spoiler alert: i linked this
Due to hockey and my mom's lack of HD Net I've only been able to catch a couple of the basketball team's blowouts over really terrible nonconference opposition. Yesterday was my first opportunity to see them play a team with a pulse. I've been told the UTEP game was an all-around crapfest that should temper any enthusiasm from a road win against a program that returned most of a 21-10 ACC team that got a seven-seed in the NCAA tourney.
With that in mind…
Holy crap, we're… big? The turnaround in overall team size resulting from moving Zack Novak from power forward to one of the two pretty-much-indistinguishable guard spots that aren't point guard now means Michigan runs out a lineup that can seem bigger than opponents even if Tim Hardaway, Jr., is nowhere near the 6'7" the announcers bizarrely kept insisting he was.
6'3" Stu Douglass is the shortest guy to see any playing time and the PF spot is split between a couple freshman who will have approximately PF size once they are not freshmen. The point guard is huge, and everyone else is average or a little above average. Last year Kenpom had Michigan 239th in effective height, which must have been near the bottom when it comes to power conference programs; this year Michigan will improve that vastly.
Speaking of Zack Novak moving away from the four…
The inner life of Zack Novak.
With apologies to The Run of Play.
This just looks like a basketball team. By this I mean it doesn't look like a three-ball-gunning, shot-clock-draining, 1-3-1-playing collection of misfit toys with itchy trigger fingers. Morris clearly loves to go to the hoop and has a green light to do so; he's not going to put up many threes. With Morgan terrified to put up anything outside the lane, the only misfit toy types are Smotrycz and McLimans. The former plays a position that does see its fair share of three pointers launched these days; the latter is getting about ten minutes a game.
Morgan = Graham Brown. Morgan's not yet at the level where he's a rebound-vacuuming moose that sets screens so lethal you need a background check before you can run one—remember when Brown turned Wisconsin's Guy Who Looks Like Chris Rock Guy into a fruit rollup?—but he is way ahead of Brown at the same stage in their careers. Yesterday's game showed Morgan's assets:
- Excellent hands that minimize Courtney Sims-style layup-to-turnover whoopsies.
- Excellent post defense. He was active denying the post and when Clemson got it on the block their bigs almost invariably put up contested shots falling away from the basket. Morgan specialized in those bumps that don't get called fouls. It was like watching a Wisconsin center play on your team.
- An iron-clad knowledge of his role. He doesn't care if there are five seconds left on the shot clock, he is not shooting a 17-footer.
That last one may not be an asset in that situation but he's a guy who knows his strengths and weaknesses and plays to them. He doesn't seem like a redshirt freshman. Yet, anyway.
Morris = Mini-Denard. As in "this is a ridiculous amount of improvement." Morris is now getting those shots that are tough to get but not that hard to make when you get them—a runner in the lane from the first half stands out, as does Morris's Billups-like hesitation move for a short bank shot. He looked good against the early-season patsies, but this was my first opportunity to see him against real opposition and he didn't fall off much. He might have an issue against guards approximately his size, if he actually finds any.
Preseason the hype focused on Hardaway; six games in it seems likely Morris will be widely regarded as the team's best player by year's end. You can see it in the minutes: Morris averages nearly 34 a game. Novak is second at 29, Hardaway third with 26. (Foul trouble has something to do with that.)
Lingering bothersome bit. Small sample sizes and all but so far they still can't shoot threes, as they're clunking along at 29%. Hardaway has by far the most attempts and is hitting just 28%; hopefully that comes around given his reputation. If Vogrich doesn't pick it up (3 of 15 so far) he won't get even the limited playing time he's getting so far; ditto McLimans, who's started his career 0-10.
One highly encouraging sub-bit of this bit: Stu Douglass is 10-24 so far and has not been launching bad ones.
These men need ham. Smotrycz and McLimans especially—McLimans is listed at 240 the same way that Courtney Avery and Terrance Talbott are listed at 5'11". Teams with two guys who can bang in the post are going to crush the power forward spot.
Hardaway: maybe not quite yet. You can see where he's going and get excited about it, but it's probably going to take a year before he can approach the star player mantle placed on him in the offseason. He has a bit of Manny Harris disease, taking the ugly, lazy shots you can get away with in high school because you're a zillion times better than anyone else on the court. Harris never grew out of that—a major reason he was never an efficient scorer—but Hardaway should, especially since he's not going to have to take on the defacto point guard role Harris did last year. He should be getting the ball in positions to drive or pull up, not creating his own shot all the time.
Expectations: maybe up a tad? This is still an exceedingly young team that apparently threw up all over itself against UTEP and will have halves they spend throwing the ball off each other's faces, but that was an impressive performance against a team that should be legitimately good and you can maybe see an extra win or two down the road because of it. That might be enough to get them an NIT bid. That would be officially encouraging with zero seniors, zero early entry threats, and two highly-touted guards coming in next year.
Though many fans may not have realized it, the recent basketball games against Gardner-Webb and Bowling Green were technically part of their Feast Week tournament, The Legends Classic. "Tournament" is something of a misnomer: the hosts were guaranteed to move on. All four managed to make it through the regional rounds unscathed anyway.
Michigan will face Syracuse tonight at 7:30 in one semifinal. Georgia Tech and UTEP square off on the other side of the bracket at 5:30. The consolation and championship games are tomorrow at 5:30 and 7:30, respectively. All games will air on HDNet.
Four games into the season, it's too early to tell how good Syracuse really is (which is the case for pretty much every team in the nation). Ken Pomeroy ranks them #10 in the nation, but close calls against Detroit and William & Mary may be a sign that they're vulnerable. Despite possessing the tournament's the most talented roster on paper with players like Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine, the Orange aren't unbeatable.
Blowouts over Northern Iowa and Canisius (which you may recognize as one of John Beilein's former schools) won't help Michigan much, but maybe the Detroit and/or William & Mary games can give them a blueprint for how to take down Jim Boeheim's men.
Detroit led Syracuse at the half, and was in the game until the Orange pulled away at the very end. It doesn't seem the Titans did anything particularly well except prevent 'Cuse from shooting well - they finished with a 41.67 eFG% (which was better than the 40.18 eFG% the Titans put up on their own end). Forcing bad shots out of Syracuse was a great gameplan for UDM. The Orange made just 54% of their free throws - so it's also possible that they just aren't a team that's good at shooting the basketball.
The William & Mary game may seem to indicate this is true. A bigger, stronger, faster, and presumably more talented Orange squad shot 40.83% from the field in a three-point win. They were just 12/52 from behind the arc in those two games.
John Beilein has never beaten a Boeheim-led Syracuse squad. However, if Michigan can implement a quality defensive gameplan (make the Orange shoot from outside by defending well in the paint), and hit their open shots, they have a chance to spring the upset. A cautionary note: this is the first game away from Crisler Arena for the vast majority of the Wolverines' roster.
Ex-USC Coach Tim Floyd heads the Miners, and forward Julyan Stone and guard Randy Culpepper have been his go-to guys early in the season. UTEP already has an embarrassing loss on their hands this year, losing to Pacific in the season opener.
UTEP has been middle-of-the-pack so far in most stats, slightly above-average in most. The exception is rebounding percentage on both ends of the court, where they've struggled. The area in which they excel the most? Getting to the free throw line. If Michigan ends up facing them, they'll need to be careful not to get into foul trouble.
Like UTEP, Georgia Tech has an embarrassing loss on their early season resume, getting blown out by Kennesaw State(!) 80-63. Their roster was decimated by losing their best two players, Ganin Lawal and Derrick Favors, to the NBA, but Kennesaw State?
The Yellowjackets struggle to put the ball in the basket, with just a 42.5 eFG% so far this year despite not facing a team in KenPom's top 200. Where they've had more success is on the other end of the court, where they excel at stealing the ball and blocking opponents' shots (despite the losses of Lawal and Favors, two exceptional shot-blockers last season).
Georgia Tech is likely to be Michigan's opponent in the consolation game, and the Wolverines' best chance to salvage a win in Atlantic City.
Michigan will play Syracuse tight for a lot of the game, with each team going on runs here and there, but the Orange mostly maintaining a lead. However, the athleticism of Syracuse will be too much for the Wolverines to handle, as frustrating fastbreaks will give 'Cuse too many easy points, and Michigan's young shooters aren't able to keep pace to win the game.
In the other semi, I get the feeling UTEP will have a fairly comfortable win over a Georgia Tech squad that seems to have a lot of flaws. The Miners might not be able to get to the free throw line as much as they're used to because of GT's shot-blocking prowess, but they'll finish the game at the line.
In the finals, I think an upset may be brewing. Syracuse has won despite a bunch of struggles at times, and I think they'll get a more exhausting game from Michigan than UTEP will from Georgia Tech. In the consolation game, I think the Wolverines will be able to take down GT.
Three games into the season, we're starting to get an idea of what this Michigan team will be like. Though competition hasn't been great the first three games have given fans a feel for the rotation and the strengths/weaknesses of individual players.
When John Beilein raved about his improvement in the summer, I was skeptical. With his shooting form, which hasn't seemed to change much from the awkward release we saw last year, it's tough to be confident unless the ball's going in the hoop.
I was wrong. Morris is a completely different player. His quickness is still there, but he's much more confident running the offense and distributing the ball (25 assists to 7 turnovers this year). He's currently shooting 69.2 eFG%, and has drilled both threes he's attempted.
The stats are markedly improved, but the eyeball test is the true sign of how much he's improved. He looks like a true leader, making great decisions with the ball. Morris has achieved the maximum reasonable improvement you can expect over the course of one offseason. If he can keep it up when the competition gets tougher - not guaranteed - he'll be the team's MVP.
Beilein on Morris: "Right now 'my assists' and 'my defense' are measuring how well I'm playing as opposed to how many points I have."
Morris: "I put a lot of work in this summer, and I didn't have the results that I wanted right away. It was a process, and I really feel comfortable now going into the season."
Novak: "He's really embracing his role. I mean, he's making great plays, but a lot of times, he's just making easy plays."
With Darius's emergence at the point guard, and Zack Novak moving into the backcourt, Stu's likely to see his playing time decrease. He's only averaged 19 minutes per game through the first three. He's been getting most of those minutes as Morris's backup, with a few at the 2 for Novak.
Douglass will be a bit better as a backup than he was as a starter last year, as he won't feel the pressure to force things. Against better competition, the team might need him more to give other guys a rest or fill in when foul trouble strikes. His shot selection has been reasonable so far, which is an area of huge improvement for him.
Beilein: "Zack has been a born leader since the day he walked on the court. I see Stu taking on the role much more, and he seems really comfortable with it."
Zack has shifted from the power forward position to a much more natural guard spot. Not having to defend against players half a foot taller than him has really helped his game. He's still making the gritty plays for which he's become a fan legend (the count for games in which he's been bloodied currently stands at one).
Beilein: "The things he does, I think the younger kids are saying, 'man!' And now we've got to get them to be able to do that."
Vogrich came in last year with a lot of physical development to do, and while he's further along at this point, he still has a ways to go. He's still very soft defensively.
In order to continue getting time on the court, he's going to have to hit his shots. He's been a streaky so far this year. He also has a weird knack for being in the right place at the right time to pull down rebounds, particularly on the defensive end of the court. We'll see if that lasts.
Despite his NBA pedigree, Hardaway wasn't a recruit that the scouts were drooling over. Three games into his freshman campaign, he's started to change their minds.
As we knew coming out of high school, he has a pure shooting stroke and can hit from anywhere on the floor. However, his athleticism and overall scoring ability - he can drive and finish, pull up and create his own shot, shoot off the screen, etc. - have been a revelation.
He's still rail-thin, and though he'll never be a big guy, he'll put on weight over the next couple years. He's also been prone to committing early fouls so far, which has limited his playing time. He's the team's best scorer, so that will hamper the offense if it continues.
Novak: "We just know he's a really great player and a special kid. It's just fun to watch him, and fun to play with him."
Hardaway: "I came in this season to do whatever it takes to get the win."
Where the scouts may have missed in evaluating Hardaway, they were spot-on for Christian. He's an athletic, slightly undersized power forward with a limited offensive game at this point. He's great on defense, and a good rebounder. In future seasons, he'll develop a mid-range game. This year most of his points will come on easy finishes underneath and putbacks.
Beilein: "He's willing to do whatever it takes to get on that court, and hustle is one of them."
Smotrycz has the refined offensive skill that Christian lacks at the 4 spot. After starting the year shakily, he's been shooting very well in the past couple games, and making the right decision to pass up the shot at times. He's got good size, which gives him most of his defensive ability. He doesn't show off much athleticism on that side of the ball - though there are flashes on offense.
Smotrycz: "I'm just trying to do all the little things. Play well on the defensive end, clean up the boards, and the offense comes."
Beilein: "He can shoot, and when you can really space the floor, that's what opens things up for Darius."
McLimans has struggled early in the year, missing easy finishes on offense and giving up too many shots on defense. Though he's the best shot-blocker on the team, he too often plays like he's afraid of being called for a foul. He's being platooned with Colton Christian, the stronger defender of the power forwards.
On offense, he's not a traditional post player, but has been stretching defenses out to the 3-point line. He needs to assert himself down low a bit more, as physical defense can really throw him off his game.
Though he's played by far the least out of the post players, Horford has shown some potential. He's athletic, and loves to get out on the break offensively. As we thought coming into the year, his lack of weight is going to be a hindrance.
I'm curious as to whether Beilein will try to phase Jon out of the rotation sometime soon, and maybe angle for a redshirt. Both the head coach and Bacari Alexander, who is in charge of the post players, rave about Horford's desire to learn. His long-term upside is great (as it should be with a pedigree like his), but that's not enough to get him double-digit minutes yet.
Beilein: "He's one of the most eager young men that I've ever worked with to improve his game."
Along with Morris and Hardaway, Jordan Morgan has been the third pleasant surprise on the team. Though he's only about 6-9, he's a true post player with moves down low. He can finish garbage and run the floor on the fast break.
He's a good-not-great rebounder and a good, strong defender, though he's not going to block a lot of shots. In the Bowling Green game, he was able to more than hold his own against a taller player in Cameron Black. Though Black isn't as skilled or experienced as some of the guys Jordan will see this year, at least facing a bigger guy hasn't been an issue yet.
Beilein: "When he's in there and he's really active, he can make a difference. Bacari's done a wonderful job with Jordan... Bacari Alexander has been a great influence on him, and he's really worked hard on all the other things we do."
Morgan: "The more I work with coach Alexander, on being physical and just finishing in the paint, the more fluid I feel."
The degree of difficulty is about to go up dramatically with Syracuse and either UTEP or Georgia Tech coming up this weekend. I'll preview all three teams Friday. Now I'll say all have been vulnerable at times this season, including losses to far inferior opponents for both the Miners and Yellow Jackets.
The Wolverines are expecting to emerge from the Legends Classic with a 1-1 record at best, and we'll know a lot more about the team coming out of the weekend. If they can pull an upset, expectations for the season may shift slightly to the good.
After the tough weekend, it's a roadtrip to Clemson for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, then a few slightly less rigorous non-conference games before Big Ten play.
Top photo courtesy UMHoops, all others from file by Paul Nelson for MGoBlog.