Ann Arbor: a basketball town?
by Craig Ross
A year ago, who'd have guessed that Ann Arbor might become a basketball town?
Last fall, no one anticipated Brady Hoke's football team would look so woeful this season. And certainly no one predicted Michigan basketball's climb to the national championship game in April.
The concern raised in the Observer's preseason feature last fall--that the basketball team had, perhaps, too much talent--proved groundless. Early last season, it became clear that coach John Beilein had his talent in sync. The Wolverines weren't just good and deep. They were often breathtakingly elegant--one good pass leading to an even better one.
Michigan rolled out to a best-ever 16-0 start and then struggled a bit in the incredibly difficult Big Ten, the best conference in the country. The Wolverines finished 12-6 in the conference, but it was certain, by season's end, that Beilein's team could play with anyone.
In the NCAA tournament they did, and the fans responded. Hours before the final was telecast at the Crisler Center, lines meandered past the football stadium and out onto Main Street. Not a single seat was empty as the Wolverines finally lost to a terrific Louisville team in a close battle.
Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, the stars of that team, went in the first round of the NBA draft. Freshmen Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III might have gone early, too, but both chose to return this year.
Once again, the U-M will be tangling in the best conference. But the prospects are reasonable, at least. McGary was one of the best centers in the country by the end of last season. For a big man, he has an uncanny ability to see the court. And though Hardaway will be missed, his absence allows GR3 to slide down from power forward to what many feel is his more natural position at small forward; few teams will have a defender who can check his inside and outside games. Plus, Glenn gives Michigan the flexibility to go large or
small. Beilein now has a lot of size and a lot of different directions to go.
Caris LeVert, who grew to six-foot-six in the offseason, will see primary minutes at all of the perimeter positions, and, in the early going, he has proven to have a rounded game. He's backed up by frosh Zak Irvin, the best high school player in Indiana last year. Nik Stauskus is Michigan's primary two guard. Already a shooter with handling and passing skills, the Canadian has worked on getting more consistent in taking the ball to the hole and becoming a stronger and a better defender. If he can do all that, there may not be any better shooting guard in the country.
But college ball is a point guard's game, and Spike Albrecht is not quite as dynamic a playmaker as Burke and Darius Morris were, nor as comfortable generating his own shot. Also unclear is how fast freshman Derrick Walton can progress, particularly on defense and organizing the team in the half court. It appears Walton will get the first chance to run the team, and he is quick and good. But he isn't what Burke was last year.
Other worries: Mitch McGary's back was hurting before the season began, and the course of back injuries is hard to predict. Many also argue that Robinson has to become more aggressive. But a significant part of U-M's success last year was precisely because he was a master at letting the game come to him. If Glenn tries to do more, the team may do less.
The biggest unknown is how it will all fit together without last year's leaders. Michigan, ranked No. 7 in the nation at season's start, could win the Big Ten, but more likely will finish second to Michigan State--which beat Kentucky in November to become No.1 in the country--or maybe third. They will make a tournament run but, given their inexperience, the Sweet Sixteen is about as good as it will get.
[Originally published in December, 2013.]