Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Reality check: Michigan hoops isn't a tourney lock, this year or next

After Michigan upset MSU on the road, the fanbase started chanting "bub-ble, bub-ble" in unison and waiting for another moment like the one to the right. And even after MSU started its precipitous drop out of the rankings, and is a one-point OT win against Indiana away from a six-game losing streak, the blogsphere is asking whether or not Michigan can still sneak into the NCAA Tournament this year and expecting a tournament berth next year. I'm more reserved about my excitement and have reservations about saying this team is going to make the leap next year. (My own hesitance toward John Beilein has been expressly noted recently, FWIW.)

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?
Hardaway's measurables and stats are remarkably similar to Harris' throughout his career at Michigan:

Harris 07-08 16.1 4.2 2.7 38.10% 31.80%
Harris 08-09 16.9 6.8 4.4 41.50% 32.70%
Harris 09-10 18.1 6 4.1 42.10% 30.80%
Hardaway 10-11 12 3.8 1.5 37.50% 32.60%

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.


agaerig said...

Novak was substantially better as a sophomore than as a Freshman.

UTEP is one spot behind Michigan in RPI and six spots behind us in KenPom. They're going to make the tourney, most likely. As embarrassing losses go, that's pretty weak.

You're awfully pessimistic about this team. Considering how bullish you are on the prospects of, like, Courtney Avery a sophomore, it's probably worth giving a little credit to a coach who has seen two frontcourt players (Manny, Darius) make major leaps in their second years. I can't believe you're even hinting at Beilien's job status two weeks later when those two weeks included our first win at the Breslin center since 1998 and an extraordinarily encouraging road win at Penn State.

Chris Gaerig said...

The Breslin Center win needs to be knocked down about 10 notches now that MSU has plummeted. After they lost Korey Lucious they just aren't that good. I'm glad it happened, but let's not pretend that this was the same as beating MSU even two weeks prior.

agaerig said...

It doesn't change that fact that that was a major morale boost for this program and a skin on Beilien's wall. If Ohio State stumbles next year and goes 9-4 or something and Brady Hoke beats them, no one's gonna sit around yelping about how it wasn't really that great. We're gonna drink the breweries dry, kiss our women tenderly and expose ourselves to sunlight for the first time in seven years.

Andy said...

Yeah, you definitely seem to be a pessimist with basketball. Strongly defending Rodriguez and consistently going after Beilein given their results is curious to me. It's your blog and your right, but it might be time to look at your biases a bit.

That being said, of course they aren't going to the NCAA this year. They're 4-7 in the Big Ten without the quality wins they need to offset that record. Like the guy above said, losing to UTEP on a back to back after a tough last minute loss to Syracuse isn't exactly a bad or embarassing loss.

Couple other thoughts... One, it's time to just accept that Novak is the best four on this team, and he's going to be for the remainder of this year and next year. He's not Loy Vaught, but in this system he's fine. He holds his own defensively against players significantly bigger, collects impressive rebounding numbers, and hits threes when presented the opportunity. We should all just get over his height and appreciate his game.

Two, Hardaway's three point numbers will get better. He shot a better percentage in high school and has a solid looking shot. As his dribble drive and mid range game improves, defenses will be forced to back off a bit, his shot selection will improve and the percentage will go up. Between the existance of Morris and the coming of Burke, THJ will never have to fill the role Manny did. He can hit the open three when it's there and take it to the rim when it's there and average 15-16 a game.

Finally, saying Douglass and Novak "tanked magnificently" as sophomores is comical, and basically destroys your credibility to comment on basketball. I'd encourage you to head to mgoblue or espn to check out their numbers. Both dropped a bit in three point percentage, but their overall numbers improved in almost every category. Novak gets the respect he deserves, but Douglass has become arguably the best perimeter defender on the team as well as a more than compentent back up PG. I'd actually say he runs and initiates the offense better than Morris, obviously without the finishing ability. As his shot continues to come around, it just reinforces the idea that Novak belongs at the four and the best lineup we have is Morris, Douglass, Hardaway, Novak, Morgan. Anyway, given the profiles Douglass and Novak had coming in, the players that they've become is a strong statement for Beilein.

That's all I have to say about that, I think I'm done rambling.

Reggie said...

I agree with Chris. The MSU win is not that big all things considered.


If Novak is the teams best 4 then that team will not make the tourney. point blank. I don't care how much grit the kid has tourney teams (in the big ten know less) don't have players with his limitations at the 4.

Also saying Douglass is a good perimeter defender is also a joke. He routinely gets blown by by players that are bigger and quicker. Like Vogich, Novak at the 4, smortyz, and Morgan at the 5...he is a liability on defense.

Chris, to a large extent I agree with you. until the team as a whole shoots better from 3 (we take so many that we have to be more efficient from that range) and Morgan/Horford/Smortcyz improve their size and finishing to keep Novak out of the 4... UM will always be a bubble team at best. Capable of playing elite teams close or even beating 1 a year...but also capable of losing to anyone.

Annie said...

Nice to have you back writing Chris. The problem with the Manny age was no one could tell him what to do. Coach B hadn't had enough success and was missing critical pieces of the puzzle. No point guard existed on those teams. He really had free reign because there was no back up plan. With Darius we have out floor general. With Novak we have our selfless leader. With the burgeoning outside shooters Coach B has his offense clicking. I think there are a lot of reasons why we won't return to 2009-2010.

agaerig said...

People who downplay winning at the Breslin Center either do not remember or have blocked from their memories the years when Chris Young was our best player and Lavell Blanchard was underwhelming the world. They don't remember that we formed the Maize Rage basically so that MSU students wouldn't both outnumber and outshout us in Crisler. That was a major hurdle for this program emotionally even if that wasn't the Flintstones out there for MSU.

Reggie said...

the msu was big to UM but not to anyone else in the country...ie will not help get into the tourney. Afterall, this is what we are talking about right? UM getting into the tourney this year and next?

For the purposes of that ^^ discussion. The MSU win needs to be downplayed. Its no bigger than the PSU W at this point.

Reggie said...

also I should clarify, that I'm less pessimistic about next year as Chris.

I think Hardaway will get better in shot selection, driving the hoop, and getting to the foul line. Like someone else mentioned having D Morris will help his growth (Manny never had this).

I also think the Horford/Smortcyz/Morgan will continue to improve. Smortcyz is a pretty high level recruit so still way to early to count him out. The other two have already exceeded expectations IMO and have grown this season. no reason to think that won't continue into next season.

AG said...

For those of you who didn't read last year's Detroit News article about Deshawn Sims and Manny Harris, long story short it was Manny's loyalty to Peedi after his brother was murdered that kept Manny in Ann Arbor. Were it not for that, he'd probably be suiting up for his senior year at Tennessee right now.

THJr is already improving his 3pt shot, and don't underestimate how teachable an NBA player's son can be.

Jon Horford has serious potential. With his frame he's already a decent rebounder but could be a great one after some time in the weight room.

As for winning at the Breslin Center there is NEVER a time where it is not a big deal. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Texas thinks winning in EL is a quality win, who are we to disagree with that?

Matt said...

Just glancing over, you've missed the boat on two things.

1) Morgan's footwork is pretty good. It helps offset his lack of explosiveness and allows him to pivot and get off baby hooks and such. If anything, next year he needs to work on a midrange jumper and going up stronger. And play physically without fouling, like the coaches have been saying.

2) Hardaway has shown the ability for a solid jumper and is athletic enough to make cuts. I don't know which games you're watching.

3) We're shooting 35% on 3, which is above average percentage wise, but on a much higher sample than other teams. Generally as you do more of something, the percentage will go down. To shoot it at a decent mark that frequently is impressive and should actually be commended.

Pete M said...

I'm cautiously optimistic. Simply being the only Michigan coach in the last decade to make, and win a game in, the tournament earned Beilein 5 years in my book.

His recruiting classes aren't spectacular, but every single one has contributed something. Douglas and Novak the 1st year (not great, but reasonable secondary players), Morris, Morgan and Vogrich the second year, and Hardaway and Smotrycz in this year's class (with the possibilty that Horford might contribute in the future).

The knock on Beilein is recruiting. Amaker had some nice classes early on and at the end. His best classes (Dion Harris, Sims, Petway) were great. He also had a Ron Coleman only year followed by Price, Shepard and Smith.

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