Every year, I find mid-November to be an odd juncture in the world of sports. Baseball, the sport that kept us going through the football off-season, just came to climax a few weeks ago, and now football season is in full swing with teams gearing up for the conference title. But just as teams are trying to position themselves for bowl season, basketball throws its hat back into the ring as if to say, “I’m back. Remember me?”
Now we have the Tip-Off Marathon to get us through the week until the next football game, but until football season is over, basketball seems to remain just that: something to get us through until Saturday.
We’ve poured our fandom into the men of the gridiron since August, and now, just as it’s getting interesting with the Ohio State game looming, we’re required to shift our focus to the hardwood every now and then.
For me, it’s hard to get into basketball until after The Game signals the culmination of the football regular season. But tomorrow I’ll turn my gaze to the Big Ten Network as Michigan basketball hosts Bowling Green.
It’s not the official season opener. That was Saturday when Michigan throttled South Carolina Upstate 66-35. But in many ways it is since it’s played mid-week instead of right after a Michigan football game, and it’s the first televised game of the season. So what can we expect from Michigan this year?
Unfortunately, in many ways, it looks like it’s going to resemble this year’s football team: exciting to watch at times, but it has to depend so much on youth that we’ll be left thinking “can’t wait ’til next year.”
The heart and soul of last year’s team is gone, Manny Harris to the Cleveland Cavaliers and DeShawn Sims to graduation. And while Zack Gibson, Anthony Wright, and Lavell Lucas Perry were never mistaken for the trio down in South Beach, their experience will be missed as well. The roster now looks much like the football team’s secondary: a lot of “So.”s and “Fr.”s.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s still a lot of talent there. Zack Novak and Stu Douglass are now the leaders – the current juniors who electrified Ann Arbor with their gritty play and long-range shooting, helping Michigan break its decade-long tournament drought as freshmen, but suffered through a sophomore slump last season. Then there’s point guard Darius Morris who started 19 games as a freshman a year ago, averaging 4.4 points, 2.6 assists, and 1.8 rebounds a game, and giving Michigan its first true point guard with size in quite a while. And there’s also the three sons of former NBA players, Jordan Dumars, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Jon Horford.
While there’s room for optimism, we also must remember that Novak and Douglass struggled to find the net last season, shooting a combined 31.8 percent from three-point land. And we must remember that Morris was prone to turnovers and got too far ahead of himself at times. And we also must realize that, pedigree or not, Dumars, Hardaway, and Horford are all in their first season of collegiate action*.
One thing is certain: it’s officially John Beilein’s team. With Harris and Sims gone, every player on the roster is a Beilein recruit and will aim to run his system the way West Virginia did with a team of scrappy no-names. It’s a system predicated on shooting and last year that was a struggle. I would never call the departure of Harris and Sims a good thing, but perhaps the team will epitomize the word team with no go-to guy to rely on. Perhaps Novak and Douglass will have no second thoughts about whether to jack up a three or dish it off to Manny, and that, in turn, will make them better shooters.
They’ll have help on the inside with Jordan Morgan and Blake McLimans. Morgan redshirted last season after dominating high school basketball in Detroit and is a athletic, thick body in the middle. McLimans also redshirted last season and is the tallest player on the team at 6’10″. He used the redshirt season to add 25 pounds of weight to his previously thin frame and should be ready to man up underneath this season while occasionally stepping out to hit the outside shot.
Sophomore guard Matt Vogrich, who got some playing time last season, will also be asked to contribute. Against Northern Michigan last season, he scored 15 points, all on three-pointers, and shot 39.3 percent from three-point range for the year.
The season officially started last Saturday as Michigan handled South Carolina Upstate and Novak and Douglass went a combined three-for-six from long range, but it was Morris and Hardaway who stepped up.
Hardaway led all scorers in the first game of his career, scoring 19 points in 25 minutes, including three threes. Morris made seven-of-ten shots for 17 points. If Michigan can get that kind of production from those two all season, it will win plenty of games.
The non-conference portion of the schedule has a mix of cupcakes and quality opponents. Two should-win games are up next, Bowling Green tomorrow and Gardner-Webb on Sunday, before the first big test of the season, Syracuse, next Friday in Atlantic City, N.J. The Wolverines travel to Clemson for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Nov. 30 and host Utah on Dec. 10. Michigan also hosts Kansas on Jan. 9 after three Big Ten games and before closing out the season with the rest of the conference slate.
Including the Kansas game, I’d say an 8-5 non-conference record is likely, meaning Michigan will have to have a winning record in conference in order to make it to the Big Dance this season. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen this year with Ohio State and Michigan State on the schedule twice, as well as Illinois, Purdue, and the always tough Wisconsin. The Big Ten may not be as tough as it has been the past few years, but it will still be solid from top to bottom, and with such a young team, Michigan is a year away from really challenging for a title.
As much as it pains me to say it, this looks to be a season similar to last year’s, although it won’t feel as much of a letdown this year as it was after coming off a trip to the tournament prior to last season. I predict a 15-16 regular season record (7-11 in the Big Ten), but let’s hope I’m wrong. Go Blue!
*Dumars played in six games last season for South Florida before transferring to Michigan and sitting out the rest of the season.