Thursday, January 08, 2009

About that Michigan basketball team

It's probably pretty tough for all you Michigan alums out there trying to catch these basketball games lately since they all seem to be on the Big Ten Network. I guess it's more like the East Coasters because BTN is all over the Midwest. Lucky for me, I've got Verizon Fios at my place and for some reason the Big Ten Network is part of my package. Not exactly sure why, but when something good falls into my lap, I tend not to ask questions.

But because of this, I've gotten to watch a good majority of the games involving my alma mater (still feels weird to write that) Michigan and its men's basketball team. Last night, one of my few nights off from the nauseating boredom mixed in with intermittent excitement that is covering high school sports, I got a chance to catch Michigan's game against suddenly woeful Indiana. I also got to check out the Wolverines win over Illinois on Sunday.

Well, when I first turned on the tube I was dismayed to see Michigan already down 15 halfway through the first half. The team shot something absurd like 3-for-18 from 3-point range in digging itself a 17-point halftime deficit. That turned into a 20-point margin two minutes into the second half.

Then something happened that I wish would have happened a year ago. Instead of sulking, it seems at that point Michigan woke up and realized, 'Hey, we're the better team here, we're really better team here ... OMG we're actually the better team here!" Think Jimmy Stewart running through the streets in "It's a Wonderful Life" after getting a second lease on life. That's how giddy they had to have been.

See, when I had to sit through 22 merciless losses last season, Michigan all too often played the role of Indiana. The Wolverines would get a lead, and then to the surprise of absolutely nobody, crater underneath the weight of their own inadequacy. Things are clearly different now. The overtime win over the Hoosiers was Michigan's second gut check win in a row after its hard fought victory over Illinois last weekend.

But is this merely a mirage? Right now Michigan is 12-3 and in good position to secure an NCAA berth if they get the right bounces. Well, the numbers say things could come crashing down very soon. Two things that haven't changed since last season are youth and a lack of defense. Michigan has three seniors — all of whom play minimally — in a game like college basketball where conference and tournament time are mostly dominated by elder statesmen. Then there's the defense. To put it simply, it's awful.

According to SI's Luke Winn, Michigan has by far the worst defensive efficiency of any team currently in the AP top 30, ranking a woeful 185th in the nation. Last season they were slightly better, ranked 80th in adjusted defensive efficiency, but that was when the team had the Big Ten's leading shot blocker in Ekpe Udoh. Basically this team blew chunks on the defensive end and it only appeared like they sucked moderately because Udoh would cover up their mistakes. There's also the fact that the offense was so terrible, the defense kind of just got overlooked. In general on the defensive, not much has changed, and when push comes to shove numbers don't lie, they are probably worse than even last year's Michigan team. It probably doesn't help that they literally have two guys taller than 6-foot-8 on the roster these days.

Seriously go back and re-watch all of the Wisconsin game, the first half of the Illinois game, and the first half of the Indiana game and you'll see what I'm talking about. In the end, wins can't disguise the fact that opponents were literally walking into the lane for open jumpers and easy layups. Oh yeah, they stink at rebounding, too, but that's pretty common with a Beilein-coached team. To be exact, the Wolverines are second-worst in the Big Ten in rebounding margin.

It's your boy Kelvin ... Grady that is.

So what's different. There's gotta be something different, right? There's gotta be some reasons why a team that won just 10 games a season ago and added two marginally rated recruits (Zack Novak and Stu Douglass) and just recently added one solid player (Laval Lucas-Perry) is now sitting at 12-3.

Umm ... well ... guys actually make open shots this year, a welcome development from the team that appeared to be shooting on a triple rim every single game last season. Zack Novak has turned into an instant impact player with the type of moxie rarely seen in a freshman. The kid just seems to have a knack for knocking down big shots. They also don't really turn the ball over that much (ninth in the country in turnovers per game).

Oh yeah, and the team is just a lot luckier this season. Besides the ridiculous 20-point comeback last night, the Wolverines have beaten Duke on one of its all-time worst shooting days, come from behind in the second half to beat lowly Savannah State by two points at home, and just in general made me leave a number of games thinking, 'Well atleast we got the win", which is good every once in awhile but not every time you face somebody from cupcake city.

Now I realize I'm being a negative Nancy here, but maybe it's because I had to sit through the travesty that was the 2007-08 version of Michigan basketball. I don't think my heart or mind can take the torture of getting my hopes up only to see them wither away from missed shot after missed shot. All that said, I figured I'd give you an account of how I feel about some of the significant players on the team 15 games in ... since I guess having been one of the few and the proud to sit through the past couple seasons, I actually might qualify as something of an expert.

DeShawn Sims: Conventional wisdom says I should list Manny Harris here first, but I list Peedi (that's his nickname for the not-so savvy folks out there) ahead of Manny here because, frankly, I think he's the best player on the team. Oh yeah, and he was my favorite while covering the disaster of last season. Seriously, though, when the offense runs through him rather than the forced penetration of Manny, the team runs so much more smoothly. All the media covering last night's game talked about the huge 3-pointers in the second half by Novak and fellow freshman Stu Douglass, but very few mention that the main reason they got those open looks were because DeShawn sliced and diced the interior early in the second half for three straight buckets. The Hoosier D began collapsing as a result, creating open shots for everyone else.

My man, Peedi.

The guy has a burgeoning outside game, and when he limits his perimeter shooting to when he gets open shots through the flow of the offense, he's supremely effective. The one advantage Michigan's height deficiencies give him is that he's routinely matched up against unathletic centers that simply can't keep up with him, whether it's on the low block or on the perimeter. The guy is shooting at a 52 percent clip right now and should be getting the ball even more.

Manny Harris: Even last year, Manny had this aura about him that because he was considered the best player on the team by outsiders and scouts, things just had to run through him. That's fine and dandy when Manny is allowed to go straight one-on-one with his defender because the bottom line is that Manny Fresh has an NBA-quality first step that is next to impossible to stop without help defense. That's the key, though, the whole help defense part. In general, teams utilize it ... often.

Manny would be wise to add a pull up jumper to his repertoire, especially if he has dreams of playing pro. Teams are just collapsing on him and that's the main reason he's got more than double the amount of turnovers than anybody else on the team (47 total). The next closest is Sims with 20. To Manny's credit, he made a huuuge 3 against Indiana, but in general he throws up way too many bricks from long range. Instead of creating for himself so much, I'd love to see Manny Fresh trust the offense a bit more, rather than taking it the hole with no regard for what's going on around him. Seriously most of the shots he forces are shots that he could get at any point in the shot clock, so why not try to get something a little easier.

Still, I think I'm kind of overlooking the fact that he's just a sophomore and he's clearly made strides from a season ago. Let's just hope Beilein can keep him around for all four years. Judging from what I know about him and his handlers, that's definitely a big if. The fact that he has handlers should say something to you.

Zack Novak: Besides DeShawn, Zack is easily my favorite player on this team. The kid has a knack — and more importantly a willingness — to take and make big shots. He's exactly the type of player Beilein used to recruit at West Virginia and would eventually mold into something even better. What I like most about him is he seems to have a strong grasp of exactly what his limitations are, something you just don't see very often in freshmen. He plays to his strengths and has a grittiness that bodes well for later years. The future is bright for this lefty, especially with players like Manny, DeShawn, and Kelvin there to create open, spot-up shooting opportunities.

Kelvin Grady: Much improved from a year ago, especially in the assist-to-turnover department, where he's playing at a 3-to-1 pace i.e. exactly what you're looking for in a point guard. I'm not sure why Beilein hasn't been starting him — maybe so he can at least say he has one senior on the floor in either David Merritt or C.J. Lee. I really think this team's ideal lineup is a four-guard set with Grady, Manny, Laval Lucas-Perry, and Novak alongside DeShawn. But Beilein has shied away from using it for the most part. One glaring negative about Grady is his shooting. 37 percent from the field just isn't going to cut it.

Laval Lucas-Perry: It's refreshing to have another player besides Manny in the lineup who has shown himself capable of creating and finishing off the dribble. Not to mention LLP has displayed more range than I anticipated, making 16 of his first 35 attempts from 3-point range since he started playing six games ago. I'm anxious to see how he develops as the season goes along and he becomes more and more comfortable. Remember, this kid hadn't seen real live D-I action in over a year as of the end of December.

The Best of the Rest: Freshman Stu Douglass is going to be nice player down the line, but with LLP in the lineup, I don't see him making too much of an impact the rest of this season. I really wish (and I'm sure Beilein does as well) that Zack Gibson could play every game like he did against Illinois last weekend. The Wolverines desperately need his size because there's going to be a game or two where DeShawn gets in foul trouble early. It's just inevitable with him playing in the post so much. I'd like to see Jevohn Shepherd get more minutes. Compared to most everyone else on the roster, he's a pretty solid rebounder, which still isn't saying much for this team. I think Beilein has a prejudice against guys who can't shoot 3-pointers consistently, no matter if they could help his teams out on the floor.

So where does this leave us? Is this squad really an NCAA Tournament team, meaning John Beilein is actually a year ahead of schedule. Because I think there's no denying that if everyone stays on board, there are even better things to come next season when DeShawn Sims is a senior, Manny Harris a junior, and stud recruit Darius Morris coming on board. Only time will tell, I guess, because luck usually runs out.

Well, ESPN's Bracketology has them as a nine seed right now, but I think it's going to take eight and more than likely nine more wins to get into the dance. Now you see why losing that Indiana game the other night would and could have been disastrous. Does this team have eight more conference wins and a Big Ten Tournament win or two left in it? I'm not really sure, especially if it continues to play such porous defense. But seriously, what am I saying here. A year ago Michigan has already lost to Harvard and Central Michigan, anything, really, is better than that.

But I think we can all agree, things look a whole lot better. At the very least I think we can all agree the Beilein hire (which I supported even before they signed him up) was the right move. Also shout out to Rob, he was the inspiration behind this post. I really wanted to keep my nose out of the Michigan basketball analyzing game, but his insistence in Chicago over New Years made me change my mind. I'm curious to see how many people actually make it through this whole post.

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