It would be easy for a college basketball fan, especially one that doesn’t really follow recruiting closely, to look at the early rankings and question why Michigan is in the No. 5 slot.
After all, was it not the Wolverines that lost their first NCAA tournament game to the No. 14 seeded Ohio Bobcats from the MAC a handful of months ago?
That early postseason loss isn’t the only red flag for Michigan as the 2012-13 season really gets underway.
There was a notable amount of roster turnover during the offseason due to the graduations of Zack Novak and Stu Douglass and the transfer of Evan Smotrycz. There were really only six solid contributors for John Beilein last year, and half of them are now gone.
Thanks to those departures, the Wolverines are going to rely heavily on freshmen this season, which is sometimes a precarious position to be in.
So, is this team really worthy of its No. 5 ranking? What’s more, can it really compete in the loaded Big Ten, arguably the best conference in the country?
Despite my early tone in this article, Michigan absolutely can live up to its hype.
The old cliché is that college basketball is a guards’ game. If you believe that, then the Wolverines are in much better shape than a lot of other teams across the hoops landscape.
Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are both immensely talented, and together they form one of the most formidable backcourts in the sport.
But it’s more than just the presence of Burke and Hardaway that has the Wolverines set up nicely. The fact that there is now established continuity in this backcourt is critical for Michigan’s success.
There were a few factors holding this guard combination back from the realm of the nation’s elite last year. Hardaway was anything but consistent, and Burke was a freshman who was prone to turnovers (about three per game).
The familiarity each has with the other after an entire year of starting together should lead to fewer turnovers, a greater comfort level and, ultimately, more consistent production.
There will not be as much continuity in the rotation as a whole, however, thanks to the influx of talented freshmen.
Beilein brought in the No. 9-ranked recruiting class (according to Scout.com), which 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 three-pointers over smaller defenders all season.
A starting lineup that includes these freshmen is much more talented than the one last year that featured Novak and Douglass, so the roster turnover may not be much of an issue after all.
Yes, the freshmen are only freshmen and will be prone to some mistakes, but freshmen-dominated lineups haven’t exactly been a bad thing in recent college basketball history. Kentucky is the obvious example, but first-year players have been thriving everywhere, including in Ann Arbor last year with Burke.
Another thing Michigan’s squad will feature is an increased level of versatility.
Sure, Burke, Hardaway and Robinson bring speed and excitement, but the Wolverines will be capable of banging around in the post Big Ten-style as well.
McGary is 6’10” and brings a level of toughness that Smotrycz didn’t. He 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 paint play.
Despite these strengths, there are still two major things that have to go right for the Wolverines to match their hype—they must rebound better, and Burke has to cut down on his turnovers.
However, we have already discussed the solutions to each problem. The backcourt continuity should help Burke steady his mistakes, and the rebounding will not be a crippling issue because of McGary.
To really get a grasp on how much improvement there needs to be on the glass, consider the fact that Michigan ranked a putrid 311th in the country in rebounding last year. In the grind-it-out and physical Big Ten, that probably won’t cut it for two seasons in a row.
That is why Mitch McGary is so crucial to his team’s success, even if he is only a freshman. If he can fulfill his potential as a rebounding machine, crashing the glass won’t be such a chore for the Maize and Blue.
Health is also a concern because the transfers and graduations have led to somewhat of a lack of depth (although Jon Horford helps in this category). However, health is a critical issue for every single team, so it’s not entirely fair to use it as an argument against Michigan.
Ultimately, the biggest case against the Wolverines living up to their hype—besides the depth of the Big Ten—is the sheer amount of “ifs” that all have to break Michigan’s way.
There is so much talent in Ann Arbor though that most of those "ifs" (if not all) will work out favorably for the Wolverines. Expect Michigan to contend with Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State for a conference crown.