Player development has been a reoccurring bright spot for the Michigan basketball program in the past decade. Making the most of 3-star recruits or overlooked talent has been a staple of John Beilein’s teams. Coaching up Trey Burke to the title game and getting Stauskus to the league as a top-10 pick stand out the most.
But another trend has stood out to me after carefully watching recent Michigan teams and that’s late season player development. Each year it seems as if there is an underclassman or two who are nowhere to be found midway through the season – then late February happens. Emerging underclassmen have been an interesting barometer for future success. Look no further than a few current starters.
Last year at this time, Moritz Wagner was in the middle of a stretch where he played one minute across five games. Michigan lost four of those games. Two weeks later, he scored nine points in a BTT win over Indiana before logging 22 minutes against Tulsa in the NCAAs. Against Tulsa, Wagner had 8 rebounds, displayed nice athleticism with post moves and active defense hands. Although he didn’t fill the stat sheet, he showed promise in tournament games vs. Indiana, Notre Dame and Purdue. That momentum carried into this year and was on display today when he dropped 22 first half points against the biggest frontcourt in the conference. It was among the most impressive performances I remember seeing from a big man.
Wagner wasn’t alone last year. To a lesser extent Kam Chatman played some big minutes. In 2015-2016 Chatman only averaged 2.8 points in about seven minutes per game. Yet he was on the court in the waning minutes of Michigan’s upset of Indiana. We know how that went down. One shot doesn’t make a player – but player’s don’t hit winning shots from the bench. Chatman’s place on the floor mean’s he earned Beilein’s trust. A closer look at his box scores shows his minutes nearly doubled in mid February. Would have been interesting to see how he would have turned out.
More notably, you may remember Caris LeVert burning his redshirt and being an end of bench guy during Michigan’s title run. He was the team's 8th or 9th man depending on where you place Horford, which is notable considering Michigan’s rotation is usually about seven or eight men. Beilein saw something. And of course through a combination of departures and an offseason training program, LeVert came back the next year to log more than 30 minutes per game – a huge jump similar to what we saw from DJ Wilson between this year and last.
So why is this important now? Lurking in the shadows of Wagner, Walton and to a lesser extent, Wilson’s great resurgence is Xavier Simpson. A month ago, he was seemingly never on the court, or when he was it wasn’t notable. Recently, he can be seen gaining more confidence, running fast breaks, making threes and occasionally taking it strong to the hole. It isn’t much yet, but if history tells us anything Simpson may be figuring things out – which bodes well for the future squad which will have a major hole to fill with Walton graduating.
In the wake of today's heartbreaker against FSU, I'd like if I may to extend a few "thank you"s here at the end of the 2016 softball season.
First, a massive thank you to all of the players, and especially the seniors. They've given us so much to cheer, shout, and laugh about over the last few years, and did so during a time when not a lot else in the Athletic Department was doing so. We just watched the final performance of Sierra Romero, the best there ever was, but there's a whole team around her as well that has been absolutely outstanding. The magnitude of the disappointment today is 100% a factor of how much they've made us expect of them.
Second, a huge thank you from me personally to MGoBlog. Brian, for giving me the space to publish my pieces about the team here, and Seth & Bryan Fuller for helping me out a lot with my post-season articles. As I've mentioned before, when I was a kid it was always my dream to works in sports media (I wanted to be an announcer, and drove my parents nuts by commentating on my EA Sports video games). My career has gone a different way, but it's been a privilege to get to play around a little with that dream from years ago.
Finally, thank you to all of you nuts who have packed the game threads from day 1 all the way up through the last out in OKC. It's great to have a community here that share my off-beat passion for college softball. We'll all be coming together again pretty soon come February.
Go Blue, and Hail to the Victors.
Michigan softball concluded fall exhibition play last night with a trip to East Lansing. In their first fall match-up, MSU scored the only 2 runs Michigan had given up in fall play, and the Wolverines' defense was not about to let that happen again, especially with recently-graduate star pticher Haylie Wagner watching from the stands! All three pitchers (Blanco, Driesenga, and Betsa) saw action, and they combined for a complete-game shut-out.
On offense, today was a chance for the young guns to try their hand at college ball. Freshmen Sobczak, Alexander, Peters, and Canfield all got starts, and the inclusion of Falk & Blanco as well made it a majority-underclassmen line-up. Birthday-girl Kelsey Susalla was the lone senior in the order, and she was without doubt the star of the day. She hit an RBI single in the 1st, a solo HR in the 3rd, and another RBI single in the 7th, going 3-3 with 3 RBI on the day.
The offense as a whole did not completely break out until the 7th, when Michigan plated 4 runs to open up and 8-0 lead, but with the quality of Michigan's pitching, the outcome was never in doubt. It appears from the twitter feed that a few substitutions were made along the way, not all of which were necessarily mentioned (Swearingen got in the action somewhere along the line).
One item of interest is Abby Ramirez playing the lead-off role. Bonnie Tholl talked about this as a possibility on WTKA recently, and it's definitely something the coaches are going to play around with. Last season, Ramirez hit in the 9-spot and did an excellent job turning over the line-up with a .446 OBP on the strength of slap-hitting and speed. The coaches seem to think she's ready to shoulder a little more of the load & a little more of the spotlight this season. At the end of the day her role will be similar to last year - setting the table for the murderers' row of power hitters Michigan can send to the plate.
The only sad news on the night is the fact that we have no new softball content coming until 2016! Thankfully, Harbaugh has our full attention at the moment, and the winter sports are just about to get underway, so we should be able to make it to spring. Even a snow-lover like myself, however, will be eagerly awaiting the warming temperatures that signal a new season of Michigan softball!
A friend linked this brief article on Facebook, and I thought it might be a fun offseason hypothetical to kick around for a bit. The gist of the article is, if you could change one single play in the history of sports, what would it be?
For me, there are two close contenders. First, have us make that late field goal against OSU in the year of the tie & subsequent illegal "vote". Bo then gets the best shot he'd ever have at a national crown. Second, I'd say change the ruling on the goal review from the UMD National Championship loss in hockey back in 2011. Shawn Hunwick gets his crown, and the greatest underdog story in sports history has its perfection completion.
What do you guys think?
XtraMelanin gave us the pregame spread/drinking thread, so this'll be the in-game thread.
Five minutes into the NFC championship game and both QBs have already thrown a pick.