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2012-13 basketball preview
"Bright youth passes swiftly as a thought." — Theognis
There is no "next year."
Not in today's college basketball, where Kentucky wins a national championship starting three freshmen and two sophomores, the NBA draft age limit creates a one-year holding pen for the sport's brightest young stars, and no graduating senior was selected in this year's lottery. It's not a new reality—as Michigan, home of the Fab Five, should well know—but one that's reaching its apex in the Age of Calipari.
This year's Michigan squad is no exception. The star of the show is sophomore point guard Trey Burke, who nearly exited for the pro ranks in April and, if all goes well, won't be back the next time around. A pair of precocious freshmen, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, will start and hopefully star—three more newcomers should play prominent roles. The grizzled veteran of the team's core, junior swingman Tim Hardaway Jr., is still unable to legally imbibe.
John Beilein is building for the future, and a bright future it is. After sharing a Big Ten title last season, however, and then pulling in Michigan's finest recruiting class since the Ed Martin era, the Wolverines carry a top-five preseason ranking and expectations to win now. While the hype may be slightly overblown, anything less than the program's first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1994 would be considered a disappointment.
How the team reaches that point is still very much in question. Hardaway, plagued by a balky jumper, ceded the role of lead dog to Burke as the season wore on in 2011-12; if he regains his stroke, he could emerge as the top scoring option. The presence of Jordan Morgan, McGary, and a healthy Jon Horford up front gives Beilein new-found depth and versatility with his lineup—Beilein spoke at media day of an offseason spent studying NBA film to see how the pros utilize two post players, a luxury he hasn't been afforded during his time in Ann Arbor. For their part, McGary and Robinson must live up to sky-high recruiting hype if this team hopes to deliver on their potential.
The extent to which the Wolverines miss Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, and Even Smotrycz depends largely on another freshman, Nik Stauskas, and his ability to connect from the outside. Yet another freshman, Spike Albrecht, will be called upon to replace "timeout" as Burke's backup. One more first-year guard, Caris LeVert, has earned rave reviews in practice and could provide scoring punch off the bench.
Despite the inexperience and uncertainty, this team represents Beilein's surest bet to take this program to the next level, and could very well be his best shot for a long time. That may sound rash, but the Wolverines have been close to the leap before, only to fall back: the Amaker tenure crumbled despite early promise, the 2009-10 squad faltered despite making the tournament with the same nucleus the year before, and even last year's team tripped up against 13-seed Ohio in the Big Dance. Trey Burke probably isn't walking through that door next year. There's no guarantee Tim Hardaway Jr. will, either. For that matter, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III have one-and-done potential if all goes well (too well, perhaps).
As the season tips off tonight in a refurbished Crisler Center, there's a distinct sense of urgency—not just to prove that this program is going places, but that they've already arrived. If the season goes according to plan, there won't be need for talk of next year, and that will truly signal the new age of Michigan basketball.
The "BIG TENNNN" may be a running joke during this current football season, but it's projected to be quite the opposite in basketball; Indiana (#1), Ohio State (#4), and Michigan (#5) make the top five in both the AP and Coaches poll, with Michigan State sitting at #14 in each. If you prefer KenPom (say "yes"), the outlook is even brighter, with Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan State, and Wisconsin running #'s 2-5 and Michigan at #12. The depth is strong, as well: nine teams make KenPom's top 54, while every squad save Nebraska (#216—yikes) is within the upper 90.
How do I see the conference shaking out this year? Find out below.
1. Indiana (#1 AP, #1 Coaches, #3 KenPom)
Last year: 27-9 (11-7 Big Ten), lost to Kentucky in Sweet Sixteen
Returning Starters: 4
Key Returners: C Cody Zeller, PF Christian Watford, SG/SF Victor Oladipo, PG Jordan Hulls
Key Departures: none
Top Newcomer(s): PG Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell (Rivals 5*, #19 overall), SF Jeremy Hollowell (4*, #41 ovr), PF Hanner Parea (4*, #43 ovr)
It's not hard to see why, even in the country's best conference, Indiana is the consensus frontrunner. The Hoosiers return every starter from the only team to defeat Kentucky in the regular season in 2011-12; they also gave the Widcats a run for their money (hurr hurr) in the Sweet Sixteen before falling to the eventual national champs.
Sophomore center Cody Zeller is a near-unanimous preseason All-American after averaging 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in his debut season—an extremely efficient post player, his 66.5 true shooting % was ninth in the country. Teams collapsing on Zeller in the post, however, usually pay dearly, as the Hoosiers feature a pair of lights-out shooters in PF Christian Watford (43.7 3P% last year), PG Jordan Hulls (49.3%), as well as a couple capable outside gunners off the bench in Will Sheehy and Derek Elston. Add in athletic slasher Victor Oladipo (52.3 2P%) and a
solid distributing guard in Verdell Jones (23.0 assist rate) and you get perhaps the best starting five in the country.
To top it off, the Hoosiers pulled in three top-50 recruits in the 2012 class, including electric five-star point guard Yogi Ferrell, who should make an immediate splash off the bench. While Indiana isn't a defensive juggernaut, their fantastic shooting and the inside presence of Zeller make them extremely difficult to beat.
EDIT: Verdell Jones graduated, and I am an idiot. Slide Will Sheehy into the starting five; little else changes.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the projected Big Ten standings.]
Basketball season starts in nine days, which is wonderful news until I realize how far behind I am in the basketball preview (I'm beginning to understand how Brian feels in August, just on a far smaller scale). So far, we've covered the guards/wings; today, it's time to look at the bigs, plus freshman Glenn Robinson III, who will likely play both the three and the four.
Fans of Michigan basketball may be shocked to hear this after the last, oh, decade-plus, but the Wolverines have a little something called 'depth' in the frontcourt this year. While the loss of Zack Novak leaves a hole in the leadership/grit/shooting department and the transfer of Evan Smotrycz hurts depth and shooting, the two highest-touted of Michigan's highly-touted freshman class can replace those minutes at the four. Jordan Morgan returns in the middle. Jon Horford is back from a foot injury that kept him out for most of last season. That's a legitimate four-man rotation up front, and guys like Blake McLimans and even Matt Vogrich—as the Zack Novak Memorial Hilariously Undersized Power Forward—could get minutes up front as well.
Without further ado, your returners, departures, and newcomers:
Returners: PF/C Jordan Morgan, PF/C Jon Horford, PF Blake McLimans, PF Max Bielfeldt
Departures: PF(!) Zack Novak (graduation), PF Evan Smotrycz (transfer)
Newcomers: PF/C Mitch McGary, SF/PF Glenn Robinson III
[Hit THE JUMP for the full breakdown]