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2014-15 Michigan basketball projections

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014


UMBB

This year’s Michigan basketball team finished just shy of a second straight Final Four, but they still turned many heads along the way. People were incredulous that such a young group of players could play so well after losing two non-senior guards to the first round of the NBA Draft — including the previous season’s Player of the Year — and a preseason All-America big man to a season-ending injury, and that always seemed to be one of the first things brought up in every Michigan broadcast.

You might want to get used to that talk.

The NBA’s April 27 deadline for early entries into the draft has come and gone, but unfortunately for Michigan fans, it was certainly not without lots of action in Ann Arbor.

With the big three heading to the NBA Michigan will once again have a very young team next season (Detroit Free Press)

With the big three heading to the NBA Michigan will once again have a very young team next season (Detroit Free Press)

On April 15, just a couple weeks after the Wolverines’ heartbreaking loss to Kentucky in the Elite Eight, sophomores Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III announced together that they would forego their final two years of college eligibility to enter the draft. Both were widely expected to leave — Stauskas after a breakout campaign that saw him take home Big Ten Player of the Year honors and Robinson III after he had passed on a likely top-15 selection a year before — but the departures will nonetheless make “what if” a common musing once again come basketball season.

A week and a half later, fellow sophomore Mitch McGary also declared for the draft – but without a press conference and just two days before the deadline. McGary, who didn’t play a game for Michigan  since the new year, announced that he would leave college after testing positive for marijuana during the NCAA Tournament, which would have resulted in a one-year suspension levied by the NCAA.

Many had speculated that McGary was going back and forth on his NBA decision until the bitter end, but his confession of the failed test and the NCAA’s denial of Michigan’s appeal brought light to the situation, and a source has confirmed that McGary would have returned to Michigan next season if he was not facing a suspension.

Regardless, all three have commenced their professional careers, leaving Michigan to regroup yet again.

So what does that mean for the Wolverines?

Well, for one, coach John Beilein and his staff are developing players at an incredible rate. Stauskas will be a first-rounder, and at least one of Robinson III and McGary will likely be there as well. If we can assume that, Michigan will have had four — maybe five — first round selections in two years.

Now, the philosophy of next man up must continue.

Most probably didn’t think this would be possible, but next season Michigan will be younger and less experienced than ever before in the Beilein era. Caris LeVert, Spike Albrecht, and Max Bielfeldt are the only three players that have been in the program for two full seasons, and with the recent commitments of Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Michigan will have a whopping seven players with freshman eligibility. Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton, Jr., and a few walk-ons round out the roster with one year under their belts.

After butchering last season’s individual player predictions (but hey, I got the Big Ten record and the Elite Eight finish spot on), I think the time is ripe to look foolish again. So with that in mind, let’s take a wild guess at how the lineups will shape up, who will handle the scoring load, and how many games Michigan can pull out.

Mark Donnal has a huge task ahead of him in locking down Michigan's front court (Courtney Sacco, Ann Arbor News)

Mark Donnal has a huge task ahead of him in locking down Michigan’s front court (Courtney Sacco, Ann Arbor News)

The Bigs

Perhaps the biggest what if of next year would have been the “what if Michigan still had Mitch McGary, a potential big man All-American, along with a dynamic backcourt headlined by Caris LeVert, who is already garnering some All-American talk?” The same question could be asked of graduating senior Jordan Morgan and rising senior Jon Horford, who has transferred to Florida.

As my dad always says, though, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.

McGary is gone and Michigan’s only center candidate with any college game experience is Max Bielfeldt. Let that sink in a little.

The two freshmen vying for playing time will be Mark Donnal, who turned some heads in practice while redshirting last season, and Ricky Doyle, a true freshman from Florida whose high school competition was somewhat questionable.

Donnal seems to be the clear front-runner to start, and I am a huge fan of his game based off one live viewing of him in high school. Donnal possesses excellent range for a big man, which could make for a devastating combination in Beilein’s jack-happy offense, has solid length that should make him a serviceable rebounder and shot-blocker, and seems to be able to score from anywhere on the floor. Without raising too many eyebrows, I have to say that Donnal’s offensive game most closely reminds me of Doug McDermott and Adreian Payne as a junior and senior; obviously he will not score as much as McDermott did right off the bat, but Donnal’s versatility makes him a real threat.

Doyle would have been an excellent redshirt candidate this season but will likely be forced into some action with the limited depth. He is more of a back-to-the-basket type with a developing shot.

Bielfeldt has played spot minutes before and clearly has the upper hand when it comes to experience, but I don’t see great potential. He is a little short on size, talent, and athleticism; his range could score him a few minutes again, but I expect Donnal to get the lion’s share.

Minute Breakdown:
Donnal: 25 Doyle: 10 Bielfeldt: 5

The Wings

Caris LeVert is the de facto leader for Michigan next season (Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

Caris LeVert is the de facto leader for Michigan next season (Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

At the wing spots for Michigan, you will again find – surprise! – more youth.

Caris LeVert is obviously the one that everyone is talking about as the next potential NBA early entry after a breakout sophomore season, and as a junior this coming year, is a shoo-in to be a captain and a starter. He’s also likely to be the guy, at least to start the season, who would be Beilein’s choice to take it on the last possession. If LeVert sticks around Ann Arbor this summer to work on his game and packs on a few more pounds to his lanky frame, the All-America talk will not fade any time soon.

Zak Irvin will be the only other wing with experience, and after a year of some excellent spot-up shooting for a true freshman, he will be asked to develop into more than just a shooter in the upcoming offseason. The former Indiana Mr. Basketball has shown in the past that he can be a great scorer, and his length makes him a strong candidate to emerge as one of Michigan’s best on-ball defenders. He flashed some encouraging signs late in the season. If Irvin sticks around for Camp Sanderson, expect many headlines on a potential breakout for him as well.

LeVert and Irvin should both see 30-plus minutes per game at some combination of the two and three spots in the offense, and Irvin could slide to the four on occasion as well. If Irvin sticks mostly to the three, however, it will be two true freshmen, just like at the five, earning the vast majority of playing time at the four spot.

Those two freshmen are Kameron Chatman of Oregon and D.J. Wilson of California. Chatman measures in around 6’7″ and comes in as the highest-rated recruit of the class, while Wilson is listed around 6’8″ and recently jumped up in the ranks after a solid senior year. Both players have range out to the three-point line and length to spare. Chatman seems to be a little more perimeter- and offensive-oriented at this point, but Wilson looks to have better bounce and shot-blocking skills. I would expect both to earn a good chunk of playing time right off the bat in what will be one of the more interesting competitions to watch.

Rounding out the wing depth are the two late signees in Abdur-Rahkman and Dawkins. I admittedly have to watch much more video on each before formulating any sort of scouting report, but they both are garnering the “Trust in Beilein” philosophy for now. After seeing unheralded late signees like Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert pan out pretty well so far, that seems to be a fair approach. Both come in in the 6’4″-to-6’5″ range with solid athleticism and were on track to be mid-majors until Beilein came calling. Abdur-Rahkman is generally viewed as more of a slasher who needs to work on his shot while Dawkins has been called more of a shooter who needs to work on his handles. With hard work, both will certainly be given the chance to develop into rotation players, but they will likely play sparingly next year.

Minute Breakdown:
4 Wilson: 20 Chatman: 15 Irvin: 5
3 Irvin: 25 Chatman: 5 LeVert: 5 MAAR/
Dawkins
: 5
2 LeVert: 30 MAAR/
Dawkins
: 5
Albrecht: 5

The Point Guards

At perhaps John Beilein’s most critical position, Michigan will luckily have two players with a combined three years of college experience. Though Spike Albrecht will only be a junior and Derrick Walton, Jr. a sophomore, they will be the gray beards directing traffic.

Albrecht is a steadying force and a pretty decent bet to be the only player from the 2012 recruiting class to finish out his college eligibility. He is the known commodity – a plus passer, a plus ball handler, and a plus shooter with middling size and athleticism.

Walton is a prime candidate to break out, and if previous sophomore seasons from Darius Morris and Trey Burke are any indication, too big of a breakout from Walton could have Michigan fans shaking in their boots again. The quiet floor general has plenty of quickness, a shot that continues to improve, and a strong ability to finish at the rack after struggling with that early last season. He has also shown poise with some excellent late-game free throw shooting, which is always a great attribute for a point guard. One of the bigger areas Walton can improve on this offseason will be on the defensive end, where he could develop into a nice thief.

Minute Breakdown:
Walton, Jr.: 30 Albrecht: 10

Starting Lineup and Team Predictions

Starting Lineup:
1 2 3 4 5
Walton, Jr. LeVert Irvin Chatman Donnal
Team predictions:
MVP Caris LeVert
Most Improved Player Zak Irvin
Freshman of the Year Mark Donnal
Newcomer of the Year D.J. Wilson
Top 3 Scorers (in order) LeVert, Walton, Irvin
Players Shooting 40%+ from 3 (in order) LeVert, Irvin, Walton, Wilson, Albrecht
Projected Record 25-11 (11-7)
Projected Finish Sweet Sixteen
Bold Prediction D.J. Wilson earns Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors

What do you think? Do you agree with these projections? If not, what changes would you make?

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.

Inside the Numbers: The golden age of the Michigan – Michigan State rivalry

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014


Burke steal

Michigan does not like Michigan State. Michigan State does not like Michigan.

This is no secret.

Those who have participated in the heated rivalry on the hardwood in recent years have made that very clear. Former U-M point guard Darius Morris told former MSU guard Kalin Lucas to “get the f*** off my court” after a Michigan win in Ann Arbor three years ago. U-M guard Nik Stauskas blew kisses to the Breslin Center crowd moments after the Wolverines toppled MSU just last month. And MSU head coach Tom Izzo summed it up best in January 2012 when he told the press, “Do I like [Michigan]? Not one bit. I don’t like anything about Michigan and they don’t like anything about us, and that’s the way it should be.”

However, do not let the conduct that transpires before the tip and after the buzzer fool you into thinking that this intrastate rivalry has always been one of the best. For a rivalry to be at its best, both rivals must frequently sport top-notch teams, competing against one another with championships at stake year after year. This is not an apt description of the Michigan-Michigan State basketball rivalry prior to 2012.

This is never clearer than when one realizes how infrequently both Michigan and Michigan State have been ranked in the Associated Press poll in their matchups. Generally, when a team is ranked in the AP poll, it is one of the best teams in the nation. Therefore, rivalry games are more significant and anticipated when both rivals are ranked in the AP poll. Yet, of the 113 meetings between U-M and MSU from January 20, 1949 — the date the first AP poll was released — to the end of the 2011 season, both the Wolverines and Spartans were ranked in only six.

Michigan-Michigan State Games With Both Teams Ranked in AP Poll – Prior to 2012

Date

Home Team

Road Team

Winner

Feb. 20, 1986

#7 Michigan

#19 Michigan State

MSU, 74-59

Mar. 1, 1990

#14 Michigan State

#8 Michigan

MSU, 78-70

Jan. 29, 1992

#13 Michigan State

#15 Michigan

U-M, 89-79 (OT)

Feb. 15, 1992

#17 Michigan

#12 Michigan State

MSU, 70-59

Feb. 2, 1993

#25 Michigan State

#7 Michigan

U-M, 73-69

Feb. 17, 1998

#14 Michigan State

#22 Michigan

MSU, 80-75

It was not until 37 years after the very first AP poll was released when Michigan and Michigan State squared off against each other as ranked teams. U-M and MSU went toe-to-toe 64 times during that prolonged span. Although the AP poll did not expand to 25 teams until the 1990 season, this is an extraordinary amount of basketball played between two teams without one marquee matchup.

It does not mean, however, that both U-M and MSU were bottom-dwellers throughout those four decades. Both programs had fantastic seasons during those years. The Wolverines were in the AP Top 10 for eight of their 64 contests with MSU. The Spartans were in the AP Top 10 for five of those 64 meetings. It just so happened that neither school managed to be one of the best in college hoops the same season as the other.

Nik Stauskas blew kisses to the Breslin Center crowd after Michigan's 80-75 win on Jan. 25

Nik Stauskas blew kisses to the Breslin Center crowd after Michigan’s 80-75 win on Jan. 25

This changed slightly after U-M and MSU’s first matchup in which both teams were ranked in 1986. Over the course of the next dozen years, Michigan and Michigan State went head to head five more times as members of the AP Top 25. The rivalry hit its high note when U-M’s touted “Fab Five” recruiting class stepped on campus. Both teams were ranked for the Fab Five’s first three showdowns with the Spartans in 1992 and 1993. It seemed like the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry was on the verge of something special.

But it did not materialize. By the end of the century, because of the sanctions imposed due to the Ed Martin scandal, Michigan basketball was a shell of its former self and fell off the proverbial map. From 1999 to 2011, U-M and MSU faced off 22 times. Michigan was not ranked once in any of those contests. As a result, perception of the rivalry suffered, having little appeal outside the footprint of the Big Ten. The rivalry seemed destined to be forever overshadowed by the likes of Duke-North Carolina, Kentucky-Louisville, and Syracuse-Georgetown.

Rankings are not the only metric that tells this same tale. The Big Ten standings tell it, too. Rivalries are at their best when both rivals are in the hunt for conference and national titles. More is on the line. Win, and you celebrate a championship at the expense of the team you most like to see miserable. Lose, and you suffer, wondering how your team came so far only to allow the team you like the least snatch success from your team’s grasp.

The Michigan-Ohio State football rivalry is perfect example. Fans of U-M, OSU, and college football in general consider this prestigious rivalry’s best era to be the Ten Year War. Why? Because the outcome of “The Game” crowned the Big Ten champion nine of those 10 seasons. Until 2012, the Michigan-Michigan State hoops rivalry had nothing resembling that sort of an era.

Seasons In Which Both Michigan and Michigan State Finished in Big Ten Top 3 – Prior to 2012

Season

Michigan’s Finish (Record)

MSU’s Finish (Record)

1959

t-2nd (8-6)

1st (12-2)

1966

1st (11-3)

2nd (10-4)

1986

1st (14-4)

3rd (12-6)

1990

3rd (12-6)

1st (15-3)

1992

t-3rd (11-7)

t-3rd (11-7)

1995

3rd (11-7)

2nd (14-4)

2003

t-3rd (10-6)

t-3rd (10-6)

Michigan State basketball joined the Big Ten in 1951. In the 61 seasons played from 1951 to 2011, Michigan and Michigan State both finished in the top three in the Big Ten standings only seven times. That is it. To contrast, in 58 seasons of ACC basketball from 1954 to 2011, Duke and North Carolina both finished no worse than third place in their conference 34 times. Additionally, prior to 2012, U-M and MSU secured the two best spots in the conference standings in the same season just twice. The more recent of these two occurrences happened almost a half-century ago. No matter how one tries to break these numbers down, the same conclusion will be reached: the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry was irrelevant nationally and not very prestigious.

However, the key word in that last sentence is “was.” No longer can anyone make the claim that this rivalry is not prestigious. It has changed dramatically in the past three seasons. Izzo has continued to lead MSU to successful season after successful season, but Michigan finally burst back onto the national scene under the direction of head coach John Beilein. In just a few short years, the Wolverines have transformed from a program trying to eke its way into the NCAA Tournament into a program that won a share of a conference title in 2012 and appeared in the national championship game the following season.

As a result, for the first time in the history of the rivalry, Michigan and Michigan State both have been two of the best college basketball programs. Want proof? Let’s once again look at U-M and MSU’s ranks in the AP poll when they compete against one another, but only at their ranked matchups since 2011 this time.

Michigan-Michigan State Games With Both Teams Ranked in AP Poll – Since 2011

Date

Home Team

Road Team

Winner

Jan. 17, 2012

#20 Michigan

#9 Michigan State

U-M, 60-59

Feb. 5, 2012

#9 Michigan State

#23 Michigan

MSU, 64-54

Feb. 12, 2013

#8 Michigan State

#4 Michigan

MSU, 75-52

Mar. 3, 2013

#4 Michigan

#9 Michigan State

U-M, 58-57

Jan. 25, 2014

#3 Michigan State

#21 Michigan

U-M, 80-75

In the past three seasons, all five games between the Wolverines and the Spartans have featured two teams ranked in the AP Top 25. In fact, U-M and MSU both were ranked in the AP Top 10 for two of those for the first time in the rivalry’s history. Do not forget that the Wolverines and Spartans both were ranked in only six games played against each other from 1949 to 2011. With MSU at No. 13 and U-M at No. 20 in this week’s AP poll, they will do it for the sixth straight meeting this Sunday at the Crisler Center. Simply, the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry has never been better.

This is why this Sunday’s showdown in Ann Arbor between Michigan and Michigan State will be the biggest game in the history of the rivalry. Sounds crazy, but it is not. The fans agree with this notion, too. The average price on the secondary market for this week’s game is $269, which is the highest for any Michigan basketball home game. Ever. And here is why:

Beilein and Izzo (Tony Ding, AP)

When Beilein and Izzo square off on Sunday it will be the biggest game in the history of the rivalry (Tony Ding, AP)

Currently, Michigan and Michigan State are tied atop the Big Ten standings with 10-3 records, sitting 1.5 games ahead of third-place Iowa. Given Iowa’s difficult remaining schedule, there is only an outside shot that the Hawkeyes make a push for the Big Ten championship, so this is very likely a two-horse race between the two hated rivals.

But this is the biggest game in the rivalry because never before have Michigan and Michigan State been the two clear leaders in the Big Ten race, within one game of each other, this late in conference play with a meeting on the horizon. Only three times before have both Michigan and Michigan State finished in the top two of the Big Ten. In 1959, the Spartans were the runaway champion, besting second-place Michigan by four games. In 1966, the Wolverines clinched the title before their only meeting with MSU in the finale. And, in 2012, U-M shared the crown with Michigan State and Ohio State only because MSU blew a two-game lead in the final week.

This is different. This game will have more of a combined impact on these two programs’ championship hopes than any prior meeting between the two rivals. Because MSU faces Purdue tomorrow, while U-M has a midweek bye, the Spartans will either be a half-game ahead or behind U-M come Sunday. Therefore, not only will the winner on Sunday be in sole possession of first place, the winner also may have a 1.5-game cushion with no more than four games remaining. The winner between Michigan and Michigan State — two rivals in the midst of the best stretch of their rivalry’s history — will be propelled into the driver seat in this Big Ten race and may never look back.

So this Sunday, if Stauskas starts chirping towards the Michigan State bench or the Spartans start slapping the floor on every defensive possession, know that they are no longer doing it just because they are rivals 64 miles apart that do not like each other. They are doing it because they know that their regular-season goal — to win the Big Ten championship — is on the line and likely will be decided by the game’s outcome. And that is wonderful, albeit heart-wrenching, feeling because it means that Michigan-Michigan State basketball rivalry is finally where it belongs: at the top.

Predicting Michigan: The point guards

Monday, November 4th, 2013


(MGoBlue.com)

Over the course of John Beilein’s tenure in Ann Arbor, Michigan has gone from starting some combination of Kelvin Grady, C.J. Lee, and David Merritt at point guard to becoming a de facto Point Guard U with the likes of Darius Morris and Trey Burke leading the team over the past three years. Nobody is mistaking Beilein for John Calipari, of course, but the way Beilein has developed his floor generals, as opposed to hand-picking them, has certainly turned some eyes in the college basketball world. After Morris left following an incredible sophomore season and Burke quickly developed into the best player in the nation before departing after two years as well, Beilein finds himself in a familiar position, but this time has some leeway.

Let’s take a look at how the point guard position will shake out for this year’s edition of the Michigan Wolverines.

Projected Starter: Derrick Walton, Jr.

We’ve already taken an in-depth look at what Walton should be able to provide in his first season of college ball, but the exhibition opener over Concordia really confirmed what most have expected thus far. Walton is a very quick player with the ball in his hands who will be looking to create for others before looking to shoot himself. He will never be the same player that Trey Burke was in Ann Arbor, but Walton clearly has the potential to make a similar impact, and with the talent of this Michigan team, it should be felt instantly. Beilein continues to stress the opportunity created by the departures of Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Walton should be distributing a lot of assists as he learns the ropes and adjusts to a faster and more physical game. When no teammates are open and defenses start focusing on shutting down the passing lanes, however, Walton can also drain the long ball or drive to the hole, as he did in scoring 11 points Tuesday night.

Fortunately for Michigan, this is not the first time that a Michigan team enters a season with an inexperienced lead guard. Darius Morris had a year under his belt before taking the reins, but he had played just 24 minutes per game his freshman season before taking over while Trey Burke assumed the starting point guard spot in his first regular season game and never looked back. Assistant coach Lavall Jordan has proven adept at developing young guards, and Walton should be the next valuable protégé.

Projected Stats – Walton
Points Assists Steals Rebounds Turnovers Minutes
6.0 4.0 1.5 2.5 2.0 25.0

Primary Back-up: Spike Albrecht

The difference at point guard this season is Spike Albrecht, the late addition to the 2012 recruiting class who was offered primarily in case reports of Trey Burke leaving after just one year ended up being true. Alas, Burke was convinced otherwise and Albrecht, the guy who claims to go mostly unrecognized on campus because of his average size, was afforded the chance to learn from one of the best for a whole season.

Spike's performance in the NCAA Tournament allows the point guard position to remain solid despite losing Trey Burke

Spike Albrecht’s numbers will not pop out to anyone, and he will most likely spend the majority of his career at Michigan watching from the sidelines, but he is an invaluable part of Michigan’s program. Every team would love to have an experienced backup who can come in for a couple minutes here and there and be solid, which is exactly what Albrecht is.

On rare occasions, like the night of the national championship game last season, the starter will be in foul trouble, or perhaps injuries will cause some shuffling, but when that time has come in the past, Albrecht has stepped up and shown what he is capable of doing, scoring 17 first-half points against Louisville and making some forget about Trey Burke being on the bench for the majority of a half.

Albrecht certainly enjoyed that time in the limelight, making Sportscenter highlights and giving a shout-out to Kate Upton on Twitter, but he knows his role on the team. He didn’t come to Michigan expecting to be a house-hold name. He came expecting to help his teams accomplish great goals.

To date, the script couldn’t have gone any better for the son of a former bitty-ball legend. This season, if all is well, Albrecht will again back-up a hotshot point guard, enter the game to give Walton a breather from time to time, make a few shots, dish out a few assists, take care of the ball, and be happy to be a part of something bigger than him.

Last season, with no minimum shots required, Albrecht was actually the team’s best three-point shooter, and while a few more shots this time around will likely see that percentage drop a little bit, Albrecht will have the green light when he’s open and will make a good number of them.

Beilein does not hold back in his praise for Spike and unsurprisingly gave him the starting nod in the first exhibition of the year, in which Spike notched a quiet five points, four assists, two rebounds, and a turnover. Still, both Beilein and Albrecht are aware of the player’s limited ceiling. Albrecht will never be a bona fide defender, scorer, or creator, but if he can put forth full-hearted effort, Michigan fans will be happy with the results.

This year, expect a year of practice against Burke to pay dividends for Albrecht and a few more girls to flutter their eyebrows while walking by the boyish-faced Spike on the Diag. But most of all, expect to be happy with Albrecht’s contributions. Those contributions won’t be great, and oftentimes they will go unnoticed, but a back-up point guard who flies under the radar is usually a back-up point guard who is doing his job.

Projected Stats – Albrecht
Points Assists Steals Rebounds Turnovers Minutes
3.5 1.5 0.5 1.2 0.8 10.0
Career Stats
2012-13 2.2 0.7 0.3 0.8 0.4 8.1
47.5 FG%, 54.3 3pt%, 83.3 FT%
2013 NCAA Tournament Stats
2012-13 6.0 0.7 0.5 1.0 1.0 12.8
72.2 FG%, 90.0 3pt%, 33.3 FT%

Secondary Back-ups: Caris LeVert, Nik Stauskas

Both LeVert and Stauskas will be examined more closely in the wing preview to come, but Beilein has been more open to discussing the variety of lineups at his disposal this season than in years past. At 6’6″, LeVert and Stauskas afford Michigan the chance to go very big and assuredly offer Beilein an opportunity to run the length-heavy 1-3-1 zone defense that has been mostly an apparition over the past couple seasons. Perhaps uninformed commentators will finally be right on occasion when talking about Michigan being a zone team then, but I still don’t expect to see either the zone or someone other than Walton and Albrecht at the point often.

For the most part, a change-of-pace with a wing running the offense will be used as a wrinkle and will perhaps occasionally be deployed against bigger teams; unless the true point guards are really struggling or go down to injury, however, this shouldn’t be a significant part of Michigan’s season.

Bottom Line: To be completely honest, Michigan’s point guards will probably not be looked at as an invariable strength, and that is fine for John Beilein. Pundits around the basketball world continue to question Michigan until Walton can prove himself as the heir apparent to Trey Burke, and many will continue to doubt Michigan’s chances as they realize that Walton will not fill up the scoring column like his predecessor.

But all Beilein needs is for his point guards to facilitate the show this time around. There is plenty of offense to go around on this Michigan outfit, and shots will be at a premium with potential stars like Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, and others littering the lineup. Walton and Albrecht will be more than happy to do that facilitating and should be able to take advantage from not being the opposing team’s focal point too.

So while most may not look at the Wolverine point guards this time around as the foundation of the team like they were in the past, Michigan will be just fine with Walton and Albrecht being the conductors of a well-tuned symphony.

2013-14 Michigan basketball player preview: Derrick Walton Jr.

Thursday, October 24th, 2013


(Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)

Over the past two years in Ann Arbor, Trey Burke became a household name after bursting onto the scene his freshman year following Darius Morris’s departure to the NBA. Burke was an unknown going into his freshman year, but quickly turned heads before ultimately racking up a bevy of individual honors, including the Naismith College Player of the Year award, in a sophomore season that ended in the National Championship game. Now, another freshman will be called upon to fill perhaps the biggest crater in this Michigan team’s lineup. Let’s take a closer look at him today.

#10 Derrick Walton Jr.
Measurements 6’1″, 185

Hometown Harper Woods, Mich.
High School Chandler Park Academy
High School Stats (2012-13) 26.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 7.3 steals
AAU Michigan Mustangs, Super Friends
Projected Position(s) Point Guard
Committed August 1, 2011
Major Suitors MSU, UConn, ND, Purdue, ISU, IU, Xavier, UT, FSU, Det.
Chance of Redshirt 0 percent
Recruiting Rankings
Rivals 4-star – Overall: 37, Position: 8
Scout 4-star – Overall: 36, Position: 7
ESPN 4-star – Overall: 30, Position: 8, State: 2, Grade: 89
247 4-star – Overall: 67, Position: 14, State: 2, Grade: 94
247 Composite 4-star – Overall: 45, Position: 10, State: 2

Background: In the summer of 2011, when high school juniors were being recruited heavily, evaluated closely, and finally offered in June, Michigan identified three point guard prospects – Monte Morris, Demetrius Jackson, and Derrick Walton, Jr – as being worthy of an offer. Since John Beilein has taken over in Ann Arbor, it has become increasingly evident that his offense thrives most when an outstanding point guard is leading the way, and one of these three would be next in line.

With three seemingly high-quality players and people all in position to take one available slot in the Michigan recruiting class, Wolverine fans argued heavily over minor details to determine who was the most desirable. A couple of suspenseful weeks following the June 15, 2011 offer date that Beilein and staff adhered to, however, and Walton was the one to commit. Some fans rejoiced, others shrugged, but all had to accept it.

At that time, Trey Burke had yet to play a game in college and most still assumed that Walton would come in to back up Burke for a couple seasons before taking over. Alas, Burke’s stock blew up after an outstanding freshman season that nearly saw him leave Ann Arbor before he returned to an even more successful squad last year and then was picked in the top 10 of the NBA Draft.

Walton has huge shoes to fill taking over for Trey Burke

For Walton, the pressure is upon him whether he’s ready or not. His career will undoubtedly be scrutinized under a microscope and compared to Burke’s in every way, because he has already been deemed the heir apparent, the next in the line of great Beilein point guards.

And therein lies the question: Is Derrick Walton, Jr. ready to lead the Michigan Wolverines?

Luckily for him, Walton does not have to carry the load alone. Sophomore Spike Albrecht returns after nearly setting the world on fire in the first half of the national championship game with 17 first-half points and will bring a veteran presence to the locker room despite only having one year under his belt. Albrecht himself committed to Michigan late in the game, when rumors were swirling that Burke would depart after his freshman year, but was afforded the chance to practice with and learn from one of the best point guards to ever play in Crisler Arena for a whole season.

Still, however, many fans have pegged Walton into the starting lineup from day one, and the comparisons to Burke seem to have been mandated at some point along the way. Truthfully, Walton is not the same player as Trey Burke, and probably never will be. He’s not the guy who will be taking and making the vast majority of shots with the shot clock winding down or the player who will be looked upon to score in the first place.

But that isn’t to say Walton and Burke are complete opposites either. Both come in at nearly an identical size and have a calm, quiet swagger to them. Both are savvy ball-handlers with jet quick first steps and an innate ability to draw contact at the rim.

There is one main difference between the two players though, one area where Walton probably excels more than Burke did at the same point in his career. Whereas Burke looked to score as his first option, Walton will generally look to create for others before shooting himself. With the talent this Michigan team has, that is certainly not a bad problem. Walton’s pin-point precision has already been turning heads in practice, and the fact that coaches are raving about his ability to not only hit shooters when they are open, but to also get them the ball exactly where they want to catch it is extraordinary.

Michigan may not be getting as much out of the point guard position in the scoring column this year, but that does not mean they will struggle to put points on the board. With Walton’s presence, expect to see more wired scorers like Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, and Zak Irvin doing most of the damage.

At the same time Walton, though quiet, unassuming, and of the pass-first mentality, has a killer instinct and will score when he has to. His high school numbers speak for themselves, and regardless of the competition level on the charter school schedule, multiple triple-doubles are not easy to come by. The Gatorade Player of the Year, runner-up Mr. Basketball, and First Team All-State honors speak to that.

Derrick Walton, Jr. is and will continue to be his own player. He may make some forget about Burke faster than anticipated. Then again, his play may keep the comparisons coming.

Video:

What He Will Provide:

  1. 1. Deft Passing: It has already been hit on many times, but Walton possesses tremendous feel for the game that is most frequently seen in his excellent court vision and his ability to always find the open man. Not only does Walton excel in the half court set, however; he is more than capable of throwing a three-quarter court pass to a streaking wing on the breakaway too. Burke was a very good passer, but the amount of time he spent creating for himself made that a secondary feature of his game. Walton’s passing game should be on full display from the start.
  2. 2. Scoring when Needed: Most of the time on the court, Walton will be asked to facilitate the offense and find the open shooter on the wing or big man down low. Like Burke, Walton should be adept running the pick-and-roll and spotting an opening in the defense. When called upon, however, Walton is an able scorer and shooter. Early on in his high school career, Walton was often knocked for his broken stroke and inconsistency from downtown, but by the time senior year at Chandler Park Academy hit, Walton had worked on his shot enough to make it a strength. He gets good lift on his stroke and is very comfortable pulling up from the dribble, which will make him very difficult to guard. In time, Walton should also be able to get to the charity stripe five to seven times per night.

    Walton is a pass-first point guard who will look to set up Michigan's shooters (adidas)

What He Will Have to Work On:

  1. 1. Defense: Walton will never be the biggest man on the court and size will never be an asset for him, and like all freshmen, he will have his struggles in guarding veteran point guards. Early on in the season, Quinn Cook of Duke should provide a big test, and Nick Johnson from Arizona would be a scary matchup if Walton is to ever find himself guarding the big junior. Last year, I said that Albrecht would benefit greatly from having to guard Trey Burke in practice every day, and while Spike will likely pass on some tips and pointers that he has learned, Walton ultimately does not have the benefit of going one-on-one with an All-American on a daily basis.
  2. 2. Finishing: Another area Burke probably has the upper hand on is finishing at the rim. Walton will need to gain some muscle before he becomes adept at finishing layups in a rough and tough Big Ten, and some scouting videos of Walton suggest that he had his problems finishing at the high school level. Burke’s uncanny knack for getting the ball to drop put him on another level, and if Walton is to get there, he’ll certainly be putting in more time in the paint.

Burning Question: Will Derrick Walton, Jr. be the starting point guard for Michigan from the onset of the 2013-14 season?

Many would cry blasphemy when seeing this question posed. After all, Walton is nearly a consensus top-40 prospect coming in when the time seems ripe for a pass-first point guard in Ann Arbor. And Spike Albrecht? He was a no-name high school prospect that picked Michigan over Appalachian State and needed to go to prep school to even get an offer from them!

When thinking things through, however, it’s not such a crazy question after all. Beilein has been known to ease players into the starting lineup, much like he did with Matt Vogrich (yes, he started) over Nik Stauskas and Jordan Morgan over Mitch McGary last season. Experience is crucial in college basketball, but being thrown into the fire is also a great way to gain that experience. If I had to guess, I think Spike Albrecht will start the first preseason game before making way for Walton against Wayne State and the rest of the campaign.

Projected Stats: 6 points, 4 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.5 rebounds, 2 turnovers in 25 minutes per game

A tribute to Trey Burke

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013


I still remember the day, August 24, 2010, like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful, if otherwise nondescript, Tuesday afternoon in the late summer of Ann Arbor. Students were trickling back to campus just a couple weeks before the first home football game of the season and I found myself living the life, chilling with some friends on Greenwood Street, back to my home away from home a few days early for some work training before the start of my junior year.

Two nights before, my parents had dropped me off at my buddy’s college house and were immediately taken aback by the pungent smell of old, cheap beer emanating from the front porch and the silver keg sitting about two feet in front of the entranceway to the messy house. Surprisingly, they trusted Nick enough to leave me there and turned back around to Grand Rapids, probably praying like heck I would make it through the next two days and into the school year.

Burke wasn't a highly recruited player out of high school

For whatever reason, Monday was unmemorable, a day full of sitting around watching and listening to training presentations and then relaxing back on Greenwood. Tuesday was supposed to be the same sort of day – a few hours of training followed by watching TV and walking the streets of Ann Arbor on the most picturesque of days.

Taylor, the friend who would go on to live with me a year later and who was also back in town for our training, and I decided to rent a couple movies to help pass the time. One of the films was about serious air guitar competitions, a recommendation from the tall, bald, mustachioed man working the desk at the Askwith Media Library. The other, Grizzly Man, had been on my must-watch list for a while.

We got back to our temporary college house and were sitting on the couch chatting before we would pop in one of the flicks when Nick walked down the steps. I think he was holding a laptop, but I’m not absolutely certain. All I remember is what he said.

“Trey Burke committed.”

He said it with a slight air of excitement, but not much more. Taylor chimed in to ask who Burke was, and Nick and I, being avid college basketball fans and followers of the Michigan team, did our best to fill him in.

We knew who Burke was, a Columbus, Ohio native and former teammate of Jared Sullinger, but didn’t have a ton to go off of. There was a little bit of video and a few scouting reports that added up to suggest that Burke was a fringe top 100-150ish point guard that wasn’t great at anything but was above average at most things. He had decommitted from Penn State a few months earlier and had just received a Michigan offer to add to a mostly unimpressive list of other offers, among them Cincinnati, Butler, Iowa, and Nebraska.

We read through all the material we could find, including message board comments that were mostly positive, but not overly optimistic. Many posted some form of a quick welcome to Trey Burke, but few predicted grand success in the future, just excitement that basketball season was around the corner. Others said he looked more like a mid-major player than a guy competing in the Big Ten. Carlton Brundidge was still going to be the key to the 2011 class; the common perception was that Burke would be a good facilitator, a good player.

Our talk lasted all of about five or 10 minutes before we moved on to our next musings. Little did we know then that I would be writing this article two and a half years later.

In Trey's first career game, he scored just three points in 18 minutes (MGoBlue.com)

The 2010-11 Michigan basketball season was a great bounce-back year for the Michigan basketball program after the 2009-10 squad had failed massively to live up to expectations, finishing the year at 15-17 and missing every postseason tournament after being ranked 15 in the preseason polls.

That season was highlighted by the emergence of Darius Morris, a 6’4″ scoring point guard out of Los Angeles who was John Beilein’s first major signee at Michigan. As a freshman, Morris was relegated to a backup role, but his fantastic sophomore season helped lead the Wolverines back to the NCAA Tournament, where they pounded Tennessee before narrowly missing out on the Sweet Sixteen on a missed floater by Morris.

That floater would be the last shot Morris ever took in a Michigan uniform. After two seasons, he decided it was time to pursue his dream of playing professionally and entered the NBA Draft, where he was selected in the second round. I wrote a story then too, calling on Michigan fans to support Morris in his decision, and asking how anyone could question a college-aged kid in his quest to play the game he loves full-time while bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year – at a minimum.

In the back of my mind, I wondered how Michigan would fare without their clear-cut best player, their floor general, starting in the fall. Yes, Zack Novak and Stu Douglass would provide veteran leadership and shot-making, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. had all the makings of a Big Ten superstar, but there no longer was a point guard to bring them all together and make the magic happen. I just didn’t want to think about it.

With Morris leaving, there was suddenly a lot more minutes available. Many, including me, speculated that Douglass would be forced to play out of position for at least 20 minutes a game while Burke and Brundidge would battle it out for the other 20 minutes. In my mind, a freshman, especially one as small as Burke, simply could not lead a team for extended periods of time in the Big Ten.

The summer came and went with my brother Justin and I frequently arguing about who would be the best freshman in the class. I still believed Brundidge was the newcomer to watch once the fall rolled around again. He maintained that Burke was worlds ahead of him, pointing to the ridiculous “Journey to Ann Arbor” workout videos that Burke had posted to YouTube. I didn’t listen.

That fall I was just as excited as always for Michigan basketball to come, but I was as unsure as ever about the merits of the team. I knew Beilein was a great coach, and I knew Michigan had some very good players, but the point guard position was becoming so important in the offense, and I kept questioning. Ultimately I guessed that I’d once again sweat it out on a nightly basis as the team sat on the bubble all year long.

A couple weeks before the season started, the buzz over this Burke player started to pick up. My friend Andrew posed as his sportswriter-uncle’s intern to get into a private Michigan practice and came out blown away by number 3. I still remember one Monday night after a Maize Rage meeting walking with Andrew, listening to his thoughts on the team a week before I would be able to view an open practice myself.

Trey dazzled in his first ever game against Michigan State, out-dueling Keith Appling (MGoBlue.com)

He started off that walk by telling me that Burke was the real deal.

“He will be the best player on this team by the end of the season,” he said.

I almost laughed out loud as we passed the Union. The best player on the team? Certainly he had to be joking. I told him I just hoped Burke earned some playing time at the point guard spot – that would at the very least be a good sign for the future. He insisted I was way off, that Burke would start before I knew it. We then walked our separate ways, I with some hope, some dream, but still some doubt.

From there, we know the story.

Burke went on to take the college basketball world by storm his freshman season, leading the team to a Big Ten championship and playing with the swagger and confidence of a man far older than 19 as classmate Carlton Brundidge struggled to earn minutes.

Once I finally got to see Burke play in a couple real college games, I had no reason to doubt any longer. Early on, I knew he was going to be a special player, and he ended up exceeding even those expectations.

By the midway point of Trey’s freshman season, I started to take him for granted. Sure, he missed plenty of shots, and no, he didn’t always make the right pass, but damn near all of the time Burke was the best player on the floor. I developed a sense of calm within games that I had never experienced before. I knew Trey Burke was on Michigan’s side, and I was at peace.

The Wolverines still lost games that season, 10 to be exact, and not everything ended up Michigan’s way, but it was a terrific winter to watch.

Sadly, that season ended with a disappointing and disheartening loss in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite earning a 4-seed, Michigan was upended by the Ohio Bobcats.

Novak and Douglass’s storied careers had come to an end, and my time as a Michigan student was winding down as well, but I looked ahead to the next season with renewed vigor, knowing the team would be in Burke’s protecting hands.

Then the news came like a blow to the stomach. Word got out that Burke was considering an early exit to the NBA, and there were rumblings around campus that he had stopped attending class, leaving most to conclude that his time at Michigan was indeed over. A few days later, reports that firmly confirmed these conclusions came out – Burke had decided to forego his college career after just one year at Michigan.  Pictures of his packed-up dorm room emerged on Twitter.

Following his freshman season, this image stirred up rumors of an early departure

I thought back to the article I wrote one year earlier about Morris’s decision to go pro and ran through every reason I gave as to why he couldn’t be blamed, eventually realizing that Burke was in the same boat. How could anyone question a teenager deciding to pursue his dreams and loads of money that most of us couldn’t even imagine making? Sure, another terrific year in college might boost his draft stock, but was the risk of injury worth it?

No one knew for sure. Michigan fans just hoped against hope it wasn’t true.

A couple more days passed with no announcement of Burke’s intentions, and a glimmer of that hope shone brightly in the sky. More stories started to come out explaining that Burke was reconsidering his decision, but still no one was certain.

Then came the announcement. On April 9, 2012, Burke single-handedly blew the clouds out of Ann Arbor by announcing that he would return for his sophomore year at Michigan. Within minutes of the declaration, most surmised that, barring a catastrophe, the 2012-13 season would serve as a swan song of sorts for the baby-faced sophomore. He would give it a go one more time in Ann Arbor in the hopes of winning a championship and improving his draft stock.

That summer passed very slowly for Michigan fans around the world as Beilein assembled his best-ever recruiting class to enter into the equation with Burke and Hardaway already in the fold. Prognosticators slotted Michigan in the top five of polls in the preseason, higher than in nearly 20 years, and Burke was viewed as an All-American.

With Burke leading the way one last time, the Wolverines gave fans a ride for the ages, opening the season with 16 straight wins to climb to number one in the country. There were some bumps in the road that followed, however, and doubts crept up.

Michigan fans will forever remember this moment

When the Big Dance rolled around this time, the sentiments weren’t so high. Michigan had limped to a 6-6 record over the final 12 games preceding the NCAA Tournament, and another 4-seed seemed to be an unfair omen for Michigan fans looking for one last joy ride.

As always, though, Burke answered the call. For the most part he wasn’t spectacular in Michigan’s run to the Final Four, but when it mattered most, he was there. He was there to shut down Nate Wolters in Michigan’s opening round victory over South Dakota State, and he was there to wreak havoc on VCU’s overly-aggressive defense despite a lack of gaudy numbers that first weekend.

Burke was there with 23 magical second-half points in the Wolverines’ fairy tale comeback over Kansas and he was there in Michigan’s blowout of Florida.

He was also there in Michigan’s victory over Syracuse, their first Final Four win in two decades. Perhaps most memorably, however, Burke was there against Louisville in the national championship that wasn’t meant to be.

It was an unfitting end to such a brilliant college career, a game that saw Burke marred with two questionable foul calls, including one on an incredible block of Peyton Siva that could have changed the outcome of the game. Burke fought to the end in that game as he always did, however, scoring 24 points and putting the team on his back despite a couple noticeably painful hard fouls that he took himself.

In the end, for whatever reason, it wasn’t meant to be. Burke brought home all the individual awards one can earn, but I know he is the kind of player that would have given them all back to win that last game.

That was always part of the beauty of Trey Burke’s game. He always gave it his all for the team, whether Michigan was trailing by four late or winning by 20 in the first half, and he thought every shot was going in. Sure, he missed more than half the shots he took in his college career, but I was fine with any shot Trey deemed suitable. He made me a believer in the bad shot, the long two, the off-balance layup, the pick-pocket, and the 10-foot-behind-the-line three.

The lightly recruited point guard became the best player in college basketball

He also made me a believer in the clutch factor.

Before I knew Trey Burke, I was on the side of the statisticians and mathematicians that adamantly proclaim that there is no such thing as being clutch in sports, that ultimately a player will make the same percent of his shots at any given time if there are enough trials.

To them, I say watch Trey Burke.

Watch the Ohio State home games of this season and last, when Burke made three game-saving plays in all. Watch the Michigan State game of this year, when Burke snatched the ball right from Keith Appling’s backside to ensure that Michigan would not fall apart down the stretch. Watch the Purdue game in West Lafayette, when Burke led a one-man comeback with three after three and floater after floater to keep Michigan’s season from going down the drain. Watch the Kansas game in the Sweet Sixteen, when Burke willed his team to overtime and eventually victory with The Shot, truly believing his team would win despite some computer programs giving Michigan less than a one percent chance of doing so.

To you, Trey Burke, I have a confession to make. I doubted you. Before I saw what you could do with my own eyes, I didn’t believe in you. I was skeptical that a 6’0″, 175-pound kid from Columbus, a kid that didn’t even get looked at by the Big Ten team right down the street, could carry a team for two seasons.

No one told me to write this story, but I felt that I owed it to you.

It’s players like you that make the game of basketball special and the University of Michigan special. Players that play the right way, and do so with such grace and smoothness rarely on display these days.

I never once thought you would be the savior of Michigan basketball, but now there is no doubt in my mind.

Sooner rather than later, I know we will see your ‘3’ hanging in the rafters of Crisler, adorned with “BURKE” across the top in huge letters next to the past greats of Michigan basketball, and across the way from the “2012-13 NCAA Runner-Up,” “2013 Final Four,” and “2011-12 Big Ten Champion” banners.

Until then, I wish you the best of luck on your journey to the NBA. When college basketball season rolls around again this fall, I will be excited as always, but there will be a small hole in my heart that is made a just a little bit bigger by your departure, after Novak, Douglass, Morris, Manny Harris, and so many others have moved on before. I will miss watching you play, seeing you so effortlessly lead Michigan to victory while wearing the Maize and Blue, but thank you for giving me that reason.

Thank you for making me a believer in not only you, but in the game of basketball. I always knew it was a beautiful game, but I was never certain it could be played as beautifully as you did these past two years.

Thank you for always helping me remember these past two years, and that day two summers ago that I will never forget.

Thank you for those banners, and for bringing Michigan back to where it belongs.

Thank you, Trey, for everything.

2011-12 Michigan Basketball Season Preview

Thursday, November 10th, 2011


Early November is always the weirdest time of the year sports-wise as baseball comes to an end, football is in full-swing, and basketball is just beginning. Every year, it’s hard to switch gears and think about basketball when Michigan football is in the thick of the Big Ten title hunt, but this year feels different. There’s a lot of excitement swirling around the Michigan basketball program right now, and for good measure.

Tim Hardaway Jr leads Michigan into battle this season (photo by the Ann Arbor News)

Last year’s team fell just two points short of an upset of Duke and a berth in the Sweet 16. Everybody except point guard Darius Morris returns and this year’s team features a highly-touted freshman point guard to replace him, along with a veteran unit. Add to all of that last week’s commitment from the nation’s second-rated player in the class of 2012, and coach John Beilein is building himself quite the program in Ann Arbor.

The 2009 season was supposed to be a big one for the Wolverines and I optimistically predicted 21-9. But Michigan stumbled to a 15-17 record, missing the NCAA tournament. Last year, Michigan had to replace Manny Harris and prospects looked bleak, at least as far as I was concerned. I took the pessimistic approach, predicting 15-16, but the Maize and Blue proved me wrong, turning a 1-6 conference start into a 9-9 Big Ten finish and a near-Sweet 16 run.

With everybody but Morris returning, Michigan figures to be right in the thick of a powerful Big Ten race. The Wolverines enter the season ranked 18th in the Preseason AP poll and predicted to finish in the top three or four in the conference. Let’s take a look at the team, the schedule, and the outlook.

________________________________________________________________________________________

The Team:

There’s no question that the offense will revolve around Tim Hardaway Jr. The sophomore from Miami, Fla. – and yes, if you didn’t follow Michigan basketball last season, he’s the son of the NBA great – is the leading returning scorer, averaging 13.9 points per game last season (Morris led the team with 15). He started every game, was Michigan’s second-best free throw shooter, shot 37 percent from 3-point land, and led the Wolverines in scoring in Big Ten play, averaging 14.9 points per game.

In the offseason, Hardaway played for Team USA at the 2011 FIBA U19 World Championships. While he didn’t start, he averaged 9.4 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game, and sharpened his game against the world’s best at his age.

While Hardaway is Michigan’s best player, the unquestioned leader of the team is senior guard Zack Novak. The 6’4″ 210-pound lefty from Chesterton, Ind. has started 88 of 100 career games and ranks fifth in Michigan history in three-pointers made and attempted. Last season, Novak averaged 8.9 points per game and led Michigan in rebounding with 5.8 rebounds per game.

Defense is what will earn playing time for freshman point guard Trey Burke (photo by the Ann Arbor News)

He’s been a model of consistency and hard work since arriving in Beilein’s first full recruiting class. He’s always the first to chase down a loose ball, to dive head first, to scrap for every rebound, and to take on the opponent’s best guard.

His classmate Stu Douglass is a 6’3″ 200-pound sharp-shooter, also from Indiana. While he mostly lost his starting spot last year (12 starts after starting 23 games in each of his freshman and sophomore seasons), he served as Michigan’s captain, averaged 7.1 points and three rebounds per game, while playing 30 minutes a game. He’ll play a key role for the Wolverines this season in both leadership and outside shooting. He’ll likely share the point guard responsibilities with freshman Trey Burke.

Speaking of Burke, he’ll fill the void Morris left as Michigan’s ball-handler. He’s a confident, 5’11″ 180-pound point guard from Columbus, Ohio. He played with Ohio State star Jared Sullinger, and for Sullinger’s dad, at Northland High School, leading the Vikings to a state runner-up finish last season. He was named the Associated Press Ohio Mr. Basketball and was a Parade Magazine All-America second-team selection.

Another backcourt contributor is junior Matt Vogrich. He played in all but one game last season, averaging 3.2 points per game, while shooting 39 percent from three-point range. In Michigan’s opening round NCAA Tournament win over Tennessee, Vogrich hit 5-of-5 shots from the field, scoring 11 points in 16 minutes. Though not a starter, he’ll continue to give Michigan a spark off the bench with his shooting prowess.

In the frontcourt, Evan Smotrycz is a bit of a ‘tweener and figures to play a key role for the Wolverines this season He’s 6’9″ and 235 pounds, and averaged 6.3 points and 2.3 rebounds per game last season as a freshman. In Michigan’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge win over Clemson last season, Smotrycz led the Wolverines with 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting.

What he did best was stretch the floor for Michigan’s post players. He was a tough matchup, with athleticism to go to the basket, but 38 percent accuracy from three-point range. His weakness, however, was on the defensive side of the ball. That will need to improve this season.

Jordan Morgan is the main man on the post. The 6’8″ redshirt sophomore is up to 250 pounds, 10 heavier than he was a year ago. It should help him with defending some of the Big Ten’s big men in the grueling conference play. Last year, he was the team’s most improved player, averaging 9.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest. His best game was a 27-point performance against Northwestern, and he led the Big Ten in field goal percentage. Along with Novak and Hardaway, he started all 35 games.

The Newcomers
Trey Burke Carlton Brundidge Max Bielfeldt Sai Tummala
3 2 34 24
G G F F
6’1″ 6’2″ 6’8″ 6’7″
175 lbs. 200 lbs. 240 lbs. 200 lbs.
Columbus, Ohio Southfield, Mich. Peoria, Ill. Phoenix, Ariz.
Northland H.S. Southfield H.S. Notre Dame Prep Brophy College Prep

Helping him out down low is sophomore Jon Horford. He averaged just two points and two rebounds a game last season, but has beefed up from 220 to 250 pounds since then, which like Morgan, will help him in the rough and rugged Big Ten. He played in 29 of the 35 games a year ago, averaging just under seven minutes per game, but should see his role vastly increase this season. In Michigan’s exhibition win over Wayne State last Friday, he was one of just four Wolverines to score, netting six points in 17 minutes of action, although he missed all five free throws attempted.

Blake McLimans struggled with his shot last year, hitting just 1-of-19 three-point attempts. The 6’10″ junior forward from Hamburg, N.Y. played five minutes a game and was supposed to be a big man that could shoot. Unfortunately, they didn’t fall. How much his stroke has improved this season could determine how much his role increases.

One candidate to take some of his minutes is freshman Max Bielfeldt. A bit undersized at 6’7″ and 240 pounds, the freshman from Peoria, Ill. is a bruiser. He averaged 20 points and 11.2 rebounds a game in his career at Notre Dame Prep and was named to the AP Class 3A All-State first team.

Colton Christian is an interesting big man for the Wolverines. As a freshman last year, he played in 27 of the 35 games, averaging just under five minutes a game, but scored just four points. His specialty was rebounding and was often brought in just for that purpose. If he can improve his offensive production, he will likely see his role increase.

Another freshman and candidate for a bit of playing time here and there is Carlton Brundidge. A 6’1″ 190-pound guard from Southfield, Mich., Brundidge figures to add a slasher to Michigan’s backcourt. He averaged 20.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 4.8 assists at Southfield High School and was named to the AP Class A All-State first team last season. How much he will see the court this season is up in the air – he played just two minutes last Friday – but he should be a solid contributor as his career progresses.

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The Schedule:

Michigan begins with three cakewalks to shake off the rust that was evident in last week’s exhibition. Ferris State was the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular season champion a year ago, but that’s Div. II. Towson and Western Illinois combined to go 11-49.

After those three, things get interesting. On Nov. 21, Michigan travels to Hawaii to participate in the EA Sports Maui Invitational. The first game is against #9 Memphis, which went 25-9 last season. Depending on the result, the next game would pit Michigan against one of the two teams it faced in last springs NCAA Tournament – Duke or Tennessee. Duke is ranked 6th in the preseason polls, while Tennessee looks to have dropped off considerably from the Bruce Pearl years.

The third game of the Maui could be anywhere from Kansas or UCLA (ranked 13th and 17th nationally, respectively) to Chaminade, depending on how Michigan fares in the first two.

Games to Watch
Date Team Rank Location Time TV
Mon. Nov. 21 Memphis 9 Lahaina, Hawaii 3 p.m. ESPN2
Tues. Nov. 22 Duke or Tennessee 6/NR Lahaina, Hawaii TBD ESPN2
Tues. Nov. 29 Virginia Charlottesville, Va. 7 p.m. ESPN2
Sat. Jan. 8 Wisconsin 14 Ann Arbor, Mich. TBA CBS
Tue. Jan. 17 Michigan State Ann Arbor, Mich. 7 p.m. ESPN
Sun. Jan. 29 Ohio State 3 Columbus, Ohio 1 p.m. CBS
Sun. Feb. 5 Michigan State East Lansing, Mich. 1 p.m. CBS
Sat. Feb. 18 Ohio State 3 Ann Arbor, Mich. 9 p.m. ESPN

After returning back to the mainland, Michigan has to travel to Charlottesville, Va. to battle the Virginia Cavaliers in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Virginia was 16-15 a year ago, but returns nearly everybody and is picked to finish in the top third of the ACC.

Following that gauntlet, Michigan gets a bit of a breather before beginning Big Ten play, with four of the remaining five out-of-conference games at home, and the fifth – against Oakland – at the Palace at Auburn Hills. Oakland and Iowa State won’t be pushovers, but are should-wins. Arkansas Pine-Bluff, Alabama A&M, and Bradley should help improve Michigan’s record.

Big Ten play begins with two home games, against Penn State and Minnesota, then a road trip to Indiana before returning home for the first big test against #14 Wisconsin.

After doing battle with Northwestern and Iowa, Michigan returns home on Jan. 17 to face Michigan State, which it swept last season, and then travels out of conference to face Arkansas. The Razorbacks finished 18-13 a year ago, but have a lot of holes to fill this season.

Michigan returns to Big Ten play for what should be the key stretch of the conference slate. A home battle with Indiana is sandwiched between road trips to Purdue, #3 Ohio State, Michigan State, and Nebraska. How Michigan fares during that five-game stretch could determine its post-season fate, but it doesn’t get any easier from there. Illinois comes to town and then the Buckeyes come calling.

At this point, Michigan will either be jockeying for a Big Ten title or fighting for its life on the NCAA Tournament bubble. The last four games should help, as Michigan visits Northwestern, returns home for Purdue, and then travels to Illinois and Penn State to close the season.

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The Outlook:

While not the toughest schedule in the nation, it’s certainly not an easy one either. The Big Ten is never an easy conference to play in, and with the Maui Invitational, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and the mid-conference trip to Fayetteville, Michigan hasn’t done itself any favors with the schedule. If the Wolverines take care of business, that will be an advantage come tournament time. If not, it could come back to bite them.

Even with a pair of experienced seniors – Novak and Douglass – Michigan is still a fairly young team. That shouldn’t make much of a difference, however, since the experience Michigan has fits together nicely. Hardaway shouldn’t have much trouble getting his points and assuming the playmaker role he took on during Big Ten play last year.

Morgan and Horford down low should be more of a presence than a year ago, which should help open up Novak, Douglass, and Vogrich from the outside.

It really falls on the shoulders of freshman point guard Burke. He will undoubtedly struggle at times, but how he goes should go Michigan. If he’s able to take care of the ball, distribute effectively, and play solid defense, all of which he is certainly capable of, Michigan should be a Big Ten title contendor. But that’s a lot to ask of a true freshman.

Michigan will need Novak and Douglass’ shots to fall and one of the two big men to become consistent offensive weapons.

The Wolverines should hold serve at home with a revamped and reenergized Maize Rage student section, as well as an updated Crisler Arena, so don’t expect many home losses.

Look for a 10-3 non-conference record with a loss in the Maui, a loss to Virginia, and a surprising let-down loss to either Oakland or Arkansas. I also predict a 12-6 Big Ten record with splits against Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana, and Purdue, a loss to Wisconsin, and one upset at the hands of Northwestern, Iowa, or Minnesota.

That would put Michigan’s final regular season record at 22-9 (12-6) and near the top of the Big Ten, but squarely in the NCAA Tournament with a couple of wins in the Big Ten Tournament. As always, the disclaimer applies that I hope I’m wrong and the Wolverines do much better, but with Morris still at the helm, I would be a lot more confident.

Overachieving Wolverines Set Stage for Next Season

Monday, March 21st, 2011


As the body language of Tim Hardaway, Jr. reflects, this season was defined by over-achievement and heartache, but THJr. and the young Wolverines will be a force to be reckoned with next season

In a season that began with very low expectations, the 2010-11 Michigan basketball team turned in perhaps the program’s best season in over a decade and set the stage for what should be enormous expectations in 2011-12.

Picked by most to finish at or near the bottom of the Big Ten, Michigan fought to a fourth place finish, earned an eight-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and took first-seeded Duke to the wire in the third round. It was a season defined by over-achievement and missed opportunities.

When last season’s stars, Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, bolted for the NBA and graduation, many wondered how Michigan would compete. Instead, rising stars emerged in sophomore Darius Morris and freshman Tim Hardaway, while the veterans, Zack Novak and Stu Douglass remained dependable.

The youngest team in the Big Ten, and tenth youngest in Div. 1A, paved the way for future success with solid team play and feisty defense. After starting the season 11-3, Michigan went on a six-game slide to fall to 1-6 in the Big Ten. It looked as if even an NIT bid was wishful thinking at that point. But the resilient Wolverines, with not a single senior on the team, went 8-3 the rest of the way, sweeping rival Michigan State for the first time since 1997, earning a fourth place finish in the conference and a four-seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

Still needing a win or two to cement an invitation to the Big Dance, Michigan came from behind to beat Illinois in the Big Ten Tourney opener and then fell to Ohio State in the semifinals. It was enough to earn an eight seed and a matchup with Tennessee.

In that first game, Michigan played perhaps its best game of the season, throttling the Volunteers by 30, the most lopsided win in the history of the 8/9 seed matchup, and setting up a showdown with first-seeded Duke.

Against Duke, Michigan fell behind early in the second half and fought back, erasing a 12 point deficit with just over six minutes to play, but Morris missed an eight-foot runner at the buzzer. It ended Michigan’s season two points shy of the Sweet 16.

Close Losses to Ranked Teams
Opponent Points
No. 9 Syracuse 3
No. 3 Kansas 7 (OT)
No. 2 Ohio State 4
No. 1 Ohio State 9
No. 12 Wisconsin 1
No. 1 Ohio State 7
No. 3 Duke 2

After over 10 years without an NCAA Tournament berth, John Beilein has guided Michigan to first round wins in two of the past three seasons. Both years, Michigan proved that while overmatched, it could compete with the big boys, and that was certainly the story of the season.

Michigan lost to then-No. 9 Syracuse by three, No. 3 Kansas in overtime, No. 1 Ohio State by four, nine, and seven, No. 12 Wisconsin by one on a buzzer-beater, and No. 3 Duke by two. While close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, it bodes well for next season, as Michigan returns everyone and will likely be one of the preseason favorites in a Big Ten that was very senior-heavy this season. Experience and leadership usual make the difference in close games, and Michigan will have that in 2011-12.

Incoming freshmen Trey Burke and Carlton Brundidge, both top 100 guards, should help provide more scoring and athleticism on the perimeter and the young big men, Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford, and Blake McLimans, will continue to develop.

It’s been a long time since we could say a Michigan team (football or basketball) has actually overachieved, but even in the face of disappointment from a loss to Duke, it feels good to be looking forward to next season with great anticipation.

A wish list for next season:

Jordan Morgan realizes he is, in fact, allowed to rebound and go up strong with the ball. He made great strides throughout the season and was most dangerous in transition, but played much smaller than he actually is. Way too many times, he got the ball on the post and brought it down with a dribble instead of taking it up strong. He has a good baby hook, but at times, he was too reliant on it. And way too many times, he failed to block out and rebound, especially on the offensive glass. Another offseason should help.

Evan Smotrycz improves his defense. I’m not hating on Smotz, since he was a true freshman after all. He showed some flashes of offense and shooting stroke, making him hard to guard for an opposing big man, but was often a liability on defense. It was especially apparent against Duke when he would jump out to close out, but remain so vertical that he either fouled or was beaten off the dribble. Like Morgan, offseason work, and just more experience in college ball, will help.

Darius Morris develops a shooting stroke. Morris was probably Michigan’s best player this season, leading the Big Ten in assists, and leading the team in scoring with 15 points per game. He’s at his best when driving through the lane, either for a runner or kicking it out to a shooter. However, every time he got an open look from the outside, Michigan fans cringed. He shot just 25 percent (16-of-64) from long range. In this offense, he’s not going to be called upon to shoot from the outside very often, but when he does get the occasional open look, I’d like him to at least be able to hit one of three.

Stu Douglass re-learns how to make free throws. Over the past three seasons, Douglass has hit his share of big threes. He shot 36 percent this season, but he consistently struggled with the easiest shot in basketball. He didn’t get there often, but made just three of 13 on the season and the misses always seemed to be at critical times. He missed the front end of a one-and-one against Duke that could have made the difference in the two-point loss. The strange thing is he wasn’t always this bad. In his first two seasons, he hit 40-of-55 (73 percent). Here’s to regaining that stroke next season.

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One Game Season

Friday, March 4th, 2011


In a season that was supposed to be a battle just to make the NIT, Michigan basketball has performed well above expectations, having played itself to the cusp of an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament. One game stands in the way of that goal and it couldn’t write itself any better than this.

In football, the season ends with the annual battle with Ohio State. More times than not (although not as of late), it comes down to that game to decide the Big Ten champion, which team goes to the Rose Bowl, or at the very least, which team gets the better bowl game.

But in basketball, Michigan State serves as Michigan’s biggest rival and the past decade and a half has been pretty one-sided. Saturday presents an opportunity to change all that; an opportunity few thought possible five months ago.

Both teams enter Crisler Arena in need of a win to finish in the top half of the Big Ten standings, earn a first round bye in next week’s Big Ten Tournament, and put itself in prime position for an at-large bid in the NCAA.

For Michigan, the past decade and a half has been filled with strife and heartache since the Ed Martin scandal rocked the program in the late 1990s. The once proud and strong program that produced the Fab 5 and won the National Championship in 1989 has been through three coaches and just two tournament appearances since Steve Fisher was fired in ’97 (one since 1998).

A Tale of Two Programs
Block M logo

Since 1997

244-202 Record 348-130
54.7 Winning %
72.8
6 Head to Head Wins
18
10 Avg. Winning Margin
17
0 Big Ten Titles
6
2 NCAA Tournaments 14
0 Final Fours
6
0 National Championships
1
*Includes this season’s previous meeting

Coincidentally, that was also the last time Michigan swept Michigan State and the point in which the Spartans began their rise to become the prominent team in the state.

Since then, MSU has been to the NCAA Tournament every season, reached the Final Four six times, and won the championship in 2000, while Michigan’s lone appearance was two seasons ago.

On Saturday, Michigan has a chance to not only sweep its hated rival for the first time since ’97, but possibly keep the Spartans out of the Big Dance for the first time since that year and take a big step towards reclaiming the state.

Head Coach John Beilein has seemingly resurrected the program that showed signs of potential during the Tommy Amaker years, but never realized that potential. Beilein came in with a different coaching and recruiting mentality – one based on recruiting high character kids that fit his system – and has Michigan playing well above its head and talent level.

He’s always managed to get the best out of his players, and with a team chalk full of underclassmen and no seniors, Beilein finally has an emerging star at point guard and a coveted number two scorer in the duo of Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway Jr. He also has a pair of Top-100 players coming in next season in Carlton Brundidge and Trey Burke, so the program is on its way up.

But the first step in that process is beating Michigan State tomorrow. In the season’s first meeting, Michigan outlasted the Spartans in East Lansing, 61-57. Zack Novak led the way with 19 points, while Morris had 17, but it was Stu Douglass who was the biggest hero, hitting with a three-pointer with 22 seconds left to seal the win. Michigan hit 10 threes in the game, shot 50 percent from the field, tied the Spartans in rebounds and committed one more turnover (13) than MSU.

A win would most likely give Michigan the fifth seed in the Big Ten Tournament and a second round matchup with Illinois, which hosts last-place Indiana on Saturday. Most importantly, a win would put Michigan at 19-12, 9-9 in the Big Ten (tied for fourth) and almost assure the Wolverines an at-large bid in the Big Dance. A loss would probably pit Michigan against Iowa in the first round of the BTT and Michigan would have to win that one and one or two more to even have a shot.

It has been a long time since Michigan basketball has had a game this meaningful, and tomorrow’s game will certainly have Crisler rocking. Following Michigan State’s win over Iowa on Wednesday, Head Coach Tom Izzo declared, “We’re gonna find a way to win Saturday and get you back to where you belong: in the NCAA Tournament.” It’s not much of a guarantee, but the Maize Out on Saturday will act as if he guaranteed he would never lose to Michigan again, and make him eat his words.

As for me, I’m going to find a way to keep my wife, who is nine months pregnant, from going into labor tonight so I can be where I belong: watching a Michigan victory over Little Brother. Go Blue!

Is the Big Dance Still Within Reach for Michigan?

Sunday, February 13th, 2011


Michigan’s win over Indiana on Saturday raised its record to 16-10, 6-7 in the Big Ten. It certainly won’t qualify as a big win, especially the way Michigan nearly gave up a 20 point lead in the final minutes, but it was an important one for Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances.

Darius Morris ranks 10th in the Big Ten in scoring and 1st in assists (photo by the Ann Arbor News)

Three weeks ago, the chances of making the Big Dance were all but over, as Michigan completed a six game losing streak with a 69-64 home loss to Minnesota. But after wins at Michigan State and Penn State, and home wins over Iowa, Northwestern, and Indiana, Michigan’s once nonexistent chances are growing. Let’s take a look at Michigan’s current resume and what it needs to do the rest of the season to put itself in position for an at-large bid.

Prior to the Indiana win, Michigan’s RPI was 57, it’s KenPom was 55, and it was tied for 6th in the Big Ten with Minnesota and Penn State. Two years ago, when Michigan made the tournament for the first time in a decade, it finished with a RPI of 44, KenPom of 50, and tied for 7th in the Big Ten with a record of 9-9 (19-12 overall).

At 15-10, with five games remaining, Michigan has a good chance to finish with the same record that got it into the tourney two seasons ago.

The next game is Wednesday at Illinois, the teams’ first and only meeting of the year. The Illini are 16-8 (6-5) with a matchup with No. 12 Purdue on Sunday and are just 3-5 in the last eight games with losses to Penn State, Indiana, and Northwestern, all teams Michigan has beaten.

That game is followed by a trip to Iowa on Saturday. Michigan beat Iowa 87-73 at home on Jan. 30, but despite a 10-14 (3-9) record, the Hawkeyes have played tough as of late. In its past three games, Iowa beat Michigan State by 20, beat Indiana, and lost to Wisconsin by three in overtime.

The following Wednesday, Michigan hosts Wisconsin, which upset No. 1 and undefeated Ohio State this afternoon. The Badgers are 19-5 (9-3), but just 3-4 on the road. The only Big Ten road wins are over Penn State and Iowa, both teams Michigan has beaten.

Michigan then travels to Minneapolis looking for revenge against Minnesota, which beat Michigan 69-64 in Ann Arbor on Jan. 22. The Gophers are on a four game losing streak and visit Iowa on Sunday.

The regular season ends with a battle with rival Michigan State on March 5. Michigan won the season’s first meeting in East Lansing 61-57 and looks to complete the sweep. The Spartans are on a free fall after starting the season ranked 2nd in the nation, losing four of their past six.

Upcoming Schedule
Date Team Location Record Previous
Wed. 2/16 Illinois Away 16-8 (6-5) N/A
Sat. 2/19 Iowa Away 10-14 (3-9) W 87-73
Wed. 2/23 Wisconsin Home 19-5 (9-3) L 50-66
Sat. 2/26 Minnesota Away 16-8 (5-7) L 64-69
Sat. 3/5 Michigan State Home 14-10 (6-6) W 61-57

Michigan must win at least three of those five games to have a chance at an at-large bid. The most likely wins are Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan State, although a win over Wisconsin would give Michigan its first good win of the season as far as the bracket committee is concerned.

The difference between the 2008-09 team that made the tournament and this year’s team is wins over UCLA and Duke. Michigan almost had those this year, but fell short against Syracuse (by three), Kansas (by seven in overtime), and Ohio State (by four).

Those games at least proved that Michigan can play with anybody in the nation, but the fact that Michigan didn’t pull any of them out, and as Michigan proved in its last two games by nearly giving away double-digit leads down the stretch, shows that it’s still a very young team that’s still learning how to win. If it closes the schedule 4-1, making its record 19-11 (10-8), that should be good enough to earn an at-large bid since it will likely be fourth place in the Big Ten.

If it finishes 3-2, with a record of 18-12 (9-9), Michigan will need a win or two in the Big Ten tournament to get invited. A losing record over the final five games likely relegates Michigan to the NIT barring a major run in the Big Ten tourney.

This team is getting better by the game, and even though it’s having trouble closing out big leads, it’s exciting to think about this team’s prospects in the next few years. But being a Michigan basketball fan the past decade-plus has become somewhat like that of a Chicago Cubs fan, carrying on the motto of “can’t wait for next year.” With three starting freshmen, Michigan has put itself in position for a tournament run this year and the next two weeks will make all the difference.

So you’re telling me there’s a chance.