With the football team entering the last month of the season, Michigan’s basketball team takes the court in Friday’s exhibition with Wayne State looking to be the toast of Ann Arbor for the second straight year.
Michigan basketball has enjoyed success over much of its history and won a National Championship in 1989, but has still always been considered second-rate on campus behind the boys on the gridiron.
But with the recent growing pains of the football program, the rejuvenated basketball program in its third year under head coach John Beilein, enters the season with high expectations. Michigan ranks 15th in the preseason Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Coaches polls, the first time in 12 years it enters the season ranked.
And for the first time in recent history, Michigan fans look forward to the end of football season and the beginning of basketball season.
With a 22-14 record last year, and a return to the NCAA Basketball tournament for the first time in 11 years, a pair of John Wooden All-American candidates and another year of experience for last year’s youth should help the squad challenge for the Big Ten title.
Guard Manny Harris is the star after leading Michigan in scoring (16.9), rebounding (6.8), assists (4.4), steals (1.2), minutes (32.9) and free-throw percentage (86.3 percent) last season as a sophomore.
The junior from Detroit opted to forgo the NBA Draft and return to help Michigan build upon its success. Harris was named to the 2009-10 Naismith Preseason Men’s College Basketball Player of the Year Watch List in addition to being a candidate for the John Wooden Player of the Year award.
Senior forward DeShawn Sims led the team in blocks (27) and field goal percentage (50.5) and was second on the team behind Harris in points (15.4), rebounds (6.8), steals (1.1) and minutes (30.7) last season.
A true team player, Sims has embodied Beilein’s unselfish system, coming off the bench for nine of Michigan’s games last season, yet still earning All-Big Ten Second Team honors.
Sophomores Zack Novak, Stu Douglass and Laval Lucas-Perry give the backcourt experienced returning talent.
Novak was Michigan’s best three-point shooter last season at 34.4 percent and had perhaps his biggest game in leading Michigan to an upset over No. 4 Duke.
Lucas-Perry also shot 34.4 percent from downtown, though on about half as many attempts as Harris and Novak. He gives Michigan size and quickness at the guard position.
Douglass is a slightly smaller version of Novak, a streaky sharpshooter who averaged 6.1 points per game last season.
Another wing player with a lot of experience is redshirt junior forward Anthony Wright. While his numbers won’t blow anyone away (he averaged just 2.7 points per game last season), Wright came up big in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 14 points against Oklahoma. His experience should pay off this season.
Senior center Zack Gibson returns to fill the middle. The 6-10 forward averaged 3.9 points and 2.2 rebounds a year ago and gives Michigan a big man that can occasionally step out and hit the three, although not as well as he seems to think he can. Michigan fans would prefer him to stay inside.
Newcomers Darius Morris, Matt Vogrich, Blake McLimans and Jordan Morgan more than make up for the players Michigan lost to graduation (C.J. Lee, Jevohn Shepherd and David Merritt).
Morris is a hotshot point guard recruit out of Los Angeles, Calif. He averaged 21.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists and was named the John Wooden State Player of the Year as a senior.
Vogrich is another sharpshooter that fits the mold of Beilein’s program perfectly. A 6-4 guard, Vogrich averaged 16.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists in earning Gatorade Player of the Year honors for the state of Illinois.
Morgan and McLimans give Beilein a pair of big guys to bolster Michigan’s frontcourt.
Morgan averaged 14.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. He was named to the Detroit Free Press Class A All-State third team as a senior.
McLimans, at 6-10, 220 gives Michigan a much-needed body on the inside. He is somewhat unknown since he didn’t play AAU ball, but appears to be the versatile-type big man Beilein prefers with the ability to shoot from the outside.
Another player that could play a role is sophomore center Ben Cronin. At 7-0, 265, Cronin is the biggest player on the roster and runs the court well for a big guy. If he can stay healthy (he had hip surgery on Jan. 14), Cronin will be a big help, especially once the physical play of the Big Ten season begins.
The schedule stacks up slightly tougher than in recent years and should provide a good barometer of how good this Michigan team really is.
Creighton, Marquette, Xavier, and Florida State all await Michigan early on in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla.
In this year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Michigan hosts Boston College on Dec. 2, a team that needs to find its identity after losing Tyrese Rice. This should be Michigan’s first win in the challenge since beating Miami in 2005.
|Games to Watch|
|Thu. Nov. 26||Creighton||Orlando, Fla.||12 p.m.||ESPN2|
|Sat. Dec. 19||Kansas||1||Lawrence, Kan.||1 p.m.||ESPN|
|Sun. Jan. 17||Connecticut||12||Ann Arbor, Mich.||TBA||CBS|
|Sat. Jan. 23||Purdue||7||West Lafayette, Ind.||4 p.m.||ESPN|
|Tue. Jan. 26||Michigan State||2||Ann Arbor, Mich.||7 p.m.||ESPN|
|Sat. Feb. 27||Ohio State||16||Columbus, Ohio||TBA||ESPN or BTN|
Michigan also travels to Utah and Kansas before beginning the Big Ten portion of the schedule, and hosts No. 1 Connecticut on Jan. 17. Last season, Michigan put up a good fight against Connecticut, losing by just eight on the road after leading 34-33 at halftime. This year, Michigan gets the Huskies at home, where it upset No. 4 Duke a year ago.
Once the Big Ten season starts, the schedule doesn’t get any easier.
Rival Michigan State ranks 2nd in the nation after falling to North Carolina in the national championship game last March, and features the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, Kalin Lucas.
Purdue will also be a formidable opponent as the Boilermakers enter the season ranked 7th in the nation. A Sweet Sixteen team a year ago, Purdue is led by versatile 6-8 forward Robbie Hummel, who averaged 12.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game last season.
Ohio State comes in at No. 16 in the nation, and looks to absolve its early exit from last season’s NCAA Tournament. Jon Diebler, Evan Turner, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale return to give Ohio State experienced talent all over the court.
Illinois and Minnesota also enter the season in the Top 25, at 23rd and 25th, respectively. Both are very well coached teams that fared well last season. Illinois has to find leadership to replace point guard Chester Frazier and shooting guard Trent Meacham, while Minnesota brought in a highly regarded recruiting class to complement seniors Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson.
Last year’s team lived and died on two things: three-pointers and free throws. In 22 wins, Michigan shot 36.8 percent from downtown and 76.7 percent from the free throw line, while getting to the line 19 times per game.
In 14 losses, Michigan shot just 29.5 percent from three and 72.7 percent from the foul line, while getting to the line just under 12 times per game.
The ability to knock down the three and get to the free throw line is key for Michigan since its strength is in the backcourt.
Harris is at his best when he’s driving to the basket, picking up fouls. He shot 204 free throws last year, making 176 of them. That’s nearly twice as many made free throws as the next closest player, DeShawn Sims, had attempts (93).
The guys that accounted for many of the three-point attempts, Novak, Douglass, and Lucas-Perry (43 percent combined) were freshmen last season, which according to the Big Ten Geeks is good news for this season.
Their research shows that college basketball players make their most improvement from their freshman to sophomore seasons.
If that holds true, and if freshman Darius Morris can perform adequately at point guard, Michigan should be in for another good season. Making the NCAA Tournament should not be the goal for this year’s team, as it should be a virtual lock. Challenging for the Big Ten title should be.
While Michigan has the ability to beat anyone in the nation on any given night, it must prove it can win on the road.
I predict a 21-9 season (12-6 in the Big Ten) with splits against Ohio State, Purdue, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and losing both games to Michigan State and out-of conference losses to Utah, Kansas, and one of the games in the Old Spice Classic.
Obviously I hope it’s better than this, but I prefer to lean toward the safe side, due to still having a lot of youth in the backcourt and no proven inside presence. That way I can be pleasantly surprised if the team overachieves.
A return trip to the NCAA Tournament as a mid seed and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen should be considered a realistic goal for this team.
All-in-all, it should be an exciting season for Michigan basketball to help take our minds off the struggling football program.