AnnArbor.com's basketball beat writer, Mike Rothstein, was kind enough to stop by and answer a few questions about the upcoming basketball season. If you want the opportunity to ask him some questions of your own, he'll be participating in a live chat on AnnArbor.com today at noon.
1) For the first time in recent history, the Michigan Men's basketball team probably has higher expectations than the football team. Is this Michigan basketball team capable of handling the pressure of expectations?
A: I think so. Having a freshman point guard concerns me, but Darius Morris seems to be pretty mature for his age. Plus, Beilein is pretty high on him overall and believes he'll pick up his systems quickly, so that shouldn't be too much of an issue. It's an interesting question because none of these guys have been in this situation before, at least not since high school. Not being picked in the top three of the Big Ten, as odd as it sounds, might have helped because that's one less preseason accolade around this group. But the way they shook off being No. 15 in the country – in some ways, it really seemed not to matter to them – sold me that they should be OK.
2) With a more talented roster than last year's team, is it Sweet 16 or bust for this squad?
A: Perhaps, but that's the thing when it comes to the NCAA tournament. Save for four to six teams, it really is all about the draw you receive. It's why a lot of times, upsets can be predicted – Winthrop over Notre Dame in 2007, Villanova over Clemson in 2008 and Western Kentucky over Illinois last year. Those are just three examples but it all comes down to how a team is playing at the end of the year and what the first-round opponent looks like. For instance, if Michigan were matched up in the first round with a team that had a 6-11, 6-10, 6-8 front line, that would probably be a bad thing. That said, this team is certainly capable – from both talent and coaching standpoints – to make a serious run. But when it comes to March, look at that draw. The worst possible scenario for any team is to see a veteran mid-major or low major team that has been to the tournament the year before and put a scare into a high seed. Those teams often break through the next year.
3) Last year's team had vocal leadership from seniors CJ Lee and David Merritt. Those two are both gone, so is somebody going to be a vocal leader? Or is it more likely that somebody (i.e. Manny Harris and/or DeShawn Sims) simply leads by example?
A: It's funny you ask this because it was one of the first things I noticed about this team once I was around them for more than 10 minutes. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims are the leaders on the court and will have to lead by example. Both are working on the vocal parts of being a leader and Harris told me he has gotten on guys in practice and in the summer workouts led by the players. But the guy who stands out to me as the vocal guy is Zack Novak. He has a lot of respect in Michigan's locker room and both Harris and Sims have said he's part of that leadership core. When I watched one of the track workouts before the season, Novak was literally encouraging almost everyone. He'd pick up Ben Cronin, who was still returning from injury, after a set and he'd cheer Anthony Wright – who was coming off his own injury – as he crossed the finish line. Sims and Harris will lead, but Novak is really a hidden key there.
4) Which players are expected to contribute this year that the average Michigan fan might not know from last year?
A: Tough to say since a year ago I was watching a highly-ranked team drop into the NIT (more on that Notre Dame team in one of the later questions). But I'm really high on Ben Cronin if for no other reason than should he put it together by midseason he gives Michigan a different look than the Wolverines have had, and that is a legitimate 7-footer. I think you're going to see great leaps in play from Novak and a more consistent effort from Laval Lucas-Perry now that he's had another summer in Ann Arbor. Also, Matt Vogrich is a deadly shooter. It might take him a little while to find his rhythm in college – he has to adjust to bigger, stronger defenders, a faster pace and a slightly deeper three-point line – but he's going to be an asset by season's end. Zack Gibson has also appeared to have more consistency so far. If he can even come close to resembling Kevin Pittsnogle – and that's not an easy thing to do – for this Michigan team, that could be really dangerous.
5) Which player that did play a big role last year is most-improved for this season?
A: I hinted at it earlier, but I really believe it is Novak. You could even argue Manny Harris here because pro scouts have really raved about him and he feels like he's more consistent, but Novak got rid of some of the excess bad weight he was carrying. He's a dirty-work player who can also shoot it well. In some ways, his game reminds me of Purdue's Chris Kramer in how he does the little things and is a very good glue guy, although Kramer is a better defender. Darius Morris is the X-factor on this team, but if Novak becomes a consistent third scoring option behind Harris and Sims, that will bode well for Michigan.
6) John Beilein has never taken a team past the Elite Eight. Can a team running his system make it all the way?
A: That's a really, really good question. Some of his past teams, I think that answer would be no. But I think the Final Four is possible and then from there, you never know. Remember, that West Virginia team that went to the Elite Eight was probably a basket or two in regulation away from beating Louisville and heading to the Final Four. It wasn't like they ran out of gas until perhaps the overtime of the Elite Eight game. While I don't think Beilein would say this, I believe this team has the chance to be more athletic and versatile than that team. If Manny Harris can stay healthy, having him and Darius Morris driving to the basket will create holes for shooters. Defensively, as long as the combination of man-to-man and 1-3-1 is humming along they'll have a shot in most games. Beilein is a heck of a game-day coach and in the tournament, those types of coaches usually are the ones that end up in the Final Four.
7) Is Michigan poised to make a major run at Michigan State as the instate power?
A: Not yet. Not as long as Tom Izzo and Michigan State keep reaching Final Fours with relative consistency. The Spartans have been to more Final Fours recently than any program in the country. Recruits, until Michigan shows consistency with reaching and advancing in the NCAA tournament, want to play for Izzo. What Michigan can likely hope for in the next few years, if Beilein continues on his current trajectory, is a situation similar to what things look like in the states of Kentucky, North Carolina and at least until recently, Indiana. Two programs considered among the Top 15-20 in the country almost annually with alternating turns at the top. Michigan has a ways to go to reach that point again consistently still but it's not unheard of. The past tradition is there.
8) What needs to happen for Michigan to make a run at the conference title?
A: Going back to the previous question, I'm not sure that they have enough firepower or depth to get there. Michigan State is an awfully good team this year. I ranked them No. 2 on my AP ballot in the preseason. Purdue, while I'm reserving complete judgment until I see a healthy Robbie Hummel for a few games, is right on par with them. Barring injuries, those are likely your top two. No reason to think Michigan couldn't finish third. I have them as the third-highest Big Ten team on my AP ballot and I voted them third in the Big Ten media poll.
A third-place finish will garner an NCAA berth and considering the depth of the Big Ten this year, likely a pretty high seed. But to answer your question, I think they'd need to pretty much win out at home in the league and pick off a few of the tougher games (Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State, Minnesota) on the road. Staying healthy is also going to be key. Michigan, while they have a nine-to-10 man rotation, can't afford to have one of its Top 4 guys (Harris, Sims and Novak along with Morris being the likely point guard) go down. The depth just isn't completely there yet. When I did my preseason prognosticating, I said Michigan would be 11-7 in the Big Ten. While I don't think that'll be enough to win the league, it'll be enough for the tournament.
9) What circumstances would lead to Michigan missing the NCAA Tournament?
A: An long-term injury to a key player (Harris, Sims, Novak, Morris) would be a killer. But providing Michigan stays healthy, remember earlier when I said I'd discuss Notre Dame's season last year, this is where it goes. Notre Dame, if you remember, was tabbed to be a potential Final Four team in the preseason after a second-round showing in the NCAA tournament a year earlier. They were a veteran team, didn't really lose a lot (other than current NBA D-Leaguer Rob Kurz) and had two stars returning in Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney. This year's Michigan team is somewhat veteran, didn't lose a ton (although C.J. Lee and David Merritt were big from a leadership standpoint) and have two returning stars in Harris and Sims. But the Big East last year – like the Big Ten this year – was stacked with a ton of talent and depth. You knew going in there were going to be one or two teams in the Big East that got swallowed by the league. There ended up being two that were ranked in the Top 10 at some point in the year and ended up in the NIT. Notre Dame was one. Georgetown was the other.
I get the same feeling about the Big Ten this year, where one of the projected Top 7 or 8 will just get crushed by the power of the league. Michigan's non-conference schedule should be strong enough (Old Spice, at Utah, at Kansas, BC, UConn) where barring an epic collapse in the Big Ten the Wolverines should be in for sure if they win a couple of those games. But there's a stretch of games that could be a confidence killer (it's what happened to Notre Dame and to a lesser extent, Georgetown) in the midst of the conference slate. Notre Dame lost 7 straight (six to Top 25 teams) which killed NCAA tournament hopes. Starting with Indiana at home on Jan. 14, the Wolverines then have Connecticut at home followed by at Wisconsin and at Purdue. Then they come home to play Michigan State. Those five games, in that order, represent the toughest stretch of the season and one that could send most teams in the country spiraling. Get through that and Michigan should be OK. Go 0-fer and then it becomes a bit dicey.
Predict: Michigan's final record: 21-9 regular season, 11-7 Big Ten
Michigan's team MVP: Manny Harris (although it wouldn't stun me if DeShawn Sims won it)
Michigan's Post-season Result: No. 5 seed NCAA Tournament, Sweet 16
The Big Ten Champion: Michigan State (regular season); Purdue (conference tourney)
Number of Big Ten teams in the NCAA tournament: 7
The final score of Michigan's first game on Saturday: Michigan 82, Northern Michigan 61.