road against Penn State and turning into a bonafide star. His 30-point performance in Iowa City prevented a catastrophic loss, his early barrage of threes in Minneapolis sparked the team to a big win, and his 20 second half points at home against Michigan State held off the Spartans and may have cemented Michigan's NCAA Tournament bid. Hardaway may not have the wide-open looks afforded by the stellar drive-and-dish game of Darius Morris, but his game should develop as the focal point of Michigan's offense.

Outside of Hardaway, there are several more players who have the breakout potential that Morris and Hardaway exhibited a year ago. Evan Smotrycz is the first that comes to mind -- as a 6'9" perimeter forward with a very good outside shot, Smotrycz seems like the prototypical Beilein player, and now that he's gotten bigger and stronger, he'll be able to finish with strength and rebound the ball much better than he did as a freshman. He was a relatively big-time recruit (the most highly rated prospect that Beilein has put on the court so far), so a big jump from an occasional contributor to a solid Big Ten starter beckons.

Besides Smotrycz, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford look to solidify the Michigan frontcourt. Morgan was perhaps the most surprising player for the Wolverines last year; as a lightly-recruited player coming out of high school, not many people figured that he would make an impact, and after two major injuries it looked even less likely. Still, as a redshirt freshman, he proved to be one of the best newcomers in the conference as he notched just over nine points and six rebounds per game. Now that Morris is gone, a lot of Morgan's easy looks off of beautiful passes and pick-and-rolls will diminish, so hopefully he's improved other factes of his game as well. Horford wasn't able to do much as a very undersized true freshman in the rough Big Ten, but he's put on some weight and looked to be a capable rebounder and shot blocker in cameo appearances a year ago. If he proves to be a sufficient backup to Morgan, or if he supplants him as the starter, Michigan's in great shape inside.

In the backcourt, there's an interesting mix of experience and youth. The only seniors on the team -- Zack Novak and Stu Douglass -- have been through a lot during their careers in Ann Arbor, and are pretty much known quantities at this point: Novak is a good outside shooter with an uncanny ability to clean up the glass and Douglass is a solid defender who's knocked down some clutch shots of his own over the years. Matt Vogrich is entering his junior season and has slowly built an all-around offensive and defensive game after coming in as a sharpshooter. The two freshman on this team have less defined roles; Trey Burke is the presumed starting point guard as the reigning Mr. Basketball in Ohio and Carlton Brundidge is a promising combo guard out of Southfield who looks to get meaningful minutes this year. Both were Top 100 recruits with very different styles of play -- Burke is more of a pure shooter from the outside whereas Brundidge is a more physical guard who likes to get to the rim.

This upcoming season looks very promising for the Wolverines -- all of the experience gained by Hardaway, Smotrycz and Morgan as freshman contributors should pay off in their sophomore campaigns. Novak and Douglass provide the leadership that the disappointing 2009-2010 season sorely lacked. Burke and Brundidge are promising young players that have the potential to have a Hardaway-like impact. The point guard position is unsettled, sure, and losing Darius Morris is going to give this team some growing pains as they try to replace his ability to create easy looks, but in a down year in the Big Ten, Michigan has a great shot to build on its success and have a better year than last year.

Looking long-term, Michigan's program looks even more promising. In 2012, Michigan's bringing in its best recruiting class in years with Glenn Robinson III and Nick Stauskas coming in, and while the rumors surrounding the possible commitment of the 5-star Mitch McGary have cooled off as of late, Michigan is still in great position to land its best recruit since Jerod Ward. Even further down the road, Michigan's starting to compete on the recruiting trail and lock up solid talent early and it looks like that will continue with the new facilities in Ann Arbor. I've been in to see the new and improved Crisler Arena and with the Player Development Center set to open soon, Michigan will finally have comparable facilities to the upper echelon of the Big Ten. Add in a brilliant tactician in John Beilein, some energetic and promising up-and-coming assistant coaches in LaVall Jordan, Jeff Meyer, and Bacari Alexander, and there's a recipe for some long-term, sustained success for Michigan basketball for the first time in over a decade.

Get ready, it's going to be another fun year for Michigan basketball.