Next up in the basketball preview series: Michigan.
Preseason expectations were high for John Beilein and Michigan last year, as the Wolverines returned their top 5 scorers and were ranked 15th in the country to open the season, but quickly fell from the polls after a three game losing streak (to Marquette, Alabama and Boston College) and wrapped up the pre-conference schedule at just 6-5 with no quality wins under their belt. Things didn't get any better in conference play, as they lost at Indiana to open the Big Ten season, blew a 17 point lead at home against Northwestern, and went down at home to lowly Penn State. The highlights were either an upset of Ohio State (although the Buckeyes were without Evan Turner in that game) or a sweep of Minnesota that nearly killed the Gophers' NCAA chances, but the 7-11 overall conference record was certainly a huge disappointment. In the Big Ten tournament, Michigan beat Iowa in the first round and had top seed Ohio State on the ropes in the quarterfinals, but Evan Turner hit a 35 footer at the buzzer to steal a win and end the Wolverines' season at 15-17.
Players not returning
So what's the difference between this year's Michigan team and last year's? About five bank accounts, three ounces, and two vehicles. More specifically, Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, by far the two best players on the team, are gone. Harris (who left a year early for the pros and is currently on the Cleveland Cavaliers) led the team in scoring (18 a game), assists (4 a game), steals (nearly 2 a game), and was second in rebounding behind Sims (6 per game). While his slashing style wasn't a great fit for Beilein's perimeter shooting oriented offense (Harris hit just 31% of his threes), Harris was one of the best players in the Big Ten and will be sorely missed.
As for Sims, he averaged 17 points and 7 rebounds in his senior season and was probably the best scoring big man in the entire Big Ten. Even though he wasn't a great defender, Michigan will really struggle to replace his offense and rebounding.
Making matters worse for the Wolverines, Sims and Harris aren't the only players leaving. Shooting guard Lavel Lucas-Perry (5 points per game in 21 minutes a night) was dismissed from the team for unspecified violations and transferred to Oakland, little-used wing Anthony Wright transferred to Toledo, and backup center Zack Gibson graduated.
We've already gotten a brief look at this year's version of Michigan, as like Northwestern they played 4 games in Europe. But unlike Northwestern, Michigan struggled on their Euro-trip, going just 1-3 against a collection of professional teams in Belgium. UMHoops has coverage of that trip here.
Michigan returns three guards from last year's team, led by junior Stu Douglass. Douglass got a lot of minutes a freshman and looked like a promising outside shooter, but didn't improve as a sophomore (offensively at least) as he shot just 33% from the field and 32% from 3-point range. He's a passable defender and ball-handler, but if his outside shot isn't falling, he's not bringing much to the table. Unfortunately, the absence of Sims and Harris will make it much tougher for him to get good looks, so I wouldn't expect much improvement out of Douglass.
They also return sophomore point guard Darius Morris, who was a highly touted recruit out of Los Angeles but struggled in his freshman season, most notably with his shooting (40% overall, 18% from three). Morris is big for a point guard (6'4") and should make strides as a distributor and slasher, but his jump shot needs to get a lot better, and if the games in Europe are any indication, it hasn't (10 for 34 overall in the 4 games and 0 for 10 behind the arc).
The final returnee is sophomore Matt Vogrich, who played sparingly as a freshman but did lead the team in 3-point shooting at 39%, and he looked pretty good in Europe with 22 points and 7 boards in their lone win, so he should see his minutes increase this season.
The most exciting guard for Michigan figures to be Tim Hardaway Jr. (yes, son of that Tim Hardaway), a 6'5" scorer out of Miami. He wasn't a very hyped recruit out of high school (despite scoring 31 points a game as a senior), but he's made an immediate impact already, leading the Wolverines in scoring on the Europe trip at 12 points per game. The early reports on Hardaway indicate that he can create his own shot and has an excellent mid-range jumper, but he needs to work on ball-handling and play-making. He certainly has a ton of potential, but it may take him some time to develop, as he figures to be the go-to guy from day one and thus will be matched up with the opposition's best defender.
MIchigan is extremely young up front, as their only returnee is 6'4" junior Zack Novak, who played out of position at the 4 in his first two seasons in Ann Arbor. Novak is the leading returning scorer (7 points per game last season), but he's far from a great shooter (37% overall, 30% from 3). Novak is a tough kid who did a decent job banging with much longer and stronger opponents inside, but he's better suited as a role player than as one of the go-to guys on offense. The early talk from Beilein is that Novak will move back to his natural guard spot this season, but I would expect him to end up back at the 4 sooner rather than later given all the question marks at that spot.
Every other Michigan forward is a freshman, led by Evan Smotrycz, a 6'9" wing from the basketball hotbed of Reading, Massachusetts. Smotrycz is the Wolverine's most highly touted freshman (getting 4 stars and the #59 overall ranking nationally from Rivals), but he was far from spectacular in Europe and it may be a while before he develops. Joining him at the wing is 6'6" freshman Colton Christian.
A pair of redshirt freshmen, Blake McLimans and Jordan Morgan, figure to get most of the minutes at center. McLimans is supposed to be a decent outside shooter but a poor rebounder for his size (6'10", 240 pounds), while Morgan is being billed as a tough rebounder without much of an offensive game, so they should be able to complement each other. True freshman Jon Horford will also compete for minutes.
It's been a weird couple of years for John Beilein at Michigan. He exceeded everyone's expectations by winning an NCAA tournament game in just his second year in Ann Arbor, but crashed back to earth last season, and now in his fourth year at the program he has to rebuild all over again. The biggest problem for Michigan a season ago was 3-point shooting, as the Wolverines shot just 29.7% (321st in the nation), made even worse by the fact that Michigan took 43% of their field goals from behind the arc, 12th highest in the nation. The perimeter shooting doesn't figure to get much better this season, as the absence of Sims and Harris will mean far fewer open looks for role players like Novak and Douglass. Hardaway looks like the only guy on the roster who can create his own shot, and that's a ton of pressure to put on a true freshman. Combine that with the extremely young frontcourt that will probably be the worst in the conference, and it's tough to be the slightest bit optimistic about this team. The consensus among the Big Ten media is that Iowa will be the worst team in the league, but comparing the two rosters I don't see Michigan having much of an edge if any. It's going to be a very long year in Ann Arbor.
SoP Prediction: Last in the Big Ten, no postseason.