Last year the Observer predicted that the U-M was headed for another losing season–we even wrote that coach John Beilein was attempting to “reanimate a zombie.” But since the point of sports is hope, the article also ventured the bromide that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that chemistry would overcome the Wolverines’ lack of experience and talent.
No one believed it. The Michigan men had finished the 2009-2010 season at 15-17, staggering to the finish with stars Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. Then Sims graduated and Harris left for the NBA, leaving the U-M with just ten scholarship players (thirteen are allowed), six of them freshmen. Only three had even the slightest college experience.
The Wolverines lost six of their first seven Big Ten games. But by January, the scores were getting close. First, Michigan took number-three Kansas to overtime. Three days later they took number-two Ohio State to the wire. At the end of the month, U-M beat nemesis MSU–at MSU. They won seven of their last ten Big Ten contests, and all three losses were nail-biters. In the Big Ten tournament, Michigan handled Illinois, then lost in the semifinals to OSU, but this time the Buckeyes were only ever so slightly better than Beilein’s squad.
By the time the dust cleared, Michigan had won twenty-one games and was in the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines creamed a talented Tennessee team 75-45, then lost against number-one seed Duke (73-71) when point guard Darius Morris (DiMo) threw a last-second teardrop that rolled off the rim. Just a tear. Still. Better living through (team) chemistry.
So is it safe, finally, to raise expectations for this year? It would have been if DiMo had not opted for the NBA. The point guard is the most important player on the floor. He’s the guy who makes the offense go; without good point play, most teams will be relegated to also-rans.
Michigan has freshmen who might fill the void, but all first-year players endure growing pains (see DiMo’s first year); counting on a freshman early transcends hope. The good news is that senior Stu Douglass can play some point. But for Michigan to approach last year’s record, they need one of the frosh to learn fast. Trey Burke, a true point guard in high school, seems the most likely candidate. The good news is that both Burke and Douglas are better outside shooters than DiMo. The bad news is everything else. Michigan won’t have a point guard playing at DiMo’s level this season.
The team can improve elsewhere. Backup center Jon Horford has gained thirty pounds of good weight and, at six-feet-nine and 250 pounds, can help starter Jordan Morgan. Forward Evan Smotrcyz also bulked up, and his improvement during last year should continue. Blossoming sophomore Tim Hardaway should be more complete, notably in his dribble and left hand. Stu and Zack Novak are senior mainstays. With Burke, freshman Carlton Brundidge (a combo guard who can score), and Max Bielfeldt (a big guy, six-feet-eight and 240, with some shooting skills), Michigan has more depth than last year or any time during Beilein’s tenure. Talented swing player Matt Vogrich, a tough guy masquerading as a choirboy, may have to scramble for minutes.
Douglass and Novak will remain unifying presences as leaders. It is impossible to overstate what this means to any team. Zack Novak is a future Michigan icon–in thirty years older fans will recall him with something like, “You think this kid is tough, you should have seen Zack Novak …”
Even with the unsettling question of point-guard play this year and the chore of keeping a deeper team unified, the future appears bright. Beilein’s recruiting for 2013 and 2014 is going better than well. He and his staff have taken a program with a death rattle and turned it into one on the verge of competing for an NCAA berth every year.