HOLY SHIT THAT HAPPENED WE BEAT 3 TOP TEN TEAMS IN A ROW I CANNOT BELIEVE WHAT I JUST WITNESSED.
But seriously, we should probably do an email exchange for Monday, and let's try to make it more than five pages of "eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee".
So, after a three game stretch against three top-10 teams (two of those games being on the road) that both of us were sure that Michigan would do well to steal one game in, the Wolverines emerged 3-0 and hold sole possession of first place in the conference with a 7-0 record.
Given all of this, is it fair that we re-calibrate expectation for this team? Is it now "Big Ten Title Or Bust" time for Michigan basketball in the regular season?
Fouad: Seriously...incredible. I thought they were dead down 8 there halfway through the second half, sort of assumed MSU would get the knockout bucket or two and coast to the win. Unbelievable. Anyway, for my actual answer:
Personally, I've never been one to say "X or bust" about anything. With that said, if you don't recalibrate expectations after this start then you never will. This is Michigan's best start in conference play since 1976-77. What the Wolverines have just accomplished--three straight wins against top 10 squads--hasn't been done since 1987, by any team in college basketball. I can't come up with superlatives strong enough to describe how truly awed I am. The job John Beilein has once again done with this team, sans Mitch McGary, is just tremendous in every way.
As for the Big Ten, I don't know what the actual statistical odds of a Big Ten title are, but Michigan is obviously in the driver's seat for the regular season title. Not to go all S-E-C on you, but a Big Ten regular season title is the most difficult thing to do in college basketball (including winning six games in the NCAA tournament). Now, that obviously doesn't mean that this year's B1G champion will go on to win the national title, but as far as impressiveness of accomplishments go, a Big Ten regular season title is a really big deal.
Michigan did get a share of the title two years ago, and that was great even though, in truth, Michigan State and Ohio State were better teams. After this start. especially given wins at Wisconsin and MSU, places Michigan had a combined one win since 1997 (not including this year's win at the Kohl Center), it would be somewhat of a disappointment not to win the conference outright. You would think that 14-4 would be good enough for at least a piece of it; Michigan would need to go 7-4 the rest of the way to get there.
Obviously we know that Nik Stauskas is in a 1a/1b situation with Gary Harris as far as best player in the B1G goes, LeVert has taken a giant leap and GRIII is a big time player (when he wants to be). But I want to talk about Derrick Walton, who really played some big boy basketball in East Lansing, showing composure far beyond his years. What do you think lies in store for him the rest of the way? How much better will he get between now and tournament time?
Zach: I mentioned this in our last email exchange: the shift in Michigan's offense has really benefited Walton because it has taken the weight off his shoulders. Now, I said that not expecting all that much from him over this three game stretch against two of the better point guards in the conference and a fast paced team capable of giving him fits. While the flu kept him out against the latter, Walton helped hold Traevon Jackson to 3/9 shooting, five assists and two turnovers in Michigan's win in Madison, and he followed that up with unquestionably his best game so far at Michigan.
Things didn't set up well for Walton going into the Michigan State game. He was coming off the flu, which had kept him out against Iowa earlier in the week, and he was facing off against Keith Appling who has put together his best season at Michigan State so far this year. Appling had his share of success offensively (dishing out 10 assists), but considering Appling's defensive prowess, one wouldn't expect Walton to have such an efficient game. He hit 2/5 2pt shots, both his attempts from three, added four assists, four rebounds, and just one turnover. And in the end, when Michigan needed to hold off the Spartans, it was Walton who walked to the line and hit 8/9 free throws (he was 9/10 for the game) to help ice things. Even more impressive is looking back at some of his baskets. His calm three to start the game showed the cool confidence of a veteran. Late in the first half he helped Michigan pull within two on an and-one opportunity that he converted. Finally, his three with under six minutes left tied the game.
We won't get this kind of production from Walton all the time, but in perhaps the toughest venue in the conference, Derrick Walton came up with more than a handful of big plays and big shots to help Michigan first keep the game close, then seize the lead, and finally ice the game. Michigan doesn't need Derrick Walton to control games for long periods of time like it needed Trey Burke a year ago. What the Wolverines need is a savvy point guard that can chip in a few shots, push the ball in transition, and play good defense on opposing guards.
The beauty is, Walton is just over halfway through his freshman season, and his improvement just over the last ten games has been impressive. If he can continue to gain confidence, there is no reason that by the end of the season he can't be a 10/5/5 player with an A/TO ratio somewhere around 3/1. As Michigan's wings assert themselves more and more, that kind of contribution from Walton is enough to push this team over the top. It certainly was Saturday against the Spartans.
One thing that was worrisome about the Michigan State game was Michigan's inability to get into the paint with regularity. This wasn't an issue against Iowa and Wisconsin, which both succumbed to Michigan's high ball screen offense with regularity, but physical teams like Michigan State (and presumably Ohio State) might be more capable of forcing Michigan to play on the perimeter. Are you worried that this team is too much of a jump shooting team and that this might become an issue on a night where the shots aren't falling? Michigan is ninth nationally in 2pt%, 29th in 3pt%, and 283rd in FTA/FGA, while only two Wolverines have FT rates better than 40.0. Is this over-reliance on jump shooting setting Michigan up for disappointment either in a big game or an unexpected upset?
Fouad: Over-reliance on jump shooting is always an issue, but, it would be far more problematic if this were a Michigan team that: a) didn't shoot it so darn well no matter what and b) didn't have guys who can create their own shot. Michigan just shoots the lights out, and it's not really a fluke. Back when John Beilein was just building the program up, Michigan had a lot of shooters and not too much in the way of one-on-one shot creators, to the point that it seemed like it took a perfect performance to beat any notable teams. That is no longer the case. Stauskas and LeVert can kill you with the dribble, and Walton is obviously getting better with every game.
But yeah, the danger of an off night is always there. What is actually important is how Michigan responds to those off nights: can they grind out wins when Nik Stauskas isn't going 5-for-6 from three? Like I mentioned before, I think Michigan is versatile enough on offense to do that. I don't think people should look at this performance and think it was a "fluke" or irreproducible just because Michigan shot an insane 58 percent from three. You do what you need to do to win and offer no apologies. Run down the list of statistics and Michigan checks in at or near the top of the conference rankings in all of them; this offense is elite at everything except offensive rebounding. If this offense were a singular player, you could say that it's Not Just A Shooter.
Luckily for the Wolverines, not that many teams get into you defensively like Michigan State and Ohio State. Against just about everyone else, Michigan should be able to get what it wants on the pick and roll, drive-and-kicks and in transition (not to mention your standard array of set plays). The potential for upsets is always there in college basketball, let alone the Big Ten, where any team can beat any other team on the right night. Did anybody expect Michigan to lose at Penn State last season? Of course not, and Michigan can't rest on its laurels now. While I wouldn't be surprised if Michigan has an off night from the field and loses by 15-20 to someone at some point down the line, I'm not expecting some sort of massive regression to the mean or something.
(Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of our discussion on Michigan's hot start to the Big Ten season, including how likely it is for Michigan to keep this win streak alive.)