at least it's not just us?
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Michigan has now played five games this year. The closest margin of victory: 28 points.
Yes, two of those were exhibition games against Division II teams, and the regular-season competition hasn't been stellar either. Tonight's opponent, Cleveland State, had to replace four starters, and at 94th in KenPom they're by far the toughest test the Wolverines have faced this year.
Michigan wiped the floor with them, though, starting the game on an 8-0 run, finishing the first half on a 23-2 tear, and cruising to a 77-47 victory. A Wolverine team hasn't made basketball look this easy in a long, long time. I remember the LaVell Blanchard-led 2002-03 squad losing the season opener to St. Bonaventure. In Tommy Amaker's last season, Michigan had to climb out of an early hole to beat something called a "Maryland-Baltimore County" by 12. Even last season, the Wolverines won against Saginaw Valley State—a team they beat by 28 last week—by just nine points. I'm pretty sure one of Brian Ellerbe's outfits found a way to lose the intrasquad scrimmage.
Through five games, Michigan is playing basketball on a different level than their opponents—and any Wolverine team in recent memory. Daniel Horton has nothing on Trey Burke, whose first-half hesitation crossover in transition broke ankles in the upper bowl—he finished with 12 points and seven assists without appearing to break a sweat. Manny Harris never rounded into the complete, efficient wing that Tim Hardaway Jr.—once again stuffing the box score with 17 points (7-12 FG, 3-6 3P), six rebounds, and four assists—has become. Nik Stauskas (15 points, 3-4 3P), well, let's just say he wouldn't be out-shot by Gavin Groninger. I can't even think of a suitable player comparison for Glenn Robinson III, who had an off-night (2-7 FG) and still managed to contribute nine points, seven rebounds, and solid defense, including spiking a layup attempt off the glass.
After covering four games in five days, three of them laughable basketball blowouts, I hope you'll forgive the fact that my mind began to wander in the second half. While half-watching Burke effortlessly run the pick-and-roll, or Hardaway skying for a defensive rebound, or perhaps it was Stauskas drilling a three like it was Pop-A-Shot, I thought about Avery Queen.
And I laughed.
Forget the five-star freshman for a moment. You know, the one that scored 21 points on nine shots. Forget the star point guard; yeah, the one with 22 points and nine assists. Forget, even, about the shooting guard, the NBA progeny that turned in another efficient all-around effort.
Jordan Morgan—yes, that Jordan Morgan—stole a pass, dribbled the length of the court, and soared for a one-handed slam. That same Jordan Morgan also split two defenders with a quick hop-step and deftly finished with a layup. He also threw an alley-oop and even crossed a guy over. The coaches had raved in the offseason about Morgan losing weight and gaining some athleticism, but they said nothing about him turning into young Charles Barkley.
That's hyperbole, of course. But man, after that game, it's tough not to be hyperbolic. A sluggish start quickly gave way to a Michigan highlight-fest, with Morgan and Glenn Robinson III and Trey Burke competing for top gif-able honors until Jon Horford came in and blew them away with a savage throwdown in traffic. It's safe to say Michigan hasn't had a team this athletic since the Fab Five days.
What's really scary, though, is that they're skilled to boot. Robinson connected on his first eight shots, including three from distance. Burke overcame some sloppy play and hit four-of-seven threes of his own while getting into the lane at will, finishing when there was space and finding the open man when the defense collapsed. Tim Hardaway Jr. continued to show off his all-around improvement, pulling down seven defensive boards in addition to scoring ten on just five shots. Nik Stauskas missed his first three-pointer, then hit his next three, finishing with ten points.
This team isn't perfect, of course. The defense left too many shooters open, especially in the early going, missing a few switches and getting beat off the dribble—Stauskas and Mitch McGary both had moments of confusion that led to buckets. The Wolverines turned the ball over on 19% of their possessions, with Burke and Robinson each coughing up the pill three times and Stauskas looking shaky putting the ball on the floor. McGary biffed an open layup off a beautiful feed from Burke and generally appears to need some refining on both ends of the floor. And yes, they played IUPUI, which isn't exactly Duke.
When watching a Michigan team that now practices alley-oops, though, and Jordan Morgan going coast-to-coast, it's tough not to get very excited for this season. The Wolverines played a Division-I team with a pulse, had an ugly first ten minutes, and absolutely crushed them in the way that precociously-talented, well-coached teams are wont to do. That's not what Michigan basketball has been, but it sure feels like that's what it's going to be.
A smile crept across John Beilein's face as he pantomimed Trey Burke turning and flipping the ball underhand with "just the right spin" to Tim Hardaway Jr., who buried one of his five three-pointers (that part, unfortunately, not pantomimed by Beilein).
Michigan hit the century mark for the first time since 2007 in a 100-62 beatdown of Slippery Rock in the season opener, and it was Beilein's stars who led the way. Hardaway played one of his most complete games as a Wolverine, scoring 25 points on 8-10 shooting (5-5 from three) and adding ten rebounds, three assists, and a steal. Burke overcame a shaky first half to pour in 21 points of his own (9-17 FGs) and dish out eight assists; after turning the ball over four times in the first half, he had just one in the second stanza and finished on a 6-7 shooting tear.
Burke wasn't the only Wolverine to struggle out of the gate, as Michigan trailed 15-14 just over six minutes into the game before back-to-back threes by Burke and Hardaway—naturally—began to break the game open. They wouldn't completely pull away until a 10-0 run in the opening minutes of the second half, which featured eight points from Hardaway, including an emphatic one-handed dunk off a feed from Glenn Robinson III and back-to-back threes sandwiched around a missed free throw.
While the freshmen weren't filling the tin like they did in exhibition play—combining for 28 points, 11 of those coming in the game's final four minutes—they found ways to contribute. Robinson scored ten points on 5-7 shooting and picked up his rebounding efforts, pulling in eight total (six defensive) in 32 minutes. Mitch McGary pulled down nine rebounds—five offensive, though three came on one possession when he couldn't lay the ball in—in just 12 minutes while chipping in nine points; he also had three fouls, the big reason why he didn't play more. Nik Stauskas only attempted two field goals, hitting one, but got to the line to shoot a pair twice with some aggressive drives to the basket. Spike Albrecht was just 1-5 from the field, but he handed out two assists and didn't turn the ball over.
After missing the exhibition season with a knee injury, Jon Horford played better than the stats would indicate in eight key minutes after McGary and Jordan Morgan both found themselves in early foul trouble. On his first possession of the game, he rebounded a Morgan miss, hit the putback, and drew a foul, then drew a charge on the very next play. Later in the first half, he deftly slipped a pass to a cutting Robinson for an easy layup. While Horford was still limited—not by injury, but by his gas tank after missing the last two weeks—he appeared to have all of his pre-injury athleticism.
The depth is there for this team in a way that it hasn't been under John Beilein. Last year, there was no Horford to step in for Morgan, and certainly no McGary to add a second big man to the lineup. When Burke was off, like he was in the first half, there wasn't an Albrecht there to give him a chance to sit down and regroup, like he did nine minutes into tonight's game. And to have Robinson as a third scoring option, well, let's just call that an upgrade, and that's no slight to Zack Novak or Stu Douglass.
But tonight, the story was Hardaway and Burke. The two had a synergy tonight, Burke knowing just where to give it to Hardaway, Hardaway knowing just where and when to attack, that could take this team from good to great. And yes, at least tonight, there was even just the right spin on the ball.
"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.
Previously: Early Outlook
It may be the middle of football season, but it's already time to gear up for basketball; Michigan tips off the 2012-13 season against Northern Michigan on November 1st, a scant three weeks from yesterday. Leading up to the opener I'll be doing a comprehensive preview, starting with a look at the rotation—guards/wings today, bigs next week—and then moving on to the schedule, a look at the Big Ten competition, and important questions facing the team this season.
Let's take a look at the guards/wings, shall we?
Returners: PG Trey Burke, SG/SF Tim Hardaway Jr., PG Eso Akunne, SG/SF Matt Vogrich, SG Josh Bartlestein, SG Corey Person
Departures: SG Stu Douglass
Newcomers: PG Spike Albrecht, SG Nik Stauskas, SG Caris Levert
Note: Freshman Glenn Robinson III could easily—and probably should be—included in this post with the wings, but since he's expected to see time at the four and there are more guards/wings than bigs on the roster, he'll be featured in next week's post.
#3 TREY BURKE (Soph.)
Ht./Wt.: 6'0", 190 lbs.
2011-12 Key Stats: 34 GP (33 GS), 14.8 points/game, 4.6 assists/game, 49.0 2P%, 34.8 3P%, 28.7% assist rate, 1.7 FC/40
Michigan received a huge scare over the offseason when it appeared that Burke would declare for the NBA Draft, but he's returned for at least one more season in the Maize and Blue after earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors from the media in 2011-12. Despite the presence of Tim Hardaway Jr., it was Burke who became the team's go-to guy down the stretch as the season wore on, notably hitting an improbable floater over Jared Sullinger to seal a win over Ohio State and exploding for 30 points against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament.
Despite being much smaller than his point guard predecessor, Darius Morris, Burke showed the ability last season to score in a variety of ways, including getting to the basket off the pick-and-roll. While his outside shooting stroke lacked consistency, he still managed to hit nearly 35% of his threes, and Slam Magazine declared that area of his game "improved" after June's Nike Skills Camp. Given his adept passing, if Burke is able to become a ~40% three-point shooter he'll be as lethal a point guard as there is in the country.
If there's one area to improve upon offensively, it's Burke's ability to handle the hard hedge on the pick-and-roll; he struggled with turnovers when teams doubled hard with a big off the screen. That's an area that will improve with experience, though Burke's lack of size means that will still be the way to most effectively limit him.
Defensively, Burke impressed for a freshman; he very rarely fouls (just 1.7 committed per 40 minutes) and is quick enough to stay in front of just about anyone. He hounded Wisconsin standout Jordan Taylor into a 12-point outing on just 5-15 shooting in a victory last January, impressively shutting down the bigger Taylor on multiple post-up attempts; his size belies his strength, and he'll only get stronger after adding ten pounds in the offseason.
Burke is in line to compete for first-team All-America honors this season; he's the proverbial straw that stirs the drink in Beilein's pick-and-roll-heavy offense, and he's no slouch defensively, either.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the guards and wings, including Tim Hardaway Jr. and a trio of talented freshmen.]
The freshmen, new uniforms, and oh my god what in the hell
Today's basketball media day was perfectly described by another reporter as "not a newsmaking event*," which seems a tad ironic but that's Michigan athletics these days. You can tell the freshmen have already been coached not to say anything interesting, and I'm not even going to bother transcribing the player roundtables as a result. Just imagine the football pressers and replace "football" with "basketball" and you have a good idea of what you missed.
I will, however, post some highlights from John Beilein's press conference.
- The team has had 16 hours of summer workouts in addition to the usual weight training, plus 12 hours of recent skill training. Starting Friday they practice 20 hours a week.
- The William Davidson Player Development Center is almost complete. It's a "sensational venue" to practice in while Crisler is being redone.
- Beilein's had one look at Crisler about a month ago, and says "it looks like a brand new building, like we built a $200 million building." Calls it a tremendous asset for recruiting and very fan-friendly.
- Mitch McGary is helping replace the energy void left by Zack Novak, who he says was "really instrumental in everyone's life."
- It's too early to name a starting five. During the first two weeks of practice he'll put two or three freshmen on one team, two or three on the other, and watch how they adjust. The last few weeks were much more for skill development than team development. Probably won't name a lineup in the next 2-3 weeks.
- Trey Burke is up to 190 pounds, and it's a good 190. Praises strength coach Jon Sanderson for his work with the whole team (I can say from seeing him up close that Tim Hardaway Jr. looks very impressive physically right now, definitely bigger than last year).
- Tim Hardaway Jr. has "taken a little bit of Novak," in that you can hear his presence on the court.
- "This is a good rebounding team." Has more of an inside presence than past Beilein squads, McGary and Jordan Morgan in particular. The offense may be more predicated around offensive rebounding as a result.
- The freshmen are very coachable, and have been getting help from both the coaching staff and their fellow players. He says the team is as intelligent as any he's had. Cited Glenn Robinson III specifically as a player who's picked up new information and put it to use on the court ten minutes later. At the end of a recent practice, Josh Bartlestein, Corey Person, and Eso Akunne each had pulled freshmen aside to teach them something.
- When he got here, the question in the Big Ten was who was going to be the sixth or seventh team into the NCAA tournament. Now the fight may be over who will be the eighth or ninth team in.
- When asked about how he'll handle high expectations and preseason rankings: "I think John Beilein is always going to have a chip on his shoulder."
- As for if he thinks they're a top five team: "I don't pay any attention to that." Says he doesn't watch other teams practice, so how could he know? [Good point, coach.]
- There's four, five, maybe even six players who could see time at the four or the five. Loves having the versatility, notes the importance of the four—Kevin Durant and LeBron James were playing the four in the NBA playoffs last year. Last year he didn't feel he had a choice at the four after Jon Horford got hurt.
- The goal is to win the Big Ten title. [Of course it is. Fergodsakes.]
- Nik Stauskas has "a natural ability to find the bottom of the basket," but what makes him a difficult guard is that he can also put the ball on the floor and drive to the rim. Also showing the ability to keep his head up and find the open man, and he's putting in effort on defense because he knows that's how he'll see the floor.
- Last year there wasn't a player who felt comfortable spelling Trey Burke as the primary ballhandler. There's a lot more confidence in Spike Albrecht being able to come in and run the point to give Burke a rest. Stauskas and Caris Levert can also put the ball on the floor.
- Beilein used most of the 16 hours of summer workouts on offense. The staff watched the NBA much closer than ever before and cut more NBA film than in the past to see how they utilize two post players.
- The team hasn't spoken about the loss to OHIO in the NCAA tournament. They're very proud of the Big Ten championship and will talk about the tourney loss if they get back there this year.
- The only injury is a "foot stress issue" for Corey Person. Otherwise there are a few nagging issues but nothing major.
- No captains have been named yet.
- Tim Hardaway Jr. will split time between the two and the three. Lots of options on the roster, so they'll wait and see how things shake out during practice.
That about covers it. Here's a shoe:
*said unnamed reporter even preceded that with "as expected"; we're not bitter!