This year, barring upsets over Wisconsin and Minnesota, Michigan will miss the tournament. When it gets to selection time and ESPN is reviewing every bubble team's resume, they'll arrive at Michigan and it will look like this:
Key wins: at Clemson, at MSU, (I can haz another upset?)
Key losses: vs. UTEP, at Indiana
And if Michigan stays par for the course for the rest of the year--beating the bottom dwellers, losing to the elite teams--their losses are more damning than their wins are redeemable. Michigan is solidly an NIT team, but without beating a ranked opponent, Michigan isn't going to sniff the NCAA.
This of course, turns everyone's eyes toward 2012, much like the end of the 2009 season, when Michigan was supposed to make the next leap. The keywords are Tim Hardaway Jr., a young team, and natural progression, none of which are the kind of givens that everyone wants to think they are.
Tim Hardaway Jr. Hardaway has been the most impressive freshman on Michigan's team this year, showing an ability to get to the bucket with decent, albeit inconsistent, range. MGoBlog describes him thusly:
In the clips above it's not the three-pointers that set hopes to tingle. We've seen Hardaway shoot a ton of threes this year and while he's adding a couple points of shooting percentage to them is encouraging, Michigan has plenty of guys who can take shots from outside the arc. It's the two different drives to the hoop where he glides into the lane and elevates to finish. Yes, you are 6'5". Yes, you are Tim Hardaway's son. Yes, you can turn into the kind of player who's an all-around nightmare. Yes, please, by next year.Hardaway's skills are impressive, but people are acting like Beilein has never had a player of his ilk before.
|Hai, have we not met before?|
Not that adding Manny Harris to this team wouldn't be beneficial, but Hardaway's production and body type--to say nothing of his predilection to take bad three pointers--are things Beilein has had to play with in the past. With any luck, Hardaway will avoid the general apathy and combativeness with the coaching staff that Harris showed toward the end of his career at Michigan, but regardless, seeing Hardaway turn into an unstoppable force is a little optimistic IMO.
Furthermore, one of the reasons that Harris was able to put up so many points in his junior year was because the offense was primarily run through him. The existence of Darius Morris changes the Harris/Hardaway role significantly. What Michigan needs out of the small forward position is someone who can shoot the three and make good cuts; Hardaway only satisfies one of those requirements.
Brian says on MGoBlog that Michigan has plenty of players to shoot three pointers and isn't concerned with Hardaway's ability to do so at a high level. This is wrong, though. If Michigan wants to get away from playing Zack Novak at the power forward position, it'll mean a lineup of: Morris, Novak, Hardaway, Smotrycz, Morgan. With Morris' limited range and Morgan's presence as a low-post threat, that leaves Novak, Hardaway, and Smotrycz to take the majority of the threes. If Hardaway continues to take bad shots or fails to hit the good ones at a high clip, Michigan's offense could stall.
But they're so young. The biggest source of hope is that Michigan's team is once again one of the youngest in the country. Much like in 2009, Michigan's team is at a serious disadvantage in terms of college experience. This was one of the biggest points of optimism for the 2010 season that ultimately saw the team flame out spectacularly and lose close games in agonizing fashion.
On a player-by-player basis, Stu Douglass and Zack Novak both tanked magnificently during their sophomore years before having their best season's to date as juniors. The rest of that class is either no longer with the program or doesn't see significant playing time. The point being that, though it's a common trend, Michigan's freshmen don't have to morph into superstars next year.
In order to make the leap, though, Michigan will need Morgan, Smotrycz, Jon Horford, and Blake McLimans all to significantly improve their production. Morgan's evolution as a post player seems most likely. He's gotten better as the year has progressed, and his biggest weakness is a general lack of speed and poor footwork. With offseason training, most of this should be settled and we will see Morgan become a consistent threat next year in addition to improved defense (his biggest flaw).
The rest aren't quite as cut and dry. Smotrycz's evolution as a big man three-point shooting terror is probably more important than Morgan's improvement. As noted above, Michigan's starting lineup needs more players that can consistently hit three pointers, and having a big man that can stretch the defense is key to Beilein's offense. Smotrycz's 32/86 mark from outside indicates he might have the skills to get there next year, and if he can, that will truly be when Michigan takes the next step.
Horford and McLimans will also need to improve, though their gains have to come in the weight room first. Michigan's PF/C depth is basically non-existent this year and with no big-man commits yet, the importance of their progression is amplified. If one or both of them can't become quality Big Ten backups, it'll be tough sledding for another undersized Michigan iteration.
Do I think this team can be good? Yes, of course, but there are a lot of variables that are up in the air right now--and God forbid any of the starters or contributors gets injured--that make it hard for me to envision notably more success next year. If the freshmen can all make the proverbial leap and Hardaway can improve his three-point shooting, this team can end up ranked next year. But if Hardaway trends more toward Manny Harris' ball domination and none of the big men improve adequately, we'll have to revisit Beilein's job status.