If you want to see an indication of just how difficult it will be to win the Big Ten this season, look at Michigan’s position in the first USA Today Top 25 poll.
The Wolverines are ranked No. 5, which naturally implies that the voters think there are only four teams better than the maize and blue. The problem is, two of those teams are in Michigan’s conference.
That means that John Beilein’s team could be in contention for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament and be only the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
But when do the preseason polls ever really hold true the entire season?
Michigan has the ability to surprise conference favorite Indiana and contender Ohio State and win the conference outright. It would mark the second straight Big Ten crown for the Wolverines after a 25-year run without one.
Here are five reasons why that can happen.
Last season, Michigan had one of the most talented backcourts in the Big Ten behind Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke.
However, there were a few factors holding back the Wolverines’ guard combination from being among the nation’s elite.
For one, Hardaway was anything but consistent. There were some games where opponents had no chance of stopping him from scoring and others where he couldn’t seem to find the basket regardless of the defense.
Moreover, Burke was only a freshman and was prone to turning the ball over. He averaged nearly three turnovers per contest in 2011-12.
However, the talent is clearly there, and an entire season together should help with the continuity and familiarity they have with each other. Ideally, that will mean fewer turnovers for Burke and a greater level of comfort for Hardaway that will lead to more consistent play.
Michigan won the Big Ten last season by primarily riding Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Stu Douglass, Zack Novak and Evan Smotrycz, who were the team’s top-five scorers.
However, thanks to graduation or transfers, Smotrycz, Novak and Douglass are no longer a part of the Wolverines’ roster.
But that’s not exactly all bad news for the Michigan faithful. After all, I believe Burke and Hardaway are much more talented than the three players who departed.
Furthermore, John Beilein brought in the No. 9-ranked recruiting class (according to Scout.com) that includes uber-talented prospects Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III.
McGary will have no problem banging around in the post with the best big men in the Big Ten, and Robinson will be driving around slower defenders and hitting threes over smaller defenders all season.
A starting lineup that includes these freshmen is much more talented than the one last year that included Novak and Douglass.
Fair or not, the Big Ten has a reputation as a slow and plodding conference that may not produce the most exciting brand of basketball. If you want, blame it on Bo Ryan and the Wisconsin Badgers.
However, Michigan has a level of athleticism that can only be matched by a few, if any, teams in the rest of the league.
A group that includes Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III will be able to speed up the pace of its conference games to levels that most of its opponents will not be comfortable with. If the Wolverines can turn contests against teams such as Wisconsin into track meets, they will be much better off.
Expect to see some full-court presses and fast breaks from a Michigan team that is more athletic than almost every other member of the Big Ten.
As mentioned, Michigan has as much, if not more, athleticism than any team in the Big Ten. That means the Wolverines will be able to play an up-tempo pace and keep up with anyone in a track meet-like game.
However, one thing Michigan’s squad has that others lack is great versatility.
Sure, Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III bring speed and excitement, but the Wolverines will be able to bang around in the post Big-Ten style as well.
While Jordan Morgan and Evan Smotrycz were serviceable in the paint, neither player was able to average better than 5.6 rebounds per game and both struggled against more physical and talented big men such as Jared Sullinger and Michigan State’s legion of centers and power forwards.
Mitch McGary should change that this season.
McGary is 6’10” and brings a level of toughness that Morgan and Smotrycz didn’t and is well-regarded for his rebounding abilities in the recruiting world.
That means that Michigan will be comfortable in up-tempo games and/or Big Ten contests that rely on interior play and hard-nosed rebounding.
It may seem obvious to say that the presence of Mitch McGary will help the Wolverines improve on their rebounding numbers, but the importance of that cannot be overstressed.
In fact, Michigan ranked a putrid 311th in the nation in rebounding last season, which isn’t exactly a sterling feather for Jordan Morgan or Evan Smotrycz to put in their respective caps. If the maize and blue can win a share of the conference crown with rebounding numbers like that, imagine what it can do when it has a formidable threat on the boards down low.
Rebounding may be more important in the grind-it-out Big Ten than in any other conference (although the fact that Michigan won a share of the conference title last year doesn’t exactly support that argument), so McGary’s presence is critical.
It may be so critical that the Wolverines surprise the Hoosiers and Buckeyes and take home the Big Ten championship.