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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

March 17th, 2012 by Justin Potts


It was a season that held such great promise only to culminate in a hollow feeling, the pain of a stinging defeat and an early exit overshadowing the successes that were achieved. However, the pain will soon recess and when we look back on the season, we’ll remember the milestones that were reached.

Beating Ohio State was one of the highlights of the season (photo by MGoBlue.com)

This team accomplished what the 26 Michigan basketball teams since 1986 could not: win the Big Ten, and it did so in a year in which the conference was at its best. Was Michigan truly the best team in the Big Ten? I think we would all by lying if we said yes, but it conquered the conference portion of the schedule well enough to earn a share of the title with two legitimate national title contenders, Michigan State and Ohio State.

This team featured a pair of seniors that will forever be remembered as the foundation of the Michigan basketball resurgence. John Beilein’s first two recruits came to a Michigan program that had just struggled to a 10-22 season, and took the Wolverines to the Big Dance three out of four years. Are Stu Douglass and Zack Novak among the best players in the Big Ten? Again, to say yes would have to be done while wearing maize colored glasses. Yet Douglass started more games in his career than any player in Michigan history and Novak became the first Wolverine to be named an Academic All-American in 30 years.

This team took a big step from being an under the radar bubble team with the ability to pull off upsets to a formidable foe that became the hunted rather than the hunter. It’s not an easy thing to do: live up to heightened expectations, especially when the crux of your team is underclassmen. Yes, the aforementioned senior leadership of Douglass and Novak cannot be understated, but the bulk of the weight was carried by a true freshman and a bunch of sophomores.

After routing Tennessee in its opening round game last season and narrowly missing the Sweet 16 with a near upset of Duke, Michigan looked poised to take another step forward.  But when sophomore point guard Darius Morris declared for the NBA Draft, the prospects of even matching that season’s record appeared dim. Enter Trey Burke. The “pride of Columbus, Ohio,” as he was called by Michigan’s public address announcer during pregame introductions of the Ohio State game, put Michigan on his shoulders and more than filled Morris’ shoes.

Burke quickly became a fan favorite, flashing a solid handle, the ability to knock down big shots, beat the defender off the dribble, and finish around the rim. He set the Michigan freshman assist record and was named Co-Big Ten Freshman of the Year, as well as a Sports Illustrated Second-Team All-American.

His backcourt running mate, Tim Hardaway Jr., entered the season with high expectations after an outstanding freshman season of his own, but fell into a sophomore slump that he could never quite get out of. He finished second on the team in scoring behind Burke, but while his overall shooting percentage remained about the same, his three-point percentage plummeted from 36.7 percent to an abysmal 28.3.

Evan Smotrycz showed flashes of brilliance throughout the season but was also prone to mistakes, and the season-ending loss to Ohio was a perfect example. His 6-of-7 shooting night kept Michigan in the game, but his mishandling of the ball in the final seconds sealed the victory for the Bobcats.

Even Denard caught the Michigan hoops fever this season, regularly appearing in the Maize Rage (photo by MGoBlue.com)

Jordan Morgan also flashed some ability to dominate the game, such as in Michigan’s 56-51 win over Ohio State on February 18 in which he virtually shut down Jared Sullinger and recorded 11 points and 11 rebounds of his own. Yet, he also had a remarkable ability to disappear at times.

Each of Michigan’s returning contributors has plenty of upside to go along with plenty to improve and the team will get a shot in the arm next season when the nation’s 11th-best (5th according to Rivals) recruiting class comes to town. Michigan should be able to play much bigger next season, which will be key to competing for the Big Ten crown once again.

But before we look ahead to what’s to come, let’s revel in the success of the season that just concluded. Take pride in the accomplishment of a Big Ten title, forget the early loss, and bid Douglass and Novak adieu as they move on to post-basketball careers. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to take pride in Michigan basketball, so soak it up.

Biggest Areas of Improvement:

1. Develop depth. Michigan was mainly a seven-man rotation all season long with the same five starting every game and Smotrycz and Matt Vogrich coming off the bench. Others, such as Blake McLimans and Colton Christian played sparingly, but rarely enough to contribute.

If Michigan is to continue to progress, it will need to build depth to give the starters some rest without significantly decreasing production. Burke played 1,227 of the 1,375 available minutes (89 percent) this season with the majority of his rest coming at the beginning of the year. By season’s end, the grind seemed to have taken a toll, especially after playing 45 minutes in an overtime victory over Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament. Michigan didn’t have a backup point guard to spell him. That blame can certainly fall on Darius Morris for leaving early just to wind up in the NBA’s D League, but the need for depth applies across the board as well.

Getting Al Horford back from injury and Mitch McGary will instantly boost the frontcourt, and Smotrycz’s development and the additions of Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas will bolster the wings. Hopefully Burke’s classmate Carlton Brundidge will be able to develop enough to see the court as well, giving Beilein a solid eight- or nine-man rotation.

Mitch McGary should help solve Michigan's interior woes next season (photo by Jeremy Hogan, Herald-Times)

2. Become less one-dimensional. Early in the season, Michigan had some success inside with Jordan Morgan and Al Horford. But once Horford was lost for the season, Morgan was unable to command the paint and Michigan became very one-dimensional. It worked for the most part, but eventually became the team’s greatest undoing late in the season when opponents figured out how to slow down Burke’s penetration and Michigan’s three-point shooting.

Michigan shot 788 three-pointers this season, 17 more than the Big Ten’s next highest, Northwestern, but converted just 35 percent of them, which ranked eighth in the conference. Too many times, the offense couldn’t even get the ball down low, and when it did, Morgan had very little in the way of a post game. That’s okay when the shots are falling, but late in the season with tired legs, they weren’t.

Michigan is always going to be a three-point shooting team under Beilein, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, without any sort of threat inside, it leaves Michigan prone to losing games it shouldn’t. Horford and McGary will help greatly.

3. Become a better defensive team. Michigan ranked near the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in most defensive categories: scoring defense (4th), opponent field goal percentage (6th), and opponent three-point field goal percentage (5th), which isn’t inherently bad. But with an offene that wasn’t the best shooting offense and ranked eighth in scoring, there wasn’t much room for error. Michigan ranked last in the conference in steals and blocked shots and eighth in rebounding.

What that tells is that Michigan’s defense wasn’t stopping opponents as much as it was opponents just not executing. The one time all season that Michigan’s defense did really step up in an obvious way was the win over Ohio State when it harassed Aaron Craft all night long and made the Buckeyes work for every basket. The way Ohio University pressured Michigan on every possession in the NCAA Tournament game is the way a defense needs to play. Unfortunately, Smotrycz is a defensive liability every time he’s on the floor and Morgan isn’t tough enough or big enough to body most big men. Douglass and Novak, while hard-nosed, simply weren’t athletic enough to keep up with most guards.

Of course, when a team wins a conference title and earns a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament, it’s hard to find too many faults without nitpicking. But fixing those three areas of improvement could be the difference between a 10-loss season and a legitimate national championship contender next season.

Check back in the next few days for a profile and grade of each player’s season and areas for improvement next year.