This afternoon we continue our trek through the state of Michigan as we get you ready for the Big Ten basketball season. The shadow from East Lansing to Ann Arbor has continued to shrink over the last few seasons as Wolverine head coach John Beilein develops the Michigan program into a respectable foe. Last year, it started rough for the Maize and Blue, but after a tournament berth and the season sweep of the rival Spartans, things are looking bright for the ‘little brother’ of college basketball.
Last year’s team didn’t have any seniors, but gone is leading scorer and distributor Darius Morris, who declared early for the NBA Draft and was selected by his hometown L.A. Lakers with the 41st overall pick. If this team can respond to losing their heart and soul on offense, then should be a favorite to finish near the top of the Big Ten Standings.
The way the season finished for the Wolverines, it’s hard to imagine that they went 1-6 to start the Big Ten campaign and at times could not find a rhythm on the court. After a big upset of Michigan State at the Breslin, the Wolverines got on a roll and ended up winning 10 of their last 14 ballgames.
With the hot streak, the Wolverines went dancing for the second straight season. As a no. 8 seed entering the tournament, the Wolverines opened up with a tough no.9 seeded Tennessee team. At the end of the day, Michigan played their best game of the season, winning by 30 (75-45) — the biggest margin in tournament history in the 8/9 match up. Up by four at the half, Darius Morris and company came out on a 19-2 run and literally became the dagger that ended the violation filled era of Volunteer basketball under Bruce Pearl. The most impressive factor in the game was Tennessee’s obvious advantage of strength, athletic ability, and interior play. Yet Michigan scored twice as many players in the paint, out rebounded the Volunteers by ten, an dominated on defense by holding them scoreless for 5 + minutes twice in the second half.
In game number two of the NCAA tournament against the Duke Blue Devils, the Wolverines looked over matched. With just less than 7:00 left in the game, they were down 12. It what was the greatest display of character, fight and heart of last year’s tournament. Down throughout most of the game, Michigan weathered the Blue Devil storm late, as Tim Hardaway Jr. scored seven unanswered to close the gap to one with 1:30 remaining in the game.
With :9 seconds left on the clock, Duke’s Nolan Smith missed his second free throw to keep it a 2 point game (73-71). The basketball was rebounded by Michigan’s Zach Novak and kicked out to Darius Morris who drove the floor and put up a floater from the free throw line with 3 seconds left that clanked off the back iron.
The Wolverines didn’t quite make it to the Sweet Sixteen, but they ended the season with a bang. An all-around effort that grounded the foundation for a building program and solidified their identity heading into this season.
Like ‘em or hate ‘em, The Michigan Wolverines will be a top tier team in the Big Ten this season.
With the departure of Darius Morris to the NBA, the Wolverines will depend on many names this season, and it will take a team effort with the emergence of two or three youngsters in order to get to the next level. Tim Hardaway Jr. led the team during Big Ten Play in points per game and instantly becomes the spark in 2011. He has one of the smoothest three point shots in the conference, and is so good because he creates shots with his ball-handling and ability to read opposing defenses . He is the superstar play maker on offense that the Wolverines need. It will be interesting to watch if Hardaway can continue to blossom into a top player in college basketball.
Also key for the Wolverines are senior leaders Zack Novak and Stu Douglass. They might not be the biggest, fastest, or most talented guards in the conference, but they lead by example with solid fundamental basketball and grit.
New Player to Keep an Eye On:
Not very often do you hear about a freshman from Columbus making the transition to college basketball and having a chance to play significant minutes as a Michigan Wolverine.. Three star incoming freshman Trey Burke was never recruited by Ohio State despite coming from the same high school as J.D. Weatherspoon and Jared Sullinger (Northland). The 6’1″ point guard will have his chances though this season. The original Penn State commit chose Michigan over Cincinnati after a late push from head coach John Beilein.
Many close to the program believe that he could be the spark that ignites this offense right off the bat. Some even think he can fill the shoes that Darius Morris left behind.
All I know is that Burke adds to the basketball rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan and I love it.
Big Games This Season:
Beyond facing #9 Memphis in mid-November, the Wolverines have a very favorable non-conference schedule. Memphis comes in rather young, but probably the favorite despite Michigan being the home team. Being only the third game of the season, it will be key for Michigan to play well to get things rolling. After Memphis, the maize and blue take on Virginia, Iowa State, Oakland (MI), Arkansas Pine-Bluff, Alabama A&M and Bradley — as well as Arkansas in the middle of Big Ten play in non-conference.
When it comes to B1G play, of course Michigan State is always a big game. The Wolverines will play the Spartans twice in a stretch that is sandwiched with Ohio State as well. More than in years past in the recent future, the battles with the Buckeyes will be a very important gauge on the season.
If the Wolverines can split both the Ohio State and MSU series, they have a very comfortable stretch to end the season that includes two games against Illinois, Penn State, and Northwestern.
Outlook For the Season:
There is a lot of expectations for this young club, and to think that they can finish in the top four of the conference is by no means a reach. If this core of young players continue to improve and put it together on the court, then they will be right there with Wisconsin and Ohio State in the standings. The X factor to me will be down low. If Evan Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan can contribute offensively and improve on the defensive side of the floor, things are going to click for this team. Both have a lot of room to grow. Morgan could really be a force in the Big Ten down low if he continues to progress. He is the only true low post threat and will be needed as bait, in the pick and roll and for cheap buckets. There is a lot to be excited about if for some reason you call yourself a Michigan fan.
Where They’ll Finish:
With the right contribution from the bench, an emergence of a secondary scorer behind Tim Hardaway Jr. and an improved rebounding effort from the front court, this team should finish in the top three of the Big Ten standings with a very solid seeding in the NCAA tournament.
John Beilein is the type of coach that can make the adjustments needed to win. This might be the first year he won’t have to do that because the talent is fully adequate to his style of play.
I’ll be rooting for the Wolverines this season, believe it or not. Don’t worry though, It’ll only be silent fist pumps when they play Wisconsin on January 8th.