Just a year ago, the Michigan basketball team was fresh off their first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade and expectations were high in Ann Arbor. Two walkons and a Canadian (CJ Lee, David Merritt, and Jevohn Shepherd) were the only departures, and the Wolverines were ready to take the next step forward.
So that went well, right?
Not so much, no.
Michigan sputtered the entire year, unable to find the spark that they'd ridden the previous season thanks in large part to their inability to find the bottom of the net. In retrospect, it should have been obvious: though they weren't frequently deployed, CJ Lee, David Merritt, and Kelvin Grady (who quit the team and eventually joined the football squad instead) were the team's best 3-point shooters. They were also the only point guards on the roster. Maybe those freshman phenoms from Indiana weren't as magical as it seemed.
The Wolverines turned their highest expectations in several years into a 15-17 record. Some losses were embarrassing, and the near upsets of Michigan State and Ohio State both ended with painful daggers from the opponent--one from mid-court.
Manny Harris has taken his talents to the Cleveland Cavaliers. DeShawn Sims took his to Greece, then back to America. Zack Gibson graduated, Anthony Wright is playing out his final year of eligibility at Toledo, Laval Lucas-Perry will ride the bench at Oakland for a season, and the most experienced players in Ann Arbor (outside of the opponents) are a pair of 3-star juniors and a sophomore.
Expectations are low this season, and understandably so. But does that mean Michigan fans should simply forget about the men of Crisler? Zack Novak has thrown himself on the floor, been elbowed in the face, and guarded guys half-a-foot taller than him too many times to be ignored. Stu Douglass has nailed one too many clutch shots, and learned one too many new positions (they call this one "point guard," whatever that is) for this team to simply fade away. Top recruits Evan Smotrycz and Tim Hardaway Jr. did not sign up to lose games wearing the maize and blue. These players want to win big games, and they'll probably do it at times this year.
We don't know who will be the stars, or which freshmen will perform. We don't know if Michigan's inexperienced bigs will be able to slow down the likes of Syracuse, Illinois, and Purdue. We don't know if the Wolverines will finally be able to find the bottom of the net after a year of searching, but coming up with mostly iron. We don't know if they'll run an effective 1-3-1 and force opponent turnovers. We don't know what to expect from this team.
Ever the optimist, I think this team will surprise a couple opponents [Ed-M: "Surprise" as in "beat" or as in "ha, bet you didn't know some of us shave!"?]. However, with such a young roster, there's no doubt that they'll be upset themselves. The one thing they can promise, though, is that they'll be fun to watch. Maybe not in every individual game, but seeing these young players grow over the course of the season should be an entertaining - if often frustrating - experience all its own.
And though I mean it every time I say it, this one may come from a little deeper in the heart: Go Blue.