Michigan Basketball Season Preview

Submitted by Ace on November 11th, 2011 at 3:05 PM

L to R: Greatest photo evar(!), Trey Burke, Evan Smotrycz

Brian has decided to activate the "ninja" half of my job description and deploy me as MGoBlog's go-to basketball guy this season, a role which will only increase as football season comes to a close. Michigan's basketball season officially kicks tips off tonight against D-II opponent Ferris State in a game that would be far more interesting if it took place at Yost instead of Crisler, but that's non-conference basketball scheduling for you. That means I should probably post a season preview.

Last year saw an extremely youthful Michigan squad overcome the losses of Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims and a six-game midseason losing streak to make a shocking run to the NCAA tournament—highlighted by a season sweep of Michigan State—where they bombarded Tennessee in the first round before falling just short against top-seeded Duke. The Wolverines were poised to bring back every major (and minor, really) contributor from the 2010-11 squad until Darius Morris—the team's leading scorer and only true point guard—decided to leave for the NBA, turning Michigan from a potential Big Ten dark horse into, well, a darker horse, if that makes any sense whatsoever.

Still, the Wolverines return everybody except Morris, add a pair of high-profile freshmen in point guard Trey Burke and combo guard Carlton Brundidge (as well as forward Max Bielfeldt), and have an obvious go-to guy in place in sophomore Tim Hardaway Jr., who is poised to take over the reigns from Morris as the focal point of the offense. This is enough to earn them a preseason #22 rating from Ken Pomeroy, good for fourth in the B1G behind Ohio State (#2), Wisconsin (#10), and Purdue (#19), and just ahead of the Spartans (#24). How will the team fare? Let's start by breaking it down by somewhat-vague position groups:

The Rotation

Point Guard

Yes, point guard gets a section to itself, and this will be the most scrutinized spot on the floor for the Wolverines. As expected, John Beilein has named freshman Trey Burke, a four-star recruit and last year's Mr. Basketball in Ohio, as the starter, and he's under an extraordinary amount of pressure to come in and adequately replace Darius Morris. Their styles couldn't be much more different—Morris is a 6'4", physical creator who used his size to create interior shots (both for himself and others) but struggled with his outside shot, while the 5'11" Burke relies on his quickness and shooting ability to create his own offense. Burke actually fits better into Beilein's offense, but the looming question is whether or not Burke will be able to set up his teammates like Morris (6.7 assists per game last year) while not making too many freshman mistakes with the basketball.

It's likely that Stu Douglass will reprise his role as sixth man and primary backup at both guard positions. Douglass isn't an ideal creator at point guard—last year, he had a higher turnover rate (17.0%) than assist rate (10.9%)—but he's a streak shooter who can occasionally catch fire from deep and as a senior he's well-versed in the offense. Now that he's got a year of experience at point guard—a position he had never played until last season—under his belt, he should be an adequate backup for Burke. Douglass is the team's best perimeter defender, as well, but he must develop more consistency in his shot (48.9% from two, 35.8% from three LY) to become a real threat on offense.


Michigan's only other scholarship senior is the King of the Gritty White Guy Platitudes himself, Zack Novak, a 6'4" shooter/rebounder/unlikely-dunk-contest-winner/sideline-freakout-artist who has spent much of his Wolverine career playing wildly out of position at power forward. Now that Michigan finally has some depth up front, Novak can play the two or the three, and this should help open up his offense—other than seldom-used Matt Vogrich, Novak had the best three-point percentage on the team last year at 38.5%, but he often seemed to get gassed and disappear offensively due to having to guard players half-a-foot taller than him. Unfortunately, he's not a threat inside the arc, posting a paltry 38.0% shooting mark on two-pointers, but his remarkable ability to get rebounds amidst the trees makes him a valuable player on both ends of the floor. I expect Novak will average double-digits in scoring while grabbing 5-7 rebounds per game and providing valuable defense.

Your other starter on the wing is Tim Hardaway Jr., who greatly exceeded expectations as a freshman—averaging nearly 14 points and four rebounds per game—and will now become the team's go-to scorer. Hardaway spent much of last season as a spot-up shooter, and connected on a decent 36.7% of his threes, but this year he'll be asked to do much more creating with the ball in his hands. This was an area he improved upon as the season wore on last year, but he'll still have to get much better now that Morris isn't there to take away a lot of the defensive pressure. Still, Hardaway is the clear best player on the team—he's on both the Naismith and Wooden award preseason watch lists—and he should average at least 15 points a game. The big question here will be his shot selection, as he displayed a propensity for "what was that?"-type jumpers at times last year and could feel more pressure to jack up ill-advised shots as the team's main scorer.

Douglass, again, should be the primary backup at guard, but don't be surprised if 6'4" junior Matt Vogrich sees a greatly increased role this season. Vogrich was a dead-eye shooter from distance last season, hitting 38.7% of his threes, and was much-improved defensively after looking lost as a freshman two years ago. He's still limited in terms of his skill set, but in Beilein's system his sharp shooting will be a big asset off the bench.

The wild card here is four-star freshman Carlton Brundidge, who stands at only 6'1" but is a strong slasher who is at his best when attacking the basket, something you can't say about anyone else on the roster. Brundidge barely played in Michigan's exhibition game against Wayne State last week, but I think his role will increase as the season moves forward—he's one of the more talented players on the roster and could see a lot of time next to Douglass when the senior shifts over to the point, as their respective size and skill-sets make for a solid backcourt pairing.


(I'm throwing the nominal power forwards in here too, just in case there's some confusion when I call, say, the 6'6" Colton Christian a backup big.)

The starter at the four is 6'9" sophomore Evan Smotrycz, a very solid outside shooter (38.1% from three) who many have tabbed as the X-factor for this year's team. Smotrycz reportedly gained 30 much-needed pounds in the offseason, which should help his post defense greatly, but there are still major questions about his athleticism and ability to create shots on offense. Smotrycz doesn't have much in the way of a post game and hasn't displayed the quickness to face up and drive past a player with regularity, and we'll have to see if he's improved in those areas over the offseason. While I still don't think he'll be a major threat in the post, his size and shooting ability are very intriguing, and I think Smotrycz could emerge as the team's second option on offense. Defensively, he should be fine as long as he's not asked to take on quick small forwards or hulking centers, and Beilein now has enough flexibility with his lineups where that shouldn't be a huge issue.

At center, it's a battle between redshirt sophomore Jordan Morgan and true sophomore Jon Horford (brother of Al) for the starting spot. Morgan was the man there last year, and was extremely efficient shooting the basketball (62.7%), but most of his opportunities were either created by the now-departed Morris or the result of offensive rebounds. While he was decent in his on-ball defense, Morgan was extremely foul-prone and did not provide much of a shot-blocking threat. If tabbed as the eventual starter, Morgan should be solid, but he's got his limitations and could really feel the absence of Morris more than anyone else on the roster.

Though it came as a bit of a surprise, it was Horford who started against Wayne State, and he'll take the opening tip once again against Ferris State tonight. An extremely raw prospect out of high school, Horford showed occasional flashes of rebounding and shot-blocking brilliance last year, but often looked awkward with the ball in his hands and frequently settled for outside shots, which he rarely made. Like Morgan, he was very foul-prone, so we'll likely see both big men get major minutes this season, but Horford seems to have the higher upside—he's more athletic than Morgan and has a better shooting touch while providing a much-needed shot-blocking presence on the interior of the defense.

There are two bench players who should see occasional minutes this year: 6'6" sophomore power forward Colton Christian and 6'10" center Blake McLimans. Christian doesn't provide any real threat offensively, but he's a capable rebounder and defender who could turn into an interesting role player if he shows the ability—and willingness—to hit any sort of shot. McLimans is big, which is always nice, but he was supposed to possess a good outside shot and ended up going 1-for-19 for three last year. Since he only shot the ball 41 times total (making 13), this is a bit of an issue, and defensively he's not as strong as either Morgan or Horford. We'll see if Beilein trusts him enough to put him in the rotation, or if he decides to go small and occasionally move Smotrycz to the five, something we saw a fair amount last year.


I hate to kind of punt on this one, but man, who knows? The 2008-09 team was supposed to be mediocre at best, then made a surprise run to the tournament and even knocked off Clemson once they got there. The 2009-10 team brought back pretty much everyone, had a lot of preseason hype, and fell flat to the tune of a 15-17 record. With Harris and Sims gone last season and pretty much the entire team either freshman or sophomores, the 2010-11 squad looked to be terrible, so of course they reeled off 21 wins and once again advanced to the second round of the NCAAs.

This year's team appears poised for a potential top-25 season and another tournament run, but much of those expectations rely on a smooth transition from a star in Morris to a true freshman in Burke while other players—most notably Hardaway and Smotrycz—pick up the scoring slack and keep the offense running smoothly. With a difficult non-conference slate that includes a brutal draw in the Maui Invitational, plus playing in a Big Ten conference ranked by KenPom as the nation's toughest, this looks to me like a team that will spend much of the season squarely on the tournament bubble.

Exceeding those expectations means that we either see vast improvement from key role players, a huge breakout from Tim Hardaway, or a fantastic freshman year out of Burke—none of those are out of the question, but none are certainties, either. If Michigan suddenly finds that they can't create inside scoring chances without Morris's penetration, or Hardaway spends the season trying to carry the offense by chucking up less-than-ideal shots, Michigan could fall short of their goals as the fanbase begins to look ahead to the arrival of Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, and Nick Stauskas in 2012-13.

All I can say for certain is this will be an interesting year, and lucky for us, this is a group that is extremely likable and fun to support. The future is very bright, almost regardless of what happens this year, but we'll just have to see if the Wolverines continue to make a push towards the top of the Big Ten or stay in a holding pattern until blue-chip reinforcements arrive.



November 11th, 2011 at 3:16 PM ^

If this makes it any better, I expect THJ to repeatedly go HAM on fools this season. I am, however, a little worried about whether Michigan has a true second option who can go HAM with consistency.


marco dane

November 12th, 2011 at 2:31 PM ^

has improve,as implied my mulitple reports on other sites,then I look for more inside called plays.

Very much interested in seeing their growth,since their frosh to sophmore seasons of Hoford  (very interested in his growth) and Morgan. To get to the next level much is going to depend of how strong we are in the middle. 


November 11th, 2011 at 3:55 PM ^

I hate to say this, but I will be surprised - pleasantly - if MBB makes the tournament this year.  I just don't see it happening with this squad.  The loss of Darius will hurt more than I think most people expect.


November 11th, 2011 at 4:35 PM ^

No doubt the loss of Darius will hurt, and he was good, but not so good that his loss alone with drag the team down as far as you suggest. 

Keep in mind that when last season started, we didn't have a single kid on the team over 6'4" who had played college basketball before, and they were all anywhere from slightly to vastly underweight.  This year our 4s and 5s actually have some experience and some beef, and because of this, a bit of depth. 

Not only is our starting line up better this year, but when one of our bigs gets in foul trouble, we don't need to play Novak at the 4 and Metrics at the 5. And for all the good things Morris did, when he had the ball around the arc, opponents begged him to shoot, and if he drove, they knew he was going right every time.  That won't be the case with Burke, which will open up a lot of other things that Morris couldn't do. 

In summary, I'd be very surprised if this team even took a step back from last year, let alone miss the tourney altogether.


November 11th, 2011 at 4:45 PM ^

But I think the big difference between what happened two years ago and now is the leadership of Novak and Douglass. I think Novak will be a great senior leader. I do think Morgan will have a much worse year because most of his production came from Morris. But I think Burke will be adequate, Novak and Douglass will be steadying forces and Hardaway will progress.

Saying all that, I think we will be a bubble team because the Big Ten is good.


November 11th, 2011 at 11:41 PM ^

I agree with you here.  College hoops is about Point Guard play.  2009-10 was a down year because we lost our PG leadership that kept our team stable.  Expect a lot of frustrations throughout this year and dissapointment.  


If Novak is the leader we all love him to be, this team can creep off the buble and make the dance.  Love them so much and hope we send Zack and Stu out right!


November 12th, 2011 at 12:08 AM ^

Let's not draw too many parallels between this year and two years ago.  2 years ago we lost 3 guys who were all contributors, but most importantly they were seniors leaders for the team.  Obviously a part of that was that we lost our PG. 

Although Morris was very good, his loss is a lot different, and he's only one guy.  Not only that, but 2 years ago we were left with a true frosh at PG and no one else.  This year we have a senior who has played his entire career in Beilein's system at PG along wiht the touted freshman.  As the season begins, Stu will get more minutes as Burke learns the ropes.  As the season goes, when Burke hits his rough spots, Stu will be there to take things over while Burke gathers himself on the bench.  Not only that, I think the guys around Burke and Douglass this year are better than the guys around Morris two years ago.


November 11th, 2011 at 3:58 PM ^


Might as well get the freshman kid a lot of minutes against a d-II school to get more experience.  If you wait till later to give Burke more time you just delay the natural growin pains, might as well try to get those out of the way early.  Additionally I like bringing Stu in off the bench for his shooting and defense.  

Burke as a freshman PG will likely do more for this team than Stu as a senior PG.  Burke will likely make some freshmen mistakes, and I expect him to mix great plays with "what are you thinking" plays.  However, I think Burke's mix of good and bad (likely with more good than bad) will be better than Stu's consistent averageness leading the offense.

However, at the end of games expect to see either Stu over Trey or Offense-Defense with Trey on O and Stu on D.


November 11th, 2011 at 4:05 PM ^

Hate to be that guy, but they technically made it to the 3rd round of the tournament last year.  Since they expaded the bracket they call the first 4 the first round and everyone else is automatically in the second round when they play their first game.  I hate that they refer to it this way, but UM was technically in the 3rd round last year.


November 11th, 2011 at 4:13 PM ^

I guess I'm slightly more optimistic about this year's team.  I think they'll be solidly in the tournament and hanging around the top 25 most of the season before getting a 7 seed. They'e as talented as they've ever been under Belein and JB continues to outcoach almost every top coach he comes up against.  Next year though,  when Burke hits his stride and we get the 2012 super class...watch out.


November 11th, 2011 at 4:34 PM ^

I actually don't think that the nonconference schedule is that tough outside of the Maui games.
<br>Virginia? Iowa state? Arkansas?
<br>I think as long as we win one game in Hawaii we will be ok. Two wins would be great. And three? Amazing obviously.

Blue boy johnson

November 11th, 2011 at 4:39 PM ^

I will be surprised if this team isn't over 500 in the Big Ten. With Darius gone, everyone else will have to pick up some of the slack.

I think Morgan and Horford will still get easy baskets, being the beneficiaries of dribble drives by Hardaway, Burke and Brundidge.

As Dylan at UMHOOPS says, it is going to be fun to watch; an attitude I wish were more prevalent in regards to M football on this blog. I  know I am off on a tangent, but why does following M football often border on drudgery @ mgo, while following Bball much more relaxed and enjoyable? I sometimes wish I had another spot to get timely M football news, so I wouldn't have to wade thru the misery here.

Ty Butterfield

November 11th, 2011 at 10:25 PM ^

I think fans, especially the die hard fans on MGoblog, take loses by the football team harder because there are fewer games. At least that is my theory. I certainly know that I do. The basketball season is longer so one loss does not seem as devastating. Certainly there are important games along the way but for the most part the loses just don't seem as bad as they do for football. Also, I only casually followed the basketball team for a long time simply because they were so bad. There were bright spots here and there, but for the most part it was just too hard. I concentrated more time on following the hockey team. I still like all Michigan sports but the hockey team is now second after football for me. Of course this may change if the basketball team can stay consistent and play up to their potential. Anyway this is just a theory. Go Blue!

Sac Fly

November 11th, 2011 at 4:41 PM ^

The loss of David Merrit, C.J. Lee and Kelvin Grady hurt the 09 team a lot more than losing Darius will this season. Those guys were our best defensive players and our best shooters and without them we struggled, not to mention Manny and Deshawn never bought into JB's system. This year will be different.


November 12th, 2011 at 9:17 AM ^

what's with the diminishing of Darius' impact!  Not only was he likely the best passer in the open court in TB10, but his ability to penetrate and run the high pick-and-roll with Morgan got us easy baskets and opened up 3-point line.  And while only 2 meaningless games, we haven't figured out how to get Morgan and Horford involved--coincidence, I don't think so.  Hopefully, Burke will make progress.  Stu is Stu, and his game is not likely to change much.


November 12th, 2011 at 9:55 AM ^

I don't know if this is the way Kenpom looks at it but I think the Big Ten is toughest to play in because there are so few bad teams. We're expected to get 8 out of 12 teams into the tourney which should be the highest percentage. Big East is strong at top but the bottom has some real dregs.

Hoke Saves Lives

November 11th, 2011 at 5:08 PM ^

... I made a hype video for the basketball team awhile back.  Not sure if it was before you got here or not, but nonetheless, I figured it only appropriate to bring it up given that the football team gets their own every year.

Here's the link to the diary entry:  http://mgoblog.com/diaries/video-diary-um-hoops-hype-video-2k11

And the link to the main video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laTDALJlA7k

Do with it what you will sir.  Keep up the good work.


November 11th, 2011 at 9:12 PM ^

until we got hot toward the end of the season.  I see us taking a similar path this year.  Things won't come easy early on.  Our defense, team cohesion and attitude will help to carry us until the offense starts to jell.  We can't afford to lose any of the should win games


November 12th, 2011 at 8:15 AM ^

I see two important factors in what could be a great upside this year.  First, Trey Burke has to be "for real."  I think he is, and I think he will be playing well by February.  He has the best pure PG skills we've seen in maize and blue for a long time.  I think that until he is fully acclimated to D-1 ball, he will live by one mantra: get the ball to THJ.

The second factor is Jon Horford.  The entire family was "raw coming out of high school."  Even though Al was closer to being a finished product, it just seemed to take them all time to "grow into" their bodies.  I was very excited when both Horford and Hardaway were recruited.  Hardaway demonstrated how underrated he had been last year.  

I think this is the year we see Horford start to show that he, too, was a major recruit.  I expect him to outperform many in his class who had a fourth star.  


November 12th, 2011 at 5:32 PM ^

will be a small step back.  we have leadership and talent htat is progressing.  next year is hwen we will see a jump in expectations and hopefully performance.  in GRIII and Mitch stick around for 203 years UMBB has a chance to build a program that has not only top coaching but top talent. Mitch was a huge get and if he pans out (even one and done), it shows that UMBB can highlight topflight players and improve their stock which is huge in recruiting.  If UMBB can make the tourney this year it only helps the process but I feel like this season is just putting water in front of the dam and next year is when the dam breaks and the program starts to content annually for B1G titles


February 10th, 2015 at 5:41 PM ^

I think Stu is the most important player on the team this year. He's a vital part of the offense, and he could be instrumental to the success of the team. His perimeter D is great as mentioned, and I can't remember a shot that pure and smooth.

Also I think Morgan should definitely get the nod over Horford. He was an absolute force at times last season, and we should continue to expect great things this season. Horford, as alluded to, just seems out of place, and yes, weak at times. It would be detrimental to give Morgan's minutes Horford.