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Archive for the ‘Opinion/Editorial’ Category

Discussing Michigan’s NCAA Tournament outlook with 131 Sports

Monday, January 19th, 2015


Beilein vs Northwestern(Dustin Johnson, UMHoops)

My good friend and fellow college basketball junkie Joe Cook (@JLeeC33) from 131 Sports agreed to do a Q&A about Michigan’s challenging season to date. Joe’s specialty is in predicting the NCAA Tournament field, and he has done an outstanding job in doing that over the past few seasons, as seen below. Given this expertise, I asked Joe some questions about the Wolverines’ skimpy resume, what it will take for John Beilein’s squad to rally for a berth in the Big Dance, and the overall state of the Big Ten. [Note: This interview was conducted before it was announced that Caris LeVert would miss the remainder of the season.]

Joe, let’s start off with the basics. You don’t have the Wolverines even sniffing a Tournament berth right now (in your latest bracket, Michigan doesn’t even crack the next four out). Just how far out are they from the field of 68?

I think you captured my feelings perfectly when you said that I don’t have the Wolverines “even sniffing” a berth in the big dance right now. It’s hard to really quantify just how far out of the field the Wolverines are because of how flat and wide the topography of the tournament bubble is this year. I think the easiest way to answer this question is to say that they are one marquee win away from at least being on the radar; think home game against Wisconsin with ESPN College GameDay in town on the 24th of January.

For those of us who are hoping that your projections are way off and Michigan is much closer than that, can you give us an idea what your projection model is based off and just how your projections have stacked up to the likes of Joe Lunardi, Jerry Palm, and other so-called experts in the recent past – both in terms of correctly called teams and relation to actual seed line?

I’m an actuary by profession, so it’s really a part of my nature to try to find a way to numerically quantify any sort of sports analysis I perform; bracketology projections are no exception to this rule. Without revealing too much, I’ve developed a couple of minor algorithms using statistical regression that roughly project a team’s seed-line based on factors that the committee has used to seed teams in the past. In the seed projection process, I use this as a baseline measure, and adjust teams up or down based on my own personal “eye test”. As for how my projections stack up…

I’ll just say they stack up very well. You can see for yourself. The bracket matrix website aggregates the projections of all the bracketologists across the internet, and creates composite projections, while also ranking the bracketologists for accuracy. The blurb at the top of the aforementioned link explains the scoring and ranking process. Looking at the results, I have been the second most accurate bracketologist out of more than 100 over the past three years.

Obviously a lot has gone wrong with this Michigan team’s season so far, from a lack of quality to wins to some very bad losses, but if you had to pinpoint one thing holding the Wolverines’ resume back right now, what would it be?

It’s tough to really narrow it down to just one thing, but gun to my head, I would say it’s the lack of quality wins more than anything else. In general, I’ve noticed the committee is willing to overlook bad losses in the face of truly quality wins, because it demonstrates that a particular team has the potential to beat anybody. Michigan has played the likes of Villanova, Arizona, SMU, and Ohio State – four teams that are firmly in the tournament field. They’re 0-4 against these teams, with an average margin of defeat of more than 15 points per game.

What are the factors that you see contributing to these bad losses? Is there a player or two to blame? Is it bad coaching? Are injuries and/or inexperience taking a toll?

I would never say it’s bad coaching when Johnny B. is involved. In my one year as head coach of my former high school’s boys basketball junior varsity team (Yes, I played that card), I was (and still am) one of the firmest Beilein disciples you will find. I think you are on the right path in saying that injuries and inexperience are taking a toll on this team. It’s obvious to me that Walton’s toe injury is still plaguing him. His quick first step was one of his best weapons, and now that it has disappeared, he can’t generate as much space and respect from defenders as he needs to get off clean jumpers. Caris hasn’t taken on the lead “get me the ball and watch what I do with it” role quite like Nik did last season. The bigs are inexperienced and haven’t developed enough athletically to replace J-Mo and Horford.

As it stands today, what is Michigan’s best win and what is Michigan’s worst loss?

The best win has to be the early season W against the Orange, as that’s the only victory the Wolverines have over a team I currently have truly near the field. Frankly, that’s just grasping at straws, as Syracuse just lost a rather embarassing game at Clemson. I don’t think there is much of an argument from any fans of the team that the worst loss this season was the NJIT game.

Certainly the chances don’t look good for the Wolverines to storm their way into the NCAA Tournament, but is there at least a shot (outside of winning the conference tournament)? What is it going to take?

It’s going to take a miraculous finish that I currently don’t envision happening, but I think Michigan definitely still has a shot, albeit a long one, to make the tournament field. Even with the bad losses, I still think 19 wins is probably enough to allow Michigan to go dancing. That being said, I would worry if none or only one of those wins come against Wisconsin, Maryland, Ohio State, or Michigan State. As I mentioned above, quality wins tend to be a heavily-weighed factor in the committee’s mind when it comes to making a decision on a bubble team’s fate.

Last year, we saw just half of the Big Ten (six teams) go dancing, while the year before that saw a whopping eight (75 percent of teams) make it. In your latest projection, you have six Big Ten teams in the field (Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa). How many of those teams would you consider locks right now, how many Big Ten teams would you consider to likely make it, how many will be on the bubble, and how many will certainly be left out in the cold?

You can book it now: the Badgers, the Terps, the Spartans, and the Buckeyes will be in the tournament field in March. Some might question me putting the Spartans in this category, but I’ve seen enough from them to know that they’re going to have no problem getting to 20-plus wins. In fact, I see all these teams being on the 8-seed line or better when all is said and done. In all honesty, I don’t think I can put any teams in the “likely to make it” category, because I think the gap between these four and the rest of the league is distinct.

I’m going to skip to the locks to miss the tournament (i.e. the teams Michigan must win all remaining games against to have a chance to be dancing). Those teams include Nebraska, Northwestern, Rutgers, and Minnesota. That leaves the Big Ten teams that are squarely on the bubble, and it’s half of the conference! Indiana and Iowa currently sit relatively firmly in the field, but one bad loss could change that in the blink of an eye. The boys from Champaign are right in the thick of things, but if the tournament started today, I think they’d be watching from home – just barely. Then you have the other three bubble teams, who fall into the category by default only because I’m not ready to say they’re locks to be out. This is where Michigan sits, along with Purdue and Penn State.

Both you and I agree on many things, but one area of college basketball that we’d like to see altered slightly is the pace of play. I, for one, like a slower game compared to the NBA, but has college basketball gotten too slow for your tastes? How do you think the powers that be should go about changing it and do you think pace of play can predict success at all?

When I initially heard rumblings of men’s college basketball potentially moving from its current 35-second shot clock to a 30-second shot clock, similar to women’s college basketball, I was definitively opposed to the idea. However, the more editorials I read, the more statistics I analyzed, the more college basketball I watched, the more I started to believe that the 30-second shot clock is right for the game. The tempo of men’s college basketball has become sluggish, and possessions per game numbers have consistently decreased since the turn of the century.

I feel that the NCAA missed an opportunity in recent years by choosing to increase focus on guaranteeing space for the offensive player in possession, rather than focusing on speeding up the pace of play. This misguided decision has led to officials blowing the whistle more on ticky-tack fouls, and players going to the free throw line more frequently than they deserve.

Thanks so much to Joe for his time and expertise in answering these questions, and be sure to check out his blog at 131 Sports and follow him on Twitter (@JLeeC33). You can always tweet your questions to me (@SamSedlecky), email me at sedlecky@umich.edu, or leave a comment. If you enjoyed this piece, let us know!

What’s wrong with Michigan basketball and what it will take reach the Big Dance

Thursday, January 15th, 2015


LeVert-Irvin-Beilein

Coming off an NCAA Championship game appearance and, last season, an Elite Eight finish that was inches from back-to-back Final Fours, Michigan basketball was thought to have climbed the hump from the scrappy opponent who gives the superior teams a run for their money now and again to a year-in, year-out bona fide contender.

After all, going into this season, it felt eerily similar to the start of the 2013-14 season that saw the Wolverines run away with the Big Ten title outright and earn a 2-seed in the Big Dance.

Yes, John Beilein would have to find a way to replace Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas, but Trey Burke was the Wooden Award winner the year before that, and Michigan bounced back just fine.

And yes, Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan would no longer be donning the Maize and Blue, but McGary hardly played at all last year and Morgan was a solid, if unspectacular, big man who rarely wowed offensively.

And sure, Glenn Robinson III decided to pursue his NBA dreams after two years in Ann Arbor, but Little Dog never seemed to live up to his monstrous hype anyway and was an inconsistent shooter and competitor.

Certainly some new faces would be playing the majority of minutes and plenty of shots would open up, but Beilein has elevated this program to one that can simply reload, not replace — right?

It turns out that maybe we were all a little bit ahead of ourselves – national pundits, local journalists, and Michigan fans alike – in thinking that the Wolverines would once again dominate offensively with another incredibly youthful and inexperienced team. It’s not every year that you see players the caliber of Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr, Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, and, yes, even Jordan Morgan, sport your team’s colors.

Last year's Big Three formed one of the most efficient offenses in the nation (Detroit Free Press)

Last year’s Big Three formed one of the most efficient offenses in the nation (Detroit Free Press)

And Michigan fans are finally beginning to appreciate the glory those youngsters brought to the program rather than to expect it.

Today, the Wolverines find themselves well out of the NCAA Tournament picture at 10-7 overall and 3-2 in Big Ten play, with a couple of unbelievable losses and even fewer marquee wins.

So what went wrong?

In short, a lot went wrong.

The offense has disappeared for long stretches, the defense has been porous against lowly competition, and the replacements that were expected to be reinforcements have a lot of learning to do.

I don’t think there is any one player to point a finger at for all of Michigan’s shortcomings, and I don’t think John Beilein went from coaching the best offense in the country for two years straight to forgetting how to coach at all (resulting in an offense that’s outside the top 100 in offensive efficiency).

Instead, there are a bevy of problems coming from a number of different areas.

To start, let’s take a look at Michigan’s “Big Three” returning guards: Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton Jr, and Zak Irvin.

Those three players were largely expected to take on the bulk of the Wolverines’ offense, and while they are contributing nearly 60 percent of Michigan’s points – a slightly higher percentage, in fact, than Michigan’s Big Three of Stauskas, Robinson III, and LeVert contributed last season – the points are down overall by a whopping eight per game. To put that number into a bit more perspective, this team is scoring more than 0.2 points fewer on every possession.

The reasons for that dramatic drop-off are numerous, but probably stem from the top. Michigan lacks a go-to scorer with a killer instinct. Scoring droughts have seemingly become the norm for this team rather than the rare exception, and that falls onto the veteran leaders of the team.

LeVert is certainly a capable scorer, and his 14.8 points per game are nothing to scoff at, but I think he is much better suited for the role of Robin to Stauskas’ Batman that he played so adeptly last season as opposed to the alpha dog spot. When Michigan falls down by a handful of points and starts struggling to score points of any kind – as they did the other night at Ohio State for the first seven minutes of the second half, effectively sealing their blowout – they need a leader to step up and demand the ball. But LeVert is not that kind of player. He’s a quiet assassin with no shortage of moves or skills, but a killer that doesn’t quite know exactly when or how to move in and take over.

When he does take matters into his own hands, the young junior from Columbus makes things happen. LeVert single-handedly kept Michigan alive against NJIT with 32 points and led the Wolverines with three straight crucial buckets to secure a big win at Penn State last week. But for as many times as LeVert has taken over, Michigan has gone on long scoring droughts that have buried them – against Villanova, Eastern Michigan, SMU, Arizona, Purdue, and Ohio State. With Stauskas at the helm and LeVert as a second option, that wasn’t an issue last year.

This year's Big Three has struggled with consistency and battled injuries (Melanie Maxwell, The Ann Arbor News)

This year’s Big Three has struggled with consistency and battled injuries, resulting in an offensive efficiency in the 100s nationally (Melanie Maxwell, The Ann Arbor News)

Irvin, like LeVert before him, was expected to go from freshman role player to sophomore sidekick. That transition has proved a bit tenuous for the former Indiana Mr. Basketball.

Undoubtedly, Irvin has taken his game to another level this season, upping his scoring average by nearly eight points per game and adding many inches to his vertical leap, but he is simply not the creator this team so desperately needs. Irvin was comfortable in his role as an off-the-bench sniper, and he thrived to the tune of 42.5 percent from downtown, even though opposing defenses knew he was only going to shoot threes. Now, Irvin has attempted to shoulder a bigger load and his shooting has suffered. He’s still capable of big, efficient scoring nights – take, for example, his first four games in which he poured in 20.3 points per game on 51.9 percent shooting from downtown – but the pressure and increased usage have seen his three-point shooting percentage drop more than six points while his overall field goal percentage is down nearly three points.

Lastly, Walton looked to improve on a very solid freshman campaign to become more of a scoring point guard this season, but a toe injury suffered early in the season is clearly hampering the Detroit native’s play all over the floor. Last year, Walton’s quickness and deft play on the break were crucial to Michigan’s ridiculous offensive output, but this year, Walton is a step and a half slower because of his toe. If you don’t believe me, watch Michigan’s win at Ohio State from last season and then re-watch the Wolverines’ loss at Ohio State from a couple nights ago. Like Irvin, Walton’s shooting numbers are drastically worse than last year, but the cause is much different.

With these Big Three struggling to produce with the same efficiency as last season, Michigan’s role players would need to pick up the slack, but that’s been far too big a task for Spike Albrecht and a company of freshmen who were probably forced into action before they were ready.

Kam Chatman, the jewel of Michigan’s six-man recruiting class, was expected to come in and seamlessly replace Glenn Robinson III. That, more than anything, has turned out to be the biggest single shortcoming on this squad. Robinson III, though sometimes inconsistent from long range and almost always quiet in his ways, was an incredibly efficient and reliable scorer and a terrific finisher around the basket. Chatman, on the other hand, has been almost the exact opposite, to the point where Beilein has decided to replace him in the starting lineup with the 5’11″ Albrecht.

The Portland native was seen as a high four-star from most recruiting publications, and his basketball savvy was projected to translate into a solid, if unspectacular, freshman season. But Chatman has struggled to pick up the offense, his confidence appears to be wavering, and his shooting has been downright miserable – mothers, cover your children’s eyes – to the tune of 31.5 percent on twos and 25 percent on threes for 4.1 points per game. Contrast that with Robinson’s freshman season (65.2 percent 2-pt, 32.4 percent 3-pt, 11 ppg on nearly three shots more per game) and you see where things really start to go awry.

Robinson’s biggest strength was his ability to finish everything around the bucket with his strength and athleticism. If GRIII caught a pass sitting open within five feet from the hoop, it was two points guaranteed. If he rebounded a teammate’s miss, it was an easy deuce for him. If he received an alley-oop, there was no doubt about the finish. The same cannot be said of Chatman, who doesn’t have the strength or hops to work magic in the lane like his predecessor at the 4-spot and whose confidence is waning (never more clearly than in a missed alley-oop layup attempt against Penn State in which there wasn’t a defender within 15 feet of him).

Fellow wing man Aubrey Dawkins has had one shining game against Illinois, but he’s also been fairly quiet the rest of the way despite flashing signs of tantalizing potential, while Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is just starting to get consistent playing time and looks to be a couple seasons away from being an offensive threat.

Down low, Ricky Doyle has performed admirably for a freshman big man, but his defense has certainly made Michigan fans yearn for the days of Jordan Morgan manning the post, and his free throw shooting has been curiously poor of late. Doyle also needs to work on improving his hands, fighting for rebounds, and learning the offense (as does every other freshman). Redshirt freshman Mark Donnal has gone from starter to backup, and while he’s also shown some nice glimpses, he’s probably a season or two away from being a consistent scorer. Lastly, D.J. Wilson – my pick for freshman MVP – was unimpressive early on before falling prey to the injury bug, making a redshirt season (pretty please!) seem like a reasonable outcome for the high-potential California native.

As a whole, this Michigan team is lacking in more ways than could have been imagined, and while the defense is actually significantly better than last season, the offense has collapsed into a rocky mess. What was expected to be around a top-20 squad competing in the Big Ten once again looks instead to be a team that has a steep and treacherous path to simply earn a ticket to the Big Dance.

The good news for Michigan is that there’s still a long way to go until March, and anything can happen in the wonderful world of college basketball – especially when your average player on the court has just over one year of experience. And of course, there’s always the chance to win an automatic bid with the conference tournament, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on the Wolverines’ chances there.

Instead, the Maize and Blue will need to quickly improve on a resume that sports two black eyes and little muscle. Michigan has two terrible losses – NJIT and EMU – that are really hurting and only two top-50 KenPom home wins – Syracuse and Minnesota (neither of which is in the top 40) – that leave much to be desired. Right now, Michigan’s players are certainly kicking themselves over those two December losses, but perhaps even more crucial was the neutral court game against Villanova that the Wolverines let slip away after a crazy comeback. Change that L into a W and Michigan is squarely on the bubble already.

So what exactly will it take from here on out for the Wolverines? I think to have a realistic chance at being solidly on the bubble, Michigan needs to go 8-5 the rest of the way and win at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament.

Which eight games do those have to be? I’m not sure if that makes a huge difference. Michigan obviously needs to take care of their matchups with conference cellar dwellers (Northwestern,  at Rutgers, Nebraska, at Northwestern, Rutgers) and win a few marquee games as well. If the other three wins are Iowa, at Indiana, and at Illinois, I’d be a little concerned. To be safe, I think Michigan needs to take at least two from some combination of Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan State, and Ohio State.

With five games left against that group, the opportunity is there. Will the Wolverines seize it?

You may want to temper those expectations again.

Can Michigan’s offense improve? A case study on in-season improvement

Thursday, September 25th, 2014


Michigan offense(MGoBlue.com)

Michigan’s offense has been the subject of great concern through the first third of this season. It looked great against Appalachian State in Week 1, but of course, that was against Appalachian State, a first-year FBS school and a team nowhere close to the three-time FCS champion team it was when it beat Michigan in 2007. The offense was exposed against Notre Dame in Week 2, failing to reach the Irish red zone or score a single point, resulting in Michigan’s first shutout in 30 years. While it sputtered a bit in the first half against Miami (Ohio) in Week 3, the end result showed a solid performance. But the problems came back last week against Utah as the offense once again failed to reach the red zone or score a touchdown.

So what gives? Is there any hope for a turnaround as the season goes on, or is it simply a lost cause? Let’s take a look at a recent comparison that could provide a sliver of hope.

Offensive Comparison through four games
Team 1 Team 2
22.0 Offensive points per game 20.5
10 Offensive touchdowns 10
1,363 Total yards 1,617
340.8 Total yards per game 404.2
748 Rushing yards 844
187.0 Rushing yards per game 211.0
4.6 Rushing yards per carry 5.6
615 Passing yards 773
153.8 Passing yards per game 193.2
6 Turnovers 12

We need to look no further than our friends 60 miles up Interstate-96 for a recent example of an inept offense turning things around over the course of a season. A year ago at this time we were all mocking the Michigan State offense for its inability to move the ball and find the end zone.

In the chart above, Team 1 is last year’s Michigan State offense through its first four games. Team 2 is this year’s Michigan offense through its first four games. As you can see, they compare rather favorably. Both offenses scored 10 touchdowns, but Michigan State made two more field goals than Michigan’s has. Michigan’s offense averaged 64 more yards per game, 24 more rushing yards, a whole yard more yard per carry, and 40 more passing yards. The main difference is that Michigan’s offense turned the ball over twice as many times as Michigan State’s did.

But how did the quality of opponents compare? I’m glad you asked. Actually, the four teams Michigan has played this season have been tougher than the four Michigan State opened with in 2013. Michigan State played Western Michigan, South Florida, Youngstown State, and Notre Dame, four teams that finished the season with a combined record of 20-29. Essentially, three cupcakes and Notre Dame.

Youngstown State was an FCS program and can be compared to this year’s Appalachian State. Western Michigan, which finished 1-11, can be compared to this year’s Miami (Ohio). Notre Dame is obviously the only shared team, although this year’s Notre Dame is likely a little bit better than last year’s. So that leaves last year’s South Florida compared to this year’s Utah. South Florida went 2-10 last season with wins against Cincinnati (26-20) and UConn (13-10). They lost to McNeese State and Florida Atlantic. Utah is a top-25 caliber team that would likely be in the top third of the Big Ten this season. Much better than last year’s South Florida.

So now that we’ve established that Michigan’s offense has actually been better than 2013 Michigan State’s through four games, and has done so against better competition, let’s look at three factors that could bring about improvement.

1. New quarterback

It appears that Brady Hoke will turn to sophomore Shane Morris this Saturday. Morris has one career start under his belt — the 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. He completed 24-of-38 passes for 196 yards and an interception. In spot duty so far this season, he has completed just 7-of-20 for 79 yards and two interceptions. Those numbers don’t suggest much, but given the start to the season, it can’t hurt to give him a shot as the starter and see if he can provide a spark.

One of the main keys to Michigan State’s offensive turnaround last season was the progress of quarterback Connor Cook as the season went on. He didn’t begin the season as the starter, but once he officially won the job, he took it and ran with it. After that Notre Dame game, the job was fully his, and he finished the season with 200-yard passing games in seven of the final 10 games, including back-to-back 300-yard passing games against Ohio State and Stanford.

Nussmeier admitted the offense is still in its infancy and should continue to grow throughout the season (Leon Halip, Getty Images)

Nussmeier admitted the offense is still in its infancy and should continue to grow throughout the season (Leon Halip, Getty Images)

We know that Devin Gardner is capable of putting up big numbers (see: Notre Dame, Indiana, Ohio State in 2013). But we’ve also seen him struggle with consistency, decision-making, and footwork, which have led to turnovers galore. Whether his issues are physical or mental, perhaps it will help him to watch from the sidelines for a bit. Morris doesn’t have the baggage that Gardner has — three different offensive coordinators in five years, switch to receiver, beaten up thanks to a porous offensive line last season — and thus, could show the same type of progression throughout the season that Cook showed a year ago.

2. Growth of Nussmeier’s offense

After three years of Al Borges running the offense, Hoke fired him and brought in Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. The early returns on his offense have been underwhelming, but the towel shouldn’t be thrown in just yet. Keep in mind that it has only been four games. Everyone wants to win and win now, especially after the last six years, but installing a new offense takes time.

“[The offense is] still in infancy stages here, we’re still learning to play consistently well,” Nussmeier said after the Notre Dame loss. “It’s about 11 guys on every play, doing the right thing…If it’s 10 guys doing the right thing, and one guy doing the wrong thing, you’re doomed. We’ve got to get 11 guys, on every play, doing the right thing.”

The offense has shown that it can move the ball, but it has been plagued by untimely mistakes — a sack here, a holding penalty there — that have stalled drives, created third-and-longs, and led to turnovers. As Drew Hallett pointed out this afternoon, every team in college football in 2013 combined to score either a touchdown or field goal or reach the red zone 69 percent of the time they crossed midfield. Based on that data, the odds of an offense crossing midfield 12 times and failing to score or reach the red zone 11 of those times was 0.002 percent. Yet that’s what this Michigan offense has done against Notre Dame and Utah.

Eventually, that’s going to improve. As players get more comfortable with the offense and it continues to expand throughout the season, drive-killing mistakes won’t continue to happen — at least with as much frequency. And as that improves, Michigan will score more points.

We’ve already seen Derrick Green show improvement from last season. He has 391 yards through four games. Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford, who finished last season with 1,422 yards — fifth-best in the Big Ten — had just 268 through his first four games last season. In addition, we know the explosiveness Devin Funchess can bring, but much of Gardner’s problems had to do with locking onto Funchess. Perhaps Morris will go through his progressions more than Gardner has and find receivers other than Funchess, which is important for the offense to continue to grow, and allow fellow receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh to take on a larger role. Keeping with the Michigan State theme, no one thought much of Michigan State’s receivers heading into last season, but Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings, and Keith Mumphrey played a big part in their success as the season went on.

3. Turnovers evening out

Michigan has averaged three turnovers per game so far this season. It’s impossible to beat good teams when that happens. To make matters worse, the defense, as solid as it has been, only has two takeaways, which means it isn’t setting the offense up with field position that it can take advantage of. Michigan currently ranks last nationally in turnover margin (minus-10). Those numbers are bound to even out during the final two-thirds of the season.

Interceptions are, most of the time, the fault of the quarterback, but which team recovers fumbles is largely a result of luck — the luck of the bounce or being in the right place at the right time. Michigan has lost four of the six times it has fumbled and hasn’t recovered either of the two opponent fumbles. So that’s six of eight fumbles that have bounced the wrong way. Turn those around and the turnover issues aren’t quite as grim. That’s why, as the season goes on, the numbers are bound to equal out.

Conclusion:

Of course, Shane Morris might end up being farther behind than we hope, the team might not get a good grasp of Nussmeier’s offense, and it might continue turning the ball over and failing to force turnovers defensively. And just because Michigan State’s offense turned around last season, it doesn’t mean Michigan’s will follow suit. But at the very least, there is recent precedent for it happening and signs that it could. As long as Michigan’s defense continues to play at the high level it has been, any improvement by the offense as the season goes on will give Michigan a chance to win every remaining game.

The Michigan Medley says goodbye

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014


The past few days have held plenty of news, so it’s time to bring back our weekly news roundup feature, The Michigan Medley. This feature discusses the top news items from the past week, what they mean for Michigan, and my take on them. Today’s theme is saying goodbye, although for different reasons.

York dismissed

Csont'e York

(Daniel Mears, Detroit News)

On Monday afternoon, Michigan released a statement from Brady Hoke that sophomore wide receiver Csont’e York had been dismissed from the team as a result of an incident that occurred outside Scorekeepers Bar and Grille on July 18.

“Csont’e York has been dismissed from the Michigan football program,” Hoke said in the statement. “Representing the University of Michigan is a privilege and, while second chances are certainly deserved, sometimes it’s better for everyone if that happens somewhere else. Overall, I have been proud of how responsible our team has been this offseason and how hard they’ve worked to prepare for the season.”

On Aug. 3, Hoke suspended York indefinitely while he let the legal system play out, but last week Ann Arbor police released a grainy video of the incident showing York sizing up a victim and punching him in the side of the face. The victim didn’t appear to see it coming and collapsed immediately, ultimately resulting in a broken jaw and lost tooth. Once the video was released, it was only a matter of time before York was dismissed, even as he awaits arraignment on Sept. 8.

York was with teammate Da’Mario Jones that night and admitted to the cheap shot, but said he did it out of nervousness because the victim was threatening he and Jones. York and Jones fled the scene immediately afterward. Jones was not charged and remains on the team.

York is the second player to be dismissed from the team under Hoke and the second Hoke recruit to leave the team. Hoke dismissed Darryl Stonum, a Lloyd Carr recruit, in 2012 following a third alcohol-related driving offense. The only other Hoke recruit to leave the program was linebacker Kaleb Ringer, who voluntarily transferred to Ferris State after a knee injury kept him out for the 2012 season.

York played in just one game at receiver as a freshman in 2013 and did not record a catch.

My take: Once the video was released, Hoke absolutely made the right call to dismiss York, but I hope the Harper Woods, Mich. native can learn from his mistake, grow as a person, and lead a successful and productive life. Whether another school chooses to give him a second chance — and whether he makes the most of it — depends on how he grows and learns from his mistakes. Some, like Frank Clark, do make the most of their second chance, but some, like Stonum, don’t.

From a pure football standpoint, this isn’t a huge loss. Jones and Jaron Dukes were also receivers in the same class as York, while a trio of current freshmen — Freddy Canteen, Drake Harris, and Mo Ways — carry high expectations, so Michigan has plenty of young talent at receiver.

Miller hurt

Miller hurt

On Monday evening Columbus Dispatch reporter Tim May tweeted a report that Ohio State quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller had re-injured his shoulder in afternoon practice. ESPN’s Austin Ward confirmed the news and Buckeye blog Eleven Warriors reported that Miller left the practice facility with his arm in a sling.

Miller originally hurt his throwing shoulder in Ohio State’s loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl and had surgery to repair it in February. He had been held out of spring practice and was limited to begin fall camp. Miller reportedly reinjured the shoulder while throwing a routine pass during Monday’s practice and laid on the turf being tended to by trainers for several minutes. The senior will undergo an MRI on Tuesday morning to determine the severity of the injury, but judging by the lack of optimism coming out of Columbus, it doesn’t sound good. The school has yet to comment, but did cancel its media availability with coaches and players Tuesday morning.

If the injury does keep Miller out for the season, the Buckeyes will turn to J.T. Barrett, who has yet to throw a collegiate pass. The redshirt freshman from Wichita Falls, Texas completed 17-of-33 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Barrett was a four-star recruit, rated as the third-best dual threat quarterback in last year’s class by 247 Sports. But he hasn’t played a down of competitive football in two years. He missed his senior year of high school due to a torn ACL.

Miller was the Big Ten Quarterback of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year each of the past two seasons. He also won the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football trophy, given annually to the conference’s most valuable player. The news of his injury already sent shockwaves through the betting industry. Bovada downgraded Ohio State’s national title odds from 10-1 to 18-1, while 5Dimes dropped the Buckeyes’ odds to win the Big Ten to 3-1, behind Michigan State and Wisconsin.

Given Ohio State’s schedule, the injury shouldn’t have much of an effect early on. The Buckeyes open the season with Navy, and while the spread for that game has dropped since the news, it is still at 16.5. Virginia Tech, Kent State, and Cincinnati are the other non-conference foes and Ohio State opens the conference slate with Maryland and Rutgers with both bye weeks sprinkled in that six-game stretch. We likely won’t know how much Miller’s loss will affect the Buckeyes until they travel to State College on Oct. 25.

My take: I hate to see anyone get injured, especially a player with such a talent as Miller. It doesn’t matter if he plays for Michigan’s top rival or not, this is sad news, and any Michigan fan celebrating the injury should reexamine his or her priorities. The injury won’t change The Game much anyway. Barrett surely won’t be as explosive as Miller, but he’ll have 11 games under his belt by the time Michigan comes to town. If Michigan’s defense is as good as many hope this season, it will present quite the challenge for Barrett playing in his first Ohio State-Michigan game. But I’d rather both teams be at full speed. Here’s to hoping Miller can recover and continue his playing career, either at Ohio State next season or at the next level.

For Michigan’s sophomores, NBA Draft is calling; Will they answer?

Friday, April 4th, 2014


Stauskas - McGary(MGoBlue.com)

Following Michigan’s heartbreaking Elite Eight loss at the hands of the Kentucky Wildcats, questions surround the defending Big Ten champions as the focus turns to John Beilein’s next team.

Beilein and his staff showcased the ability to bounce back from the losses of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. this season, but what kind of exodus will the Maize and Blue experience during this year’s NBA Draft?

Nik Stauskas, whose future seemingly holds very little doubt, already said that he considered senior night his final game in the Crisler Center. Barring a miraculous change of heart, the Canadian guard will likely take his talents to the professional level this summer.

But is Stauskas ready to take the leap?

The much-improved wingman added several dimensions to his game during the offseason and evolved into an all-around offensive weapon during his sophomore campaign. Stauskas featured nearly identical shooting stats this season, slightly improving his 46.3 percent field goal mark to an even 47 percent and bumping his three-point percentage from 44.0 to 44.2 percent.

What really helped Stauskas become the Big Ten Player of the Year came with his ability to attack the rim. As a sophomore he created his own offense through the dribble and earned more open shots by putting the threat of a drive in the back of defenders’ minds.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic for Stauskas was his team-leading 3.3 assists per game. After the loss of last year’s assist machine in Burke, Stauskas stepped into the role nicely and still led the team in points, averaging 17.5.

Glenn Robinson III elevated his play late in the season, which could signal his departure (MGoBlue.com)

Glenn Robinson III elevated his play late in the season, which could signal his departure (MGoBlue.com)

Stauskas is undeniably an offensive machine, but his defense falls well short of the NBA level. He often struggled to guard even the simplest Big Ten scoring options, and his defense will likely never reach a level that allows him to guard top NBA talent. Though the defensive struggles hold Stauskas back in the eyes of NBA scouts, waiting another year isn’t going to erase this weakness.

If Stauskas returns to Michigan and repeats his 2014 performance while cutting down on the turnovers, he could be a top 10 pick in a much weaker 2015 draft. But his stock already lands him within the lottery picks, so Stauskas is likely long gone.

Prediction: 95 percent chance Stauskas enters draft

Stauskas’s classmate, Glenn Robinson III, ranked much higher as a draft prospect as a recruit in 2013. But the forward struggled with consistency throughout his first two seasons and dropped to the late-first round of the draft boards as a result.

Until late in the season, Robinson all but disappeared in the Michigan offense. When a teammate threw him a lob, the athletic sophomore would nearly always finish at the rim, but he struggled to create shots for himself.

Then, after his game-winning drive in West Lafayette to beat the last-place Boilermakers, Robinson accepted a bigger role in the offense and Michigan officially clinched the outright regular season Big Ten championship. His continued success led the Wolverines to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis and then the Elite Eight before a miracle shot by Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison ended the magical run.

During the middle of February, Robinson looked like a lock to return for his junior season. Now, his recent surge puts him back in the NBA Draft picture. Robinson recently showcased the ability to knock down contested jump shots and create for himself. NBA teams may have taken a flier on the athletic forward without his improved shooting, but now he looks like one of the more dangerous options in the draft.

On the defensive end, Robinson improved his game throughout his sophomore campaign. He demonstrated an ability to block shots and snatch rebounds in traffic during the NCAA Tournament, and the sheer athletic ability gives him a high ceiling in that regard.

Prediction: 85 percent chance Robinson enters draft

Michigan’s biggest offseason question lies in whether or not the preseason All-American Mitch McGary will ever play a full season in Ann Arbor. After playing through the team’s rocky 6-4 nonconference start, the former five-star recruit opted to undergo back surgery and never returned to the lineup despite dressing for the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games in Lucas Oil Stadium.

McGary certainly possesses the talent to compete with NBA big men, but his lack of experience despite being nearly 22 years old makes him a huge risk for any NBA team. In a draft stocked with safe picks throughout the first round, McGary represents a potentially unnecessary risk for teams looking to find an immediate impact player.

Another factor to consider is McGary’s ongoing health questions. A player that thrives off of energy and effort figures to put his body at risk more often than the average NBA player, and few teams will risk a first-round pick in what could be the best NBA Draft since 2003 on a question mark like McGary.

Though the sophomore dressed for the final two games of the NCAA Tournament, his health remains a concern. It may take more than just an impressive six-game performance during the 2013 NCAA Tournament to cement McGary as a first-round pick.

McGary must also factor his age into the equation this summer. He turns 22 years old in June, which would make him older than some college seniors. By staying in Ann Arbor for his junior year, the All-American would accept the risk of entering the draft as a 23-year old.

On the other hand, next year’s draft certainly features less talent than the deep 2014 pool. If McGary put together a strong 2014-15 season, he could silence the doubters and move into the first round.

Prediction: 60 percent chance McGary enters draft

Michigan may lose three more key players during the 2014 offseason, but if Caris LeVert continues to improve and Zak Irvin benefits from the coaching that turned both Burke and Stauskas into Big Ten Player of the Year winners, then the Maize and Blue should remain competitive next season.

But if any of the sophomores decide to return for another season, Beilein’s team features enough weapons to match the runs it made the last two years.

Glenn Robinson III boosting Michigan in March

Thursday, March 27th, 2014


GRIII block vs Texas(Dustin Johnson, UMHoops)

Throughout Michigan’s magical run to the 2014 outright Big Ten Championship, players like Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert stepped up and carried John Beilein’s team. In the paint, Senior Jordan Morgan returned to his old form after Mitch McGary underwent back surgery.

All season, the eyes of the college basketball world lingered on these Michigan stars, and Glenn Robinson III flew under the radar.

It seems more than absurd to suggest that such an athletic and exciting player could go unnoticed in college basketball, but Robinson does just that. Despite the weekly highlight dunks and displays of freakish athletic ability, experts labelled Robinson largely as an underachiever, playing first in the shadows of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. and now those of Stauskas and LeVert.

But the former five-star recruit recently stepped up his production, leading the Wolverines to their second straight Sweet 16.

GRIII has averaged 14 points and six rebounds in the two NCAA Tournament games so far (MGoBlue.com)

GRIII has averaged 14 points and six rebounds in the two NCAA Tournament games so far (MGoBlue.com)

In two NCAA Tournament games last weekend, Robinson averaged 14 points and six rebounds for a team that struggled to find its offense against Wofford and desperately needed rebounds against a much bigger Texas team.

Robinson, often criticized for emitting a peaceful, even careless demeanor throughout his college career, appeared to take a page out of his best friend and teammate McGary’s book in 2014. McGary played his best basketball of last season during the Big Dance and gained preseason All-American honors largely because of that.

This season, Robinson struggled with consistency and even disappeared for periods of time, including a two-point effort in the blowout loss at Iowa and 0-of-3 shooting performance in a loss to Charlotte in the Puerto Rico Classic.

When the sophomore struggles on offense Michigan turns into a different team. In five of the team’s eight losses this season Robinson failed to score in double figures.

Since the middle of February, however, he has maintained the most consistent stretch of his young career, scoring at least 10 points in 10 of 11 games. As a result, Michigan finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak, secured a Big Ten title, played in the Big Ten Championship game and finds itself back in the Sweet 16.

Robinson garnered his biggest headlines before stepping foot in Ann Arbor, and has played the role of sidekick ever since. But behind two standout performances by the sophomore on the sport’s biggest stage, the Maize and Blue faithful watched two blowout wins in a weekend that saw powerhouse teams like Duke, Kansas and even undefeated Wichita State fall.

What allowed Michigan to coast in the second and third rounds? The quiet production of Robinson, who did a little bit of everything for the Wolverines, certainly helped. If Michigan hopes to advance to Sunday’s Elite 8, Robinson will have to play a big role in slowing down a hot Tennessee team.

Jordan Morgan was there and tomorrow he gets the spotlight

Friday, March 7th, 2014


J-mo and team vs Minnesota(Dustin Johnson, UMHoops)

It seems like a century ago. A vastly underachieving Michigan squad watched its enormous upset bid against the top-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes crumble as Evan Turner’s half-court heave found the net in the 2010 Big Ten tournament.

Michigan couldn’t bounce back from that devastating loss. Back then, Michigan basketball teams didn’t generally earn trips to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, after Turner’s 37-foot prayer sent the Wolverines home from the conference tournament, their 15-17 record left them without an invitation to even the NIT.

That season belonged to a different era of college basketball in Ann Arbor. It was before Michigan contended for Big Ten championships, Wooden Award winners and Final Four appearances.

But Jordan Morgan was there.

Morgan miraculously played in the shadow of four different generations of Michigan basketball. During his freshman season (in which he redshirted), Morgan watched the lackluster final edition of DeShawn Simms and Manny Harris from the bench. His actual playing days began alongside Darius Morris, whose ability to find Morgan wide open under the basket helped the young forward mature.

During the next two seasons, Morgan established himself as a consistent starter for the Wolverines, who earned back-to-back No. 4 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Still, players like Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. commanded the spotlight while Morgan quietly minded his business.

Jordan Morgan has seen it all throughout his five-year Michigan career (AnnArbor.com)

Jordan Morgan has seen it all throughout his five-year Michigan career and gets to go out a champion (AnnArbor.com)

Now his journey nears its end. In his final few weeks of college basketball, Morgan finds himself mentoring a brand new generation of Wolverines. Freshmen Derrick Walton, Jr. and Zak Irvin continue to mature throughout the conference season. Meanwhile, Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert stepped up and accepted larger roles in the absence of Burke and Hardaway.

And how many seniors do these young players learn from? Just Jordan Morgan, the only senior on John Beilein’s championship team.

The Detroit native’s career credentials speak for themselves. He has played on four straight NCAA Tournament teams, winning six of nine games so far. He won two Big Ten championships, including the school’s first outright title since 1986. Entering his final game in the Crisler Center, he’s compiled 103 wins during his college career.

Despite all of the program’s success, it wasn’t always easy for Morgan.

During his junior season, Morgan shared time with five-star super-recruit Mitch McGary, who chose to play for Michigan over many other high-profile schools, mainly Duke. Though Morgan welcomed the presence of such a talented player on the roster, McGary cut deeply into his minutes. After averaging 24-plus minutes per game in the previous two seasons, Morgan spent just as much time on the bench during the magical Final Four run, playing just under 16 minutes per game.

An average 22-year old player would protest losing over a third of his minutes after two productive seasons, but Morgan continued to play hard when Beilein called upon him. Now he reemerged as a consistent starter in 2013-14, doing Michigan’s dirty work by rebounding, taking charges, and playing tough inside defense.

The redshirt senior plays more minutes than he did last year, but for the fourth year in a row, his field goal attempts have decreased. Still, as he’s done his entire career, when opportunities come he takes advantage of them. He’s currently shooting a career high 67.4 percent from the field.

Morgan’s role in Michigan basketball history has been grossly understated. Former guards Zack Novak and Stu Douglas receive much of the credit for turning around the basketball program, but Morgan was the only player to step foot on the court during the National Championship game that survived a losing season as a Wolverine.

Morgan arrived in Ann Arbor to play in the dark, unfinished Crisler Arena for a team that struggled to make the NCAA Tournament every season. He leaves the Wolverines as perennial Big Ten contenders and defending champions.

He’s not only seen the construction of facilities that compete with college basketball’s finest, but also the commitment of two five-star recruits (McGary and Glenn Robinson III) to Michigan. The culture of this basketball program completely evolved over the past five years, and the only player to witness the entire process plays in Ann Arbor for the final time on Saturday.

You’ll never see Morgan’s jersey hanging in the rafters of the Crisler Center, but when the longtime Wolverine leaves the court for the final time on Saturday, he’s left an amazing legacy in his wake.

Morgan is the only Michigan player celebrating senior night on Saturday — a fitting end for a player that will finally own the spotlight.

We Work: A look back at Michigan’s run to the outright Big Ten title

Thursday, March 6th, 2014


Michigan at Illinois(Dustin Johnson, UMHoops)

Speaking to about 50 members of the University of Michigan’s student section, the Maize Rage, prior to the team’s annual open pratctice on Oct. 21, head coach John Beilein didn’t sugarcoat Michigan’s chances for the upcoming season.

“I like where our team is at this point in the year, but obviously it’s hard to replace two guys like Trey (Burke) and Tim (Hardaway Jr.),” Beilein said. “So we need to see how our players respond and how the freshman fit in.”

Practice proceded much like it had in the previous few years: The projected starters scrimmaged the bench players, assistant coach Bacari Alexander screamed at Jon Horford, and Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan told the students how important we are and thanked us for supporting the team.

That quiet Monday night revealed so little of a team that, in the following four months, has done nothing but make noise during a roller coaster ride of a 2013-14 season.

Zak Irvin's three-point shooting and Caris LeVert's emergence have fueled Michigan's championship run (MGoBlue.com)

Zak Irvin’s three-point shooting and Caris LeVert’s emergence have helped make up for the production lost when Mitch McGary went down (Bradley Leeb, USA Today Sports)

Dreams of another magical non-conference slate crumbled in Ames, Iowa when Michigan fell for the first time in just its third game of the season. After starting 16-0 last season, the Wolverines had just suffered their earliest loss since the 2007-08 season when a loss to No. 5 Georgetown dropped them to 2-1.

Unfortunately for the youngest team in the Big Ten, the losing didn’t stop there. Michigan dropped three of its next seven games and fell to 6-4 on the season, surfacing an unthinkable question into the minds of Wolverine fans: Could the defending national runner-ups and preseason No. 7 team in the country miss the NCAA Tournament?

The biggest blow lay in the shadows until Dec. 27, when Michigan’s preseason All-American forward, McGary, announced his plans to have back surgery that would sideline him indefinitely. This news broke just days after Michigan fell out of the national rankings for the first time in more than a year.

With a difficult Big Ten schedule looming, the wounded Wolverines looked ready to crash and burn, but Beilein didn’t allow that to happen.

Michigan stormed back onto the national stage with a 10-game winning streak that included three straight wins over top ten opponents. The team’s first victory in the Breslin Center since Stu Douglass’ corner three pointer vaulted the Maize and Blue over its in-state rival three years ago placed the new-look Wolverines atop the Big Ten.

McGary’s injury seemingly re-energized veteran post players Morgan and Horford as the duo more than made up for the 6’10″ hole in the middle of Michigan’s lineup. Together, the tandem that fans affectionately dubbed “Morford” solidified the Wolverines defensively and blended into an offense that requires little more than a few put-backs from its center position.

Meanwhile, a revolution developed in the backcourt.

Something clicked for freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. during the beginning of Big Ten play, and he evolved into a leader reminiscent of Trey Burke during his freshman campaign. His confidence skyrocketed after his complete domination of Keith Appling in East Lansing, and even veteran players like Horford acknowledged his leadership, saying he “not only knows what to say, but when to say it.”

Unlike Burke, Walton enjoyed the luxury of maturing in the shadows of emerging guards Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert. Stauskas, who figures to become Michigan’s second straight Big Ten Player of the Year, leads his team in points and assists per game and possesses the same take-over-the-game mentality as Burke did on the big college stages.

Nik Stauskas' emergence into likely Big Ten Player of the Year and fringe NBA lottery pick helped Michigan move on from Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr (Dustin Johnson, UMHoops)

Nik Stauskas’ emergence into likely Big Ten Player of the Year and fringe NBA lottery pick helped Michigan move on from Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr (Dustin Johnson, UMHoops)

LeVert, on the other hand, became Michigan’s most consistent and versatile player after contributing just 10.8 minutes per game to last season’s Final Four journey. The baby-faced sophomore more than tripled his minutes, points, assists, rebounds, blocks, steals and field goals this season.

Michigan twice surrendered its outright conference lead in the next five games when it fell to Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. Both stints in second place were short-lived though, as Michigan State coughed up the lead within 24 hours of gaining it.

The Wolverines earned the inside track to the Big Ten championship with a sweep over the Spartans on Feb. 23, when an 11-point first half lead evaporated in the wake of Michigan’s offensive onslaught.

Days later, Glenn Robinson III’s bank shot at the buzzer lifted the Wolverines over Purdue in a game in which they trailed by as many as 19 points. Despite the low standing of that Boilermakers team, that comeback victory propelled Michigan to two more victories, including a 31-point dismantling of Illinois to clinch the Big Ten outright.

On March 9, Michigan State will travel to Columbus to battle Ohio State in the final nationally-televised Big Ten game of the regular season. It must satisfy John Beilein to think about the conference’s officials selling that game to CBS at the beginning of the season as the game that would probably decide the Big Ten champion.

Instead, nearly a full week beforehand, Michigan rendered that matchup completely worthless. Ohio State can finish .500 in the conference at best, while Michigan State ran out of excuses during a home loss to Illinois last Saturday. All season long, Tom Izzo whined about his team’s injuries, only to watch the group that grabbed the preseason No. 2 AP ranking tally a season-low 46 points against a conference bottom-feeder.

In Ann Arbor, Beilein took the loss of an All-American in stride, and Michigan rode it all the way to a championship.

This year’s Michigan basketball team failed to accomplish some of the feats that it did last season. It never held the No. 1 national ranking. It didn’t win 16 games in a row. It may not even make it to the Final Four, though that remains to be seen.

But these players created a legacy of their own. They stomped the Buckeyes in Columbus during Aaron Craft’s final meeting. They silenced Izzo and the all-powerful Spartans with a convincing sweep.

Almost a year ago, a magical run to the Final Four brought the most famous college basketball team ever back together in Atlanta. As Jalen Rose led his former Michigan teammates down the isle of the Georgia Dome towards the court where the Wolverines prepared for the National Championship game, fans realized that Michigan basketball truly returned.

But this year’s team accomplished something that last year’s team and even the Fab Five couldn’t. These players are outright Big Ten champions.

Big Ten title race down to three

Friday, February 28th, 2014


UM crowd vs MSU 2-23-14

As February comes to a close and perhaps the greatest month in all of sports approaches, the Big Ten men’s basketball conference remains as unpredictable as ever.

Nearly two weeks ago, the would-be headliner battle between the two Michigan schools that topped the standings all season long suffered a major blow when Michigan fell to Wisconsin and Nebraska shocked Michigan State in East Lansing. Meanwhile, Nebraska put together a five-game winning streak to burst onto the NCAA bubble, only to lose to lowly Illinois and see it all slip away. Even the Iowa-Indiana game scheduled for Feb. 18 proved unpredictable, as an eight-foot beam that fell from the Assembly Hall ceiling postponed the game for over a week.

With less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, the standings usually provide a clearer picture of what the conference tournament will feature. But in the midst of such an erratic regular season, more surprises surely lie ahead, right?

Spoiler alert: This year’s Big Ten regular season championship is Michigan’s to lose.

Remaining schedule for Big Ten title contenders
Michigan Michigan State Wisconsin
Saturday vs Minnesota, 6pm BTN vs Illinois, 4pm ESPN
Sunday at Penn State, 12pm BTN
Tuesday, Mar. 4 at Illinois, 7pm ESPN
Wednesday, Mar. 5 vs Purdue, 9pm BTN
Thursday, Mar. 6 vs Iowa, 9pm ESPN
Saturday, Mar. 8 vs Indiana, 6pm ESPN
Sunday, Mar. 9 at Ohio State, 4:30pm CBS at Nebraska, 7:30pm BTN

After the victory to sweep Tom Izzo’s Spartans, Michigan firmly planted itself atop the conference with four winnable games remaining.

A trip to Purdue, which provided the most difficult remaining challenge, ended with a miracle in-bounds play for the Wolverines, who snuck out of West Lafayette unscathed, much to the chagrin of championship hopefuls Michigan State and Wisconsin.

Now the only teams standing in Michigan’s way are 5-9 Indiana, 5-10 Illinois, and a struggling Minnesota team with just two conference road wins against the league’s last place squads. John Beilein’s one-game lead should hold up and bring Michigan the long-awaited sole Big Ten title.

But outcomes rarely go according to plan in the 2013-14 edition of the Big Ten. If the first place Wolverines do drop any of their final three games, what does it mean?

Iowa’s loss at Indiana on Thursday night and Ohio State’s loss at Penn State made it mathematically official: the only two teams left to challenge Michigan are Michigan State (one game behind) and Wisconsin (two).

Michigan's last-second win over Purdue on Wednesday kept the Wolverines on track for the outright Big Ten title (Dustin Johnson, UMHoops)

Michigan’s last-second win over Purdue on Wednesday kept the Wolverines on track for the outright Big Ten title (Dustin Johnson, UMHoops)

Let’s say Michigan finishes the season by winning two of its final three games. Regardless of what Wisconsin does in its final three games, the Badgers would fall short of the Wolverines, having already lost five times in the Big Ten.

A Michigan loss would, however, leave the door open for Michigan State, which could finish the season in a tie and, despite earning the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, boast a share of the regular season championship. But the Spartans face a one of the toughest stretch runs in the Big Ten.

Michigan State played sub-.500 basketball in the month of February, losing four of seven games. The Breslin Center lost some of its esteem after Nebraska came in and bullied the Spartans last weekend, so a matchup with the desperate Hawkeyes on March 6 could challenge Izzo’s battered team. Iowa’s current three-game losing streak compliment’s Michigan State’s struggles to set up a surprisingly important matchup in the final week of the season.

Days later, the Spartans travel to Columbus in what Big Ten officials probably expected to be a conference-deciding game against Ohio State. However, a sweep at the hands of bottom-feeding Penn State dropped Thad Matta’s team well out of contention, and barring a Michigan loss, this game provides little importance in the bigger picture.

If Michigan does lose, then Ohio State earns a chance to play spoiler for Michigan State and help its hated rival from Ann Arbor. Michigan State hasn’t won back-to-back games since Jan. 21 when a win over Indiana marked its 11th straight at the time. Michigan ended that streak.

Clearly, Michigan State’s quest for a Big Ten title remains an uphill battle.

Wisconsin, unlike the Spartans, plays a much easier schedule to finish the season. Penn State and Purdue, both tied for last place, figure to provide little resistance for Wisconsin next week, setting up an important trip to Lincoln on March 9.

Nebraska’s only loss in the new Pinnacle Bank Arena came at the hands of the first-place Wolverines, who snuck out of Lincoln with a 71-70 win on Jan. 9 after the Huskers missed three layup attempts in the closing seconds. Despite the loss at Illinois on Wednesday, Nebraska’s five-game winning streak puts it tied for fourth place in the loss column in the conference. With a Big Ten record that matches Iowa’s and a nearly-perfect home resume, Nebraska provides a real challenge for Wisconsin to finish the regular season.

Even the most unpredictable conference standings take shape near the end of the season. Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin played well enough through 15 Big Ten games to stay alive into March, but Michigan represents the clear-cut favorite with less than two weeks to go.

The Wolverines may win all three remaining games and leave no room for another contender to catch up. But even if the surprising Big Ten serves up another upset, the odds lie in Michigan’s favor.

Burning questions as Michigan football opens spring practice

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014


Morris-Gardner(Detroit News)

It has been just 59 days since Michigan’s season wrapped up with an underwhelming loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The 2014 season seems eons away as basketball season is about to head into conference tournaments and then the Big Dance. But while it may be hard to turn our attention back to football, Brady Hoke’s squad is set to return to the gridiron today to kick off spring practice.

Last season was as disappointing as any in recent memory because no one expected it to go the way it did. Most preseason expectations ranged from 9-4 to 11-2, and after the Wolverines topped Notre Dame in Under the Lights II, there was even some talk of national championship possibilities. Of course, Michigan followed up the high of that game with a thud against Akron, needing a last-second goal line stand to hold off what may have been a bigger upset than when Appalachian State stunned the Wolverines in 2007. And the season unraveled from there.

Now, needing to get the bad taste of 2013 out of its system, Michigan has a 2014 season opener to look forward to against, well, Appalachian State. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the biggest questions the Wolverines face heading into spring ball.

How much will Gardner be able to do this spring with a new offensive system to learn? (MGoBlue.com)

How much will Gardner be able to do this spring with a new offensive system to learn? (MGoBlue.com)

How healthy is Devin Gardner?

Brady Hoke turned some heads earlier this month when he seemed to imply that the starting quarterback role was up for grabs this fall.

“I think (the starting quarterback for next season) is an unknown,” Hoke said. “We were 7-6 (last season). And we’ve got a lot of young guys (on the team). We’ve got a lot of competition.”

In a technical sense it’s true. Gardner finished the 2013 season in a walking boot and couldn’t even play in the bowl game. Until he’s fully healthy he can’t be 100 percent presumed the starter. What if the injury is even worse than thought? What if it continues to linger throughout the offseason?

But assuming Gardner is able to fully heal there’s no question he’s the starter on Aug. 30. The main question is how much will he be able to do in spring ball?

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will be the third Gardner has had in his career, and although he didn’t start under Calvin McGee, it will still be the third offensive system he has had to learn. Nussmeier has done wonders for the quarterbacks he has coached during his quick rise up the ranks, from Jeff Smoker to Drew Stanton to Tom Brandstater to Jake Locker to Keith Price to A.J. McCarron.

Sophomore-to-be Shane Morris is likely to benefit the most from Nussmeier’s quarterback expertise since he has three more years to work with him, but Gardner could very well take a significant leap in 2014 given his talent and experience. In 2003, Nussmeier helped Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker set a school record 3,395 passing yards after struggling as a junior. He then helped Drew Stanton improve from 1,601 yards in his first season to 3,077 the next year. Most recently, he helped Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron improve on a near flawless 2012 season.

It will be important for Gardner to participate in spring drills to continue the work that he has built upon the past four years, but most importantly to work with Nussmeier and learn his offense. Gardner can still do that if not at full speed, but it’s obviously better to learn at full speed than not.

Who will catch passes?

Jeremy Gallon graduated and took 42.6 percent of last season’s receiving yards with him. Add the production lost from fellow seniors Drew Dileo, Jeremy Jackson, Joe Reynolds, and Fitzgearld Toussaint — who finished as the team’s fourth-leading pass catcher — and Michigan has just 41.3 percent of its production returning.

Jehu Chesson is Michigan's leading returning true receiver with just 15 receptions (MGoBlue.com)

Jehu Chesson is Michigan’s leading returning true receiver with just 15 receptions (MGoBlue.com)

To make matters worse, tight end Jake Butt tore his ACL in offseason workouts, and while he’s likely to return at some point during the season, he may not be 100 percent. Devin Funchess was almost certain to make the official move to the outside prior to Butt’s injury, but with no other established pass catching tight end, Michigan may not be afforded to move him permanently.

The leading returning true receiver is Jehu Chesson, who caught just 15 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown. No other true wide receiver that caught a pass returns. The x-factor will be Chesson’s classmate, Amara Darboh, who was in line to start last season before a foot injury in fall camp sidelined him for the season. At 6’2″ and 212 pounds, Darboh has the size to be a formidable outside receiver, but will his foot be healthy enough to fully participate in spring ball? He impressed last spring and fall before sustaining the injury. Can he regain that form?

The unknowns are the cadre of true and redshirt freshmen that have been brought in in the past two recruiting classes. Jaron Dukes, Csont’e York, and Da’Mario Jones all redshirted in 2013 and Freddy Canteen, Drake Harris, and Maurice Ways are incoming. Of the latter group, Canteen and Harris enrolled early and will have a chance to show what they can do while getting their feet wet this spring.

All five have good height but will need to add some bulk to their thin frames, Canteen (6’3″, 170) and Harris (6’4″, 180) especially. Chesson played last season at 6’3″, 196 and seemed thin at times. York was listed at 6’3″, 180 last season, while Jones was 6’2″, 192 and Dukes 6’4″, 190, but by the time the spring roster is released, they will have surely added some muscle with a full season under their belts.

There is plenty of young talent and great size to go around, but who steps up and garners that hype that Darboh did a year ago before his injury will be one of the biggest aspects to watch this spring.

How will the line shape up?

The biggest disappointment in 2013 was undoubtedly the poor performance of the offensive line. While senior left tackle Taylor Lewan earned the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award for the second straight year and right tackle Michael Schofield was solid, the interior was a sieve all season. Several different combinations were used throughout the season and the coaching staff even went as far as to try odd tackle over formations to utilize Lewan’s strengths in order to hide other weaknesses, but nothing seemed to make the offense any more efficient.

With the bookends gone to graduation and a new offensive coordinator the development of the line will be interesting to watch. Much was said throughout last season about Brady Hoke’s supposed inability to develop offensive line talent, but let’s not forget that his first full class was redshirt freshmen in 2013. Most linemen, even the most highly rated ones, don’t gain starting roles on the line until two or three years into their careers at minimum.

Graham Glasgow and Erik Magnuson struggled in 2013 but gained experience that will help them in 2014 (MGoBlue.com)

Graham Glasgow and Erik Magnuson struggled in 2013 but gained experience that will help them in 2014 (MGoBlue.com)

Highly-ranked offensive line hauls are great, but we shouldn’t have begun to sniff the payoffs until this upcoming season at the earliest. In a normal situation without the attrition from previous classes decimating the line depth, Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson, Blake Bars, and Ben Braden would have simply played reserve roles in 2013, heading into the spring of their redshirt sophomore season looking to work their way into the starting lineup. Instead, Kalis and Magnuson, along with true freshman Kyle Bosch, were forced into action before they were clearly ready and it showed. While that hurt the offense in 2013 it should pay dividends in 2014 as they can build upon the experience they gained.

One thing that is for certain is that, aside from injuries, everybody will get a chance to compete throughout spring practice for a major role this fall. Magnuson and Chris Bryant — both of whom started games last season — will be held out due to injury, but aside from that, who emerges as the starters is anyone’s guess.

Hoke hinted that they would start the spring with Logan Tuley-Tillman, David Dawson, Graham Glasgow, Kyle Kalis, and Ben Braden as the starting five from left to right, and the competition would go from there.

“We’ll obviously start with a five, but all that is going to be competitive, and with a young team, to some degree, even though they played a little bit, you’ve got to have it competitive,” Hoke said.

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier won’t bring huge changes, but he will simplify the schemes the line uses in the running game. Last year, Hoke and then-offensive coordinator Al Borges tried just about everything they could think of to find something that worked. This year, Nussmeier will start with a basic inside zone and build from there. Whichever five emerge from the April 5 spring game as the starters will carry confidence and cohesiveness into fall camp.

How will the defensive coaching shakeups impact the defense?

Nussmeier replacing Borges was the only coaching staff change this offseason, but last week Hoke announced that the roles of several defensive coaches would be shaken up in an effort to create a more aggressive defense and streamline the staff. Most notably, Hoke won’t be coaching any specific position groups himself. He spent the past three seasons coaching the defensive line. Stepping back will allow him to take a larger role and perhaps devote more time to areas that may have been overlooked in the past.

Greg Mattison switches from coaching the defensive line to linebackers this season (MGoBlue.com)

Greg Mattison switches from coaching the defensive line to linebackers this season (MGoBlue.com)

Mark Smith, who has coached the linebackers the past few seasons, will take over the defensive line, while defensive coordinator Greg Mattison moves to the linebackers. Mattison coached the Baltimore Ravens linebackers — and good ones like Ray Lewis — and said on National Signing Day that he has been looking for bigger linebackers. Smith, meanwhile, spent 15 of his 32 years as a defensive line coach, but hasn’t specifically coached the position since 2002 at Indiana State.

Curt Mallory will be taking on more of a specialized role with just the safeties after coaching the entire secondary the past three seasons, while Roy Manning will take over the defensive backs. Manning was hired prior to last season to coach the outside linebackers.

“Everyone on the staff and the kids are really excited about these changes,” Hoke said. “Greg and I met and felt this was the best for everyone, including him and his ability to coach a position group and run a defense from the middle. When you look at Mark’s experience on the defensive line, then being able to split the secondary, where you have five positions and 20-plus guys, and with the way offense and passing has changed in college football, I think it balances our staff on that side of the ball.”

Michigan’s defense has gone downhill in each of the three seasons under the current staff. In year one, Hoke and Mattison transformed what was a sieve under Rich Rodriguez into the nation’s 17th-best total defense and sixth-best scoring defense. But those numbers have fallen the past two seasons from 13th and 19th in 2012 to 41st and 66th last season. While the offense had its share of well-publicized struggles, the defense was virtually unable to stop anyone over the second half of the season.

The coaching staff shakeup sounds like a sign of desperation at first glance, a coach trying one last ditch set of moves in order to save his job. That may be partially true, but it’s certainly worth a shot. Moving Mattison to coach the middle of the defense makes a lot of sense as that’s where he coached in Baltimore and the linebackers run the defense. Hoke stepping back from coaching a position group also seems like the right move, and Smith taking over a group with which he has considerable — if not recent — experience could invigorate the line. Finally, splitting the secondary among two coaches also make sense since there are so many bodies among the cornerbacks and safeties.

In a perfect world, the moves will create excitement among the players — at the very least shake up any complacency or entitlement that may exist. Even though Nussmeier is the only new addition to the staff, the whole defense will be playing for a new position coach and thus fighting even harder to make a statement and earn playing time. Should it have gotten to that point? No. But it can only be a good thing throughout the spring.