this week in unintentionally grim-sounding recruiting headlines
2/26/2011 – Michigan 70, Minnesota 63 – 18-12, 8-9 Big Ten
Outside of Michigan, if you've heard about Zack Novak it's probably because Blake Griffin posterized him. That's what got him in Sports Illustrated, after all. The article starts off by describing Michigan's strategy—let him shoot—before noting that "the coaches do not cover what to do if he decides to jump over your head." Luke Winn reports that after it happened a Memphis fan yelled "Hey, Novak! Your kid is going to have a picture of that on his wall!" Zack Novak: not Blake Griffin.
Saturday Novak got posterized again, this time by a guy who can do this:
Substitute Novak for the motorcycle and that's basically what happened. It was lethal. I'm shocked it's not on Youtube six different ways. Bacari Alexander heard so much about it he admonished the twitter in the aftermath.
It takes a special kind of player on a special kind of team to be famous for being a vague impediment to someone going ham on the rim. It takes a floppy-haired short kid on an overmatched team, specifically. Every time an actual power forward gets on a media guide cover thanks to Novak it's a reminder that Michigan is a short, young, small, and possibly talent-deficient team just trying to make do until it can get some seniors up in here.
But as Alexander pointed out: scoreboard. At the end of the game it read Michigan LOTS, Minnesota NOT QUITE AS MANY despite the fact that Novak's going to be incidentally part of ten year old Minnesotans' walls next year. There were a lot of reasons for this—Tim Hardaway going NBA Jam in the first five minutes, Darius Morris braving the trees to toss in a variety of circus shots—but just about everything that was going to happen already had and Michigan was still down one on the road with three seconds on the shot clock and ninety on the game clock.
Morris tried to drive and was cut off. He had to chuck it out to Novak; Novak was camped out at the NBA three-point line. If he was closer one of Minnesota's enormous tree people would have deflected the pass. As it was the enormous tree person got a hand in his face as he fired an instant before the shot clock hit zero.
Against Iowa and Wisconsin, Novak literally hadn't hit a shot.
Minnesota came down the floor down two. Novak, who is maybe 6'4", ended up checking Minnesota's Ralph Sampson III (yes that Ralph Sampson). Sampson is 7'1" with long, long arms. He could eat Zack Novak in a single sitting. He'd already hit a variety of mid-range jumpers that Michigan could do nothing about other than watch, and was one-on-one in the block. This is shrug-your-shoulders time. This is the point where you acknowledge the physical limitations brought on by Benzing's test score and Cronin's hip and say "just wait till next year, Big Ten!" as you shake your little tiny baby fist.
Sampson is fighting for position hard enough for the announcer to note it. Minnesota feeds the post. This is shrug-your-shoulders-time.
People say players like Zack Novak do the little things, and they are wrong. I yelped "yes" involuntarily. This hadn't happened for anything else; anything that forces strained noises out of you is probably not a "little thing."
Maybe they say this because it's not the kind of thing that gets you on a poster. That's true, but in the alternate universe where Nick Hornby is on the 50 Sexiest People cover for the 20th straight year and Sufjan Stevens is Lady Gaga, there are posters of Novak leaping in front of Sampson, posters of the Aneurysm of Leadership, posters of Zack Novak bleeding on you and MANBOUNDING you and fronting your six-eight jumping-jack power forward. In them, Novak has an elbow in his back, blood running down his temple, and is plotting how to take a charge.
Tim has you covered. Go North Carolina Central!
The best in annoyance. Eamonn Brennan on Michigan's chances:
Huge road win for Michigan, and an even bigger loss for Minnesota. The Wolverines have been quietly (OK, not quietly, because Michigan fans e-mail me more than any non-BYU fan base in the nation) making a late-season push for at-large consideration, and this win will only boost that case. In fact, the Wolverines are probably, if only barely, in the tournament right now. A home win over Michigan State in the regular-season finale might very well seal it.
Say what you will about Michigan fan but boy do they lacerate people on the internet with questions/responses. Hinton agrees.
The zen of good shots. I missed the first Michigan-Minnesota game because of hockey but recall from the stats that Michigan took an epic number of threes and missed damn near all of them; in the first half they took an epic number of threes (22 to just six twos) and this was frickin' awesome until they got to 35 points, at which point it was frickin' awful. What changed? It didn't look like anything. Minnesota has enormous dudes inside and was giving up wide open three after wide open three, so it made sense to take them. Was that bad? Is an open three a bad shot after you've taken five straight? What if you've missed five straight?
I'm really asking here. I can't recall more than a couple first-half threes that seemed like bad shots in isolation. An open three from a 35% shooter is something you can win a lot of games with, but as they clanged off the rim late in the first half I tried to figure out if my frustration was me being a troglodyte or not. The end result was good—9 of 22, 41%, equivalent to hitting 61% of your twos—so… can you complain?
After all, Michigan put up an excellent 1.19 points per possession. In the second half they were far more interior-oriented and scored… 35 points. There's an argument to be made that any three is less good than a layup/dunk and that a team that can get lots of those is going to be better than a team that just bombs from deep. Also an offense like that is less prone to withering droughts.
So if Michigan was really good it would be a problem, and if they're going to be really good they'll have to cut down on the threes, but they're not so fine, especially against the Brobdingnagian Gophers. I think this is what I think.
Statewatch. The popular sentiment appears to be "beat MSU and don't fall on your face and you're in"—even an previously dismissive Lunardi now has Michigan amongst his last four in. That's quite a shift from before the Minnesota game. So goings-on with the Spartans are important. They just got obliterated by Purdue 67-47:
The offensive execution before the shot wasn't great. The ball screens and movement were enough to create open shots, and on the few occasions MSU did get offensive rebounds (OReb% of 26.3% - low, but not enough to explain a 20 point loss) they could not convert. Seven points off 10 offensive rebounds isn't good. Lastly, it seemed as if the Spartans were a bit tentative in the paint. Dan Dakich made a point a couple times during the telecast that Green and Roe were falling forward on lay-ups, and I think a drive directly at the basket would've at least drawn a foul.
While they should take care of Iowa at home they made the Hawkeyes look like Purdue the last time out. Either way MSU is going to be playing for its tourney life in Crisler on Saturday. It will be the most important, competitive game between the teams in years.
BONUS: The elf who bakes cookies is MSU's third-leading scorer in the last couple games.
Tim Hardaway: five star? Big Ten Geeks asked people to name "ten freshmen better than Tim Hardaway Jr" apropos of nothing on the twitter and then followed that up a comparison between THJ and some of his more hyped peers:
Here’s how he stacks up in terms of offensive rating and possessions consumed in conference play with some other more recognizable freshmen:
Player Offensive Rating Poss% Tim Hardaway Jr. 112.1 24.4 Jared Sullinger 118.2 26.4 Harrison Barnes 103.4 26.3 Terrence Jones 107.4 29.2 Brandon Knight 112.1 24.8 Perry Jones 114.7 22.2 Tobias Harris 103.1 26 Josh Smith 108.8 25.7
It’s not like Hardaway is a tweener, either. At 6-5, he’s got the size to play guard at the next level. We should probably see Hardaway on more mock draft boards, very soon.
Not as good as Jared Sullinger. Everyone else is at least debatable and he's got a clear edge on many. (Caveats about defense apply.)
John Beilein's eagle eye. Hardaway's emergence and Jordan Morgan turning into a way better player than classmate Derrick Nix have provided enough evidence for me to suggest that Beilein's seems to have an eye for players who are overlooked by recruiting sites. I didn't follow the Pittsnogle era at WVU closely enough to have a grasp on the players he was recruiting and didn't get, but various Michigan targets who have outperformed expectations:
- Beilein was hard after Klay Thompson as he tried to fill out his first recruiting class but Thompson decided to go to Washington State(!?!), whereupon he exploded. He's shooting 42% from 3 and has a 106.4 ORtg despite using a third of WSU's possessions.
- That same year he pursued Kyle Kuric heavily but didn't get him. Kuric went somewhere less embarrassing: Louisville. He's currently sporting a 129.8(!) ORtg because he's hitting 46% from three and 60% from two. He has low usage and only plays 57% of available minutes, but dang.
- Beilein went after Vermont transfer Joe Trapani but lost him to BC. As a senior he's got a 104 ORtg while shooting 29% of the time. He shoots 36% from 3.
- Robin Benzing fell one SAT question short of making this edition of Michigan insane. He was the leading scorer in a U20 Euro championship, got time on the actual German national team, and is a guy who keeps popping up on NBA draft radars.
- Hardaway was a meh three star when he committed.
- Smotrycz was a meh three star when he committed before shooting up with a strong AAU season; he's struggled a bit so far but has potential and was no one when he committed to M.
- Novak had his Valpo offer pulled.
- Morgan had no other D-I offers and even his father was surprised he got one from Michigan.
Add in Pittsnogle and Joe Alexander and Gansey, etc., and I think you've got a strong case to trust the coaches when Beilein brings in someone you've never heard of who doesn't have any offers. Not everyone can pan out explosively but Beilein seems to be more hit than miss.
Dang. Random BTN tweet:
Jordan Morgan has averaged 15.0 ppg and 4.8 rpg over his last five games. He's shooting 71.4 pct during this span.
Recap from UMHoops. Also AnnArbor.com. Big Ten tourney scenarios from AC1997. Zach Travis of MNB on the other Zack. Big House Blog on Novak. Maize n Blue Nation on Novak. Mets Maize on… Novak. Little things… not so much.
In Soviet Russia, Novak discusses topic of dunk:
“I didn’t even really see it. I was turned around a little bit,” Novak said. “So I was under the basket and I saw him dunk it. I didn’t know it was that bad.
“But (my teammates) told me it was pretty bad. He’s just, he’s a great player.”
Rothstein also recaps Michigan's league situation.
And finally, here's this:
Novak fouled out on three obvious charges (2, 3, 5), a blocking foul (1), and one that could go either way(4). The ones where Novak was in position but only got a glancing blow should probably be no-calls, actually. This is why John Beilein—John Beilein!—got a technical foul in Iowa City. In other news, I hate college basketball refereeing.
Also Michigan won in OT against Iowa. The hockey kind of sucked up my attention. Tim Hardaway Jr… dude. This is my analysis. Dude.
Notes, items, and errata. You know, things bold at the beginning of them from the Indiana game and etc.
2/12/2011 – Michigan 73, Indiana 69 – 16-10, 6-7 Big Ten
At the moment Michigan is a drunken Popeye of a basketball team: prone to stumbling around aimlessly for long periods of time but in possession of giant, windmilling fists that smash things into bits when they hit. They landed heavy blows against Indiana, then ran out of spinach and almost hurled the win back up.
They did choke it back down and this is the Year of Comprehensive Youth and Understanding Fans, so okay. To paraphrase Chad Henne, wins are good but… uh… we love perfect, being better.
The dip. The queasy feeling you've had at about the five minute mark of the last two games in graph format. First Northwestern:
And then Indiana:
Michigan was coming from so far ahead in the IU game that the steady erosion of their lead didn't show up much in the win probabilities until that part right at the end where Indiana had it to a one-possession game with Morris heading to the line.
Does this mean much? I'm not sure. All basketball teams go through stretches where they seem terrible, and Michigan's are a bit longer than most because of the youth and lack of depth at key positions. I'm with Beilein when he says the free throw issues are just a weird thing that shouldn't repeat, and if Michigan makes a reasonable number down the stretch we're talking about the slight annoyance of letting a 22 point lead get whittled down to ten.
On the other hand, Michigan had big second half leads against MSU and Iowa* they let get whittled down and led OSU by six a few minutes into second half before getting a run in their face. Even excluding the latter, in four of the last six games they've suffered dips of varying severity in the last ten minutes.
*[Okay, Iowa's a little bit of a stretch but what happened in that game would have been what happened in the IU game if Michigan could have hit a free throw.]
Tourney chances. Tim will cover this in detail later today. In brief: by holding serve these last two games Michigan's more than doubled their shot in Kenpom's view, going from 10% to ~25%. You can think that's a bit pessimistic since the team is young and therefore should be improving more rapidly than older teams if you're so inclined.
Hardaway killswitch still engaged. So Tom Crean says Hardaway "punked" his team, which means Hardaway had forcible prison sex with them. This is true (26 points on 9 of 11 shooting) and also something elderly white guys probably shouldn't be saying for the same reason they shouldn't show up at 50 Cent shows wearing bandanas. Still, dang, dang, dang:
In the last five games, Hardaway has averaged 18 points, 4.2 rebounds, shot 55.2 percent (32 of 58) from the floor and 50 percent (17 of 34) from the 3-point line.
The Hardaway vs Harris post suggested Hardaway's TO rate, eFG%, and efficiency would go up as he reduced his bad shots and drove to the hoop more. It didn't suggest it would happen right now, in buckets. The recent tear has popped Hardaway's 3PT% from 30% to 34% and his 2PT% up a couple points, too.
Hardaway's going to come down to earth before the end of the year. I repeat this so I will not be disappointed when it happens. In the meantime I'm tapping my fingers waiting for Kenpom to update its individual stats, because I think there's a good chance that Hardaway's offensive rating* will at least temporarily match the ~106 Harris put up in his last two years. [Update: Kenpom updates; Hardaway's up to 105.9 with the same Shot%.]
Again, that's not to say he's a better player since his usage will drop and it's pretty easy to have a massive ORtg when all you're doing is throwing down dunks other people generated for you—see Brent Petway, 2006. In the context of the team, having a high-but-not-monster usage freshman equaling the previous star's efficiency should mean the ceiling the next couple years is higher than it was the last couple—possibly much higher.
*[Got a couple questions about what the hell that was. It's… um… complicated. So complicated that most people won't even try to show your the formula because of its insane complexity. The closest thing to an explanation I found is here. It's a way of wrapping all of a player's offensive stats into a single number that should correspond to number of points produced per 100 possessions used. It seems to work pretty well as a proxy for being good at stuff, with the caveat that the number is heavily dependent on usage.]
Suddenly B-52s. Michigan's epic run of three-point bombing continued with an 8 of 15 performance against Indiana; they poured in seven of ten attempts after halftime. Why is this happening? Candidate reasons:
- Actual in-season improvement as shooters.
- A reduction in bad threes taken after winging it around the perimeter for 30 seconds.
- An increase in wide open threes generated by the team's increased penetration.
- A reversion to the mean.
- A reduction in threes attempted by poor shooters.
All of these have some impact but I think #2 and #3 are the main reasons. Amakerian possessions spent 30 feet from the basket have been reduced to a few here and there—usually when Morris is getting his two minutes per game on the bench. Michigan broke out of its slump by bombing MSU (10 of 21) and Iowa (14 of 28) into oblivion. After watching that OSU came out with a gameplan to limit three-point attempts at all costs. This worked to an extent but Michigan has adapted—even thrived—as opponents focus on limiting threes until they figure they have to limit Morris and Morgan, at which point they give up a bunch of threes:
Those are three game moving averages so they lag slightly but the trend is clear. Michigan starts off taking a lot of threes and hitting a decent number, take even more and make way too few. They double down, taking a billion threes and hitting a bunch of them, at which point opponents are like "uh oh" and start limiting their opportunities but not their success.
There's a bit of a chicken and egg thing going on here—Michigan beat MSU thanks to a number of contested threes, and while Iowa wasn't as good defensively that two-game blitz seems to have convinced the rest of the league to keep on the shooters, at least insofar as they can.
Epic wallpaper. You must have it.
Five key plays feature Hardaway, three pointers, turnovers, and FT misery. UMHoops scouts potential 2011 PF target Larry Nance, Jr. and recaps the Indiana game. Wojo on the NCAA question. Mets Maize also tackles Indiana happenings. Epically long Darius Morris profile from AnnArbor.com.
1/27/2011 – Michigan 61, Michigan State 57 – 12-9, 2-6 Big Ten
left two Melanie Maxwell, AnnArbor.com
A couple years ago Michigan fans were wondering if they really had something or if an unexpected win against UCLA was just a one-off when they took on Duke in Crisler arena. Michigan won that game, and the moment I remember most was Zack Novak holding his follow-through an ostentatiously long time. He'd just hit a three pointer to push Michigan well in front that sent Crisler into honest-to-God hysterics. It was an ungritty thing to do, but if anyone can justify a little flash now and then it's Zack Novak.
Yesterday Novak had what can only be described as a leadership aneurysm. It was the grittiest twitchy, alarming fit anyone's ever had. MSU fans rushed to put it on the internet the better to mock him by:
This worked out about as well as painting "1,181" across your hairless, AXE-laden chests.
You know this, but: 6 of 8 from three, 19 points, six rebounds, two assists, a steal, and various dogged things that don't show up in the box score but contribute to the bottom line. In the aftermath of the game David Merritt tweeted something about how if you question Zack Novak's importance to the team you "don't understand team sports*". That and math.
Because Michigan followed up a series of promising performances against elite teams with road duds against Indiana and Northwestern, beating Michigan State won't mean anything outside of the thing itself. Michigan's not likely to get even an NIT bid because of the win. Before my fiancée fell asleep for the second half she remarked that even though Michigan was in front "they make everything seem so hard," and they do.
Michigan is aimless. The announcers kept talking about Michigan taking a lot of time off the shot clock like that was a special strategy for this game when they're almost as slow (327th) as they are young (337th) and played at the exact same pace against South Carolina Upstate. When it's going well they're "deliberate," but to my eyes it's a team that doesn't really know what it's doing. They're forced to improvise when time gets low after chucking it around the perimeter for 20 seconds. It's almost exactly what Amaker teams did down to pulling the big out of the lane to provide a low-threat passing option as the ball cycles around the three point line.
The most eye-opening section of the season was the first half against Northwestern, when the Wildcats team ran a series of intricate cuts that opened up Michigan's defense for a rain of open threes and drives into the lane against mis-positioned defenders:
Michigan gets a lot of that from Darius Morris but Northwestern gets it from all over. Morris has an astronomic assist rate but if you compare the teams there are seven(!) Wildcats between him and Stu Douglass, Michigan's #2 guy. Despite the hype about Beilein, right now Michigan's offense boils down to "do something, Darius."
Fortunately for Michigan, Darius Morris has proven pretty good at not only that but twisting down the lane and getting awkward shots to fall. He was somehow 5 of 8 from inside the arc despite his teammates assisting on zero of his buckets; most of those were Dion Harris-style "well, someone has to put it up" buckets while swarmed in the lane. Combine that with near 50% three-point shooting and a you've got the recipe for an upset.
You don't have something sustainable to go back to the rest of the season.
Michigan's going to get better the rest of the way, but it might be hard to tell because of noise. They'll probably even get better more quickly than more experienced teams. IE, all teams. They still won't be very good. That's okay. Beating Michigan State at Breslin hasn't happened since I was a freshman in college—JESUS—and while it's very Sparty to say they can pack it in the rest of the year and there will still be some satisfaction from the season, it's also true. As a self-contained thing it is the best of all basketball things.
In the larger picture it's just one of those games when Colton Christian hits an 18-footer as the shot clock expires. They happen. Where this game gives hope is for the offseason, when Zack Novak will call for a captain's practice and the his teammates will remember he was the man who sprayed gore all over the Breslin Center and showed Michigan State it was theirs.
*[He also mentioned that he used to throw "Office" quotes back and forth with Douglass.]
Non-bullets and whatnot
Not a vintage MSU team. At some point in early in the game a goofy white guy did something bad and I was about to kick something when I realized he was playing for Michigan State. Late in the first half I was wondering why the goofy white guy never came off the floor when the announcers mentioned his name, which was a different name, and I looked at their numbers and they were different too and it dawned on me that there were two goofy white guys who only did bad things splitting 40 minutes of playing time. One of them was an elf who bakes cookies.
It was at this point hope dawned.
Novak and Stu as reasons for Beilein hope. They're obviously better than Smotrycz on a possession-to-possession "oh God, what was that?" level, and I'd throw in Hardaway and his addiction to chucking up not-very-good shots in there too. Novak and Douglass were just as shaky as freshmen. Douglass had the same disease Hardaway does. Now they have the best eFG% on the team excepting easy-bucket machine Jordan Morgan. Douglass was a conscience free gunner his first couple years; now his usage rate is in the "limited roles" category and his three point percentage is a point short of 40%.
If Hardaway and Smotrycz can advance at the same pace they can be those guys plus three inches each. I'm relatively serene about Beilein's bulletproof status because his recruiting's improved tremendously, the team would be a lot different if Robin Benzing and Ben Cronin hadn't flamed out, and it's at least worth checking out what will happen next year when experience goes from almost dead last nationally (337 of 345) to approximately middle-of-the pack. If you add a year of experience to everyone they'd be in a huge multi-way tie for 126th, but that's generous because Michigan will play Burke and Brundidge.
Beilein's already earned next year, and when they take the inevitable step forward in '11-'12 he'll get year six, and that's got at least a decent chance of working out.
Tim Hardaway, Jr., please report to the lost and found. We have found your conscience. Please re-insert it and stop leading the team in three-pointers attempted despite only hitting 30% of them. He's got a higher percentage of shots while he's on the floor than Morris does, which is kind of amazing. Michigan would be better if he got that usage down to around 20%. I'm sure, like Stu, that he'll learn.
The strange thing about Smotrycz. Does anyone else think his best defense is played in the post? This isn't really a compliment—he's probably the worst defensive player on the team, constantly getting lost. But when Michigan goes tiny they have him defend the five and I can't remember thinking "this has to stop" during any of those long stretches.
Seriously. Someone at The Only Colors complained about my characterization of the streak guys as "meatheads." Seriously?
You can seriously look at those guys and envision them doing anything other than slather each other in AXE as they recite "Sex Panther" quotes back and forth to each other before heading out to a kegger where they are totally going to get laid, or at least slapped?
This has something to do with the juggalos post in the aftermath of the football game this fall, but here I was just making an observation about five guys with spotlessly hair-free chests whooping like monkeys. Michigan has meatheads enrolled. I met plenty. It was not a shot at anyone except the jinx-bringers.
Also, seriously: juggalos in Ann Arbor last fall. Seriously. Never been that bad, even when OSU fans were 30k strong for the 2009 Game. This is because the OSU fans who showed up were the kind that went to the game instead of just hanging out for an opportunity to take out their insecurities. Dozens of Michigan fans have told me this, a good chunk before the post even went up.
12/18/2010 – Michigan 69, Oakland 51 – 9-2
This doesn't happen so much anymore, but back in the day there was a point in the lifetime of any Windows installation at which the operating system was so loaded with cruft that the only thing to do was take it out back, shoot it in the head, and reinstall. During this process there was always a moment when the computer reminded you in all caps that you were about to shoot it in the head.
The moment when you hit "Y" was always slightly* thrilling. At that time you had to beat your head against extended memory to get Master of Magic to play—there was always a chance your brilliant reinstall plot would end with you banging your head against the case screaming vile things about Bill Gates's parentage. But if things worked out you'd be able to open your word processor without it automatically typing "I hate you and you are stupid."**
Watching this year's basketball team is like sitting in front of a blue screen that asks you if you'd like to format C:. Last offseason John Beilein saw that prompt and hit "Y," and how. This was not entirely voluntary, since DeShawn Sims had run out of eligibility and Manny Harris tolerance for college, but Beilein also lost Anthony Wright and Laval Lucas-Perry to smaller schools in the area—seemingly by his choice, not theirs—and fired his entire coaching staff.
As a result Michigan entered the year without five of the nine players Kenpom had individual stats for last year. Only one—seldom-used freshman Matt Vogrich—used enough possessions to escape the "limited roles" dungeon. Here's what the very bottom of Kenpom's "height and other stuff" shows when you order by average experience:
Anyone who had coached the straggling returners and a couple of redshirt freshmen was out the door as well. An entirely new coaching staff started burning up twitter with exclamation points, installing a man-to-man defense, and trying to get three pointers to fall. The Big Ten was projected to be brutal, with Michigan a speed bump. This was to be a year of banging the head upon the case without even much hope that it would amount to anything.
Eleven games in, Michigan has essentially completed the nonconference schedule. A game against 1-9 Bryant remains and Michigan bizarrely takes on Kansas in early January, but we've gotten all the information we're going to get before Michigan's brutal Welcome To The Big Ten And Kansas stretch (all numbers Kenpom):
- Dec 28: #11 Purdue
- Jan 2: #74 Penn State
- Jan 5: #9 @ Wisconsin
- Jan 9: #2 Kansas
- Jan 12: #3 Ohio State
That still looks like pain, but after three bludgeonings of okay teams and one stirring comeback against Tommy Amaker's Ivy League favorites the chance Michigan swipes one of those uphill battles is something less than infinitesimal. They'll be worth watching, at least. The stretch after that is littered with teams from 15 to 81, with just two forays back into the top ten after, and with Kenpom wavering between 7-11 and 8-10 for the league record both math and your lying eyes suggest this is an NIT team.
So that's weird. Weirder still is how this is being accomplished: with fierce man to man defense. After shutting down Keith Benson Michigan is now 16th in defense, and we're getting to the point where you can't wave away the results as small sample size against poor competition. UMHoops:
Michigan’s defense held Oakland – a team that has already faced West Virginia, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, and Tennessee – to their worst offensive output of the season. I’ve been hesitant to believe that Michigan’s defense is the real deal, because making bad teams look terrible only goes so far, but right now there’s no denying that Michigan is playing great defense.
On one particular possession on Saturday, Michigan did so well over 35 seconds that the crowd rose to its feet like the hockey team had just killed off a 5-on-3 power play. With the offense still bombing away from 3 (sixteenth nationally) despite not making any of them (253rd), the primary difference between this year and last year is a switch-mad man-to-man that is totally unlike anything Beilein's ever put on the court before.
That, the complete lack of seniors, and the expectation the team's best player returns. We're about to hit the stretch in the format process where the drive makes horrible noises and bad sectors pop up, but the path from here to the point where our word processor loves us again is far clearer than it was two months ago. This, too, is slightly thrilling.
*(very, very slightly)
**(Things like this actually used to happen. They were called macro viruses and I managed to get one back in the day when I shared a spreadsheet with a lab partner. I don't remember exactly what the cryptic message was, but whenever I opened Word it would type a bunch of stuff, delete it, and then type something else that might have been "ferret" but is probably just me misremembering things.)
The All-Seeing Eye. You know it's a good game when the thing that makes you wince in the second half is when the other team goes on a run to cut the lead from 20 to 10 because the all-seeing Eye of Kenpom will disapprove. Fouling and whatnot pushed Michigan's final margin out to 18, and the Great Eye is pleased—Michigan has run itself from triple digits after the UTEP game to 52nd. They've cleared Penn State and Iowa and are in a virtual dead heat with #50 Northwestern, #51 Minnesota, and #54 Indiana for the title of Sixth Best Team In The Big Ten According To Ken Pomeroy.
As far as tourney resumes go, Michigan is clearly behind Minnesota and their wins over UNC and WVU but well ahead of Northwestern (one decent win against GT and that's all) and Indiana (best win over Wright State). If the Big Ten is destined for seven bids, the last one seems up for grabs with Michigan in the conversation. I don't think the BT is going to get seven mostly because none of the three teams after Minnesota has a nonconference win that would cause the committee to sit up and notice, but Michigan could be vaguely on the bubble late this year.
Put this in your pocket. Illinois suffered a demoralizing loss to their version of Oakland, barfing up a 57-54 stinker against Illinois-Chicago. The difference is UIC isn't secretly pretty good—they're 5-7 and have already lost to Akron, Illinois State, Central Michigan, and other less than awesome teams. Here's a reason why:
When UIC took the 1-3-1 zone against us, we looked lost, and since we were unable to shoot ourselves out of it, we were flailing.
Well, then. Michigan plays the Illini only once and that's in the middle of February, so maybe this won't have a huge impact. But if Michigan pulls the 1-3-1 out against Illinois remember this post.
(Side note: Central Michigan is completely awful despite having what must be the most talented player in the MAC. Trey Zeigler and company are 2-8 and just got obliterated by Detroit. This is depressing but from the Zeiglers' perspective the only thing keeping dad around is the presence of his son so the decision makes sense.)
Doubling down. Michigan doubled Benson the instant he got the ball, which was new. They hadn't helped out their center all year even when Harvard's counterpart was tearing Morgan up; in this game they forced turnovers and kickouts from Benson all day. Morgan held up pretty well with the help.
Infectious coaching. Beilein must have gotten a tiny thrill after Jon Horford gave up an and-one to Benson in the first half when both Zack Novak and Darius Morris went over to him to demonstrate what he did wrong on the play. Novak even provided helpful "arms straight up" versus "whatever you were doing, freshman" pantomimes.
I know how you feel. The UMHoops game preview said "expect a lot more zone" and I thought "that's a really good thing to put in the preview because it's probably going to be true" and then the only zone we saw was a single possession of 1-3-1 at the end of the first half.
How Darius Morris makes the defense go. Thanks to their huge point guard, Michigan's perimeter rotation of Morris, Novak, Douglass, Hardaway, and Vogrich is all about the same size, which allows them to switch relentlessly on all screens, which goes a long way towards making up for a lack of quickness from the pastier guys in the rotation, which means teams get few opportunities to drive the lane because there's always a dude right in front of them.
Michigan's defense is now Wisconsin's: built on never fouling you, never blocking your shots, never stealing the ball, but forcing you into a wide array of not-very-good shots. Michigan is 10th in three point D, 57th in two point D, 11th in FTA/FGA, 14th in eFG%, and well down the list when it comes to forcing turnovers and getting blocks. Instead of leaving their feet they get in spots to take charges and get their hands in the air.
It's the exact opposite of the 1-3-1, which might make the 1-3-1 pretty effective if they 1) figure out how to use it, and 2) deploy it as a change up.
UMHoops game recap. Beilein on guarding Benson. The Wolverine Blog talks about the defense. Morgan fluff from the News. Five Key Plays from UMHoops features this assist, which wasn't key but it was awesome:
There is a shaky but extant torrent.
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.