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2011 Michigan Basketball Preview

November 11, 2011

For the last decade the Michigan basketball team has been a paradox, regularly underachieving when expectations were high and overachieving when they were low.  The ’00 season featured high school Gatorade Player of the Year LaVell Blanchard, future NBA star Jamal Crawford, and former California state player of the year Kevin Gaines, yet only managed to go 15-14 to finish 7th in the Big Ten.  Crawford left after that season due to questions coming about money he received in high school and Gaines was kicked off the team after a drunk driving arrest, causing Michigan to go just 10-18 the following season. 

In ’03-’04 the team had lost LaVell Blanchard to graduation, yet managed to go 23-11 on their way to winning the NIT behind new stars Lester Abram, Daniel Horton, and Bernard Robinson Jr., in what would turn out to be Tommy Amaker’s best season as the head coach. 

The ’04-’05 season was supposed to build on that NIT championship, but no chemistry on the team resulted in a 13 win season and no invitation to any post season tournament.  

 John Beilein took over in ’07 and his run so far has been no different to the previous two coaches.  His first season was a rebuilding year in which he matched the lowest win total of the Ellerbe or Amaker era going just 10-18 and again missing the postseason.  To compound the concerns, future NBA lottery pick Ekpe Udoh decided to transfer to Baylor after the season, and the incoming freshman recruits for Beilein’s first class were unheralded prospects Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, and Ben Cronin who had no other major college offers and were generally considered 0* – 2* prospects.  Expectations for the team were at an all time low to start the ’08-’09 season, but the team found leadership in walk-on point guard CJ Lee and fought in every game to finish the year with 21 wins and the first NCAA Tournament berth since the recruiting scandals wiped out their records.  They couldn’t sustain that success though, missing the tournament the following season even with stars Manny Harris and Deshawn Sims returning, increasing the frustation of the fanbase.

With Harris declaring early for the NBA Draft and Sims graduating, Michigan went into the ’10-’11 season with no star players and equally as many people calling for Beilein and Rich Rodriguez to be fired.  Coach Beilein did something unconventional before that season though, something Rich Rodriguez would’ve never considered doing.  He looked at his coaching staff and realized he needed a serious change.  The coaches he brought with him from West Virginia were let go and replaced with young up-and-comers Bacari Alexander and Lavell Jordan and promoting Jeff Meyer from an “Administrative Specialist” role.  It wasn’t just a show though, and Beilein actually listened to what his new assistants were saying.  He almost completely scrapped the 1-3-1 zone defense he had been known for in favor of going 90% man-to-man because his assistants knew it would be better suited for Big Ten play.  Alexander also took over coaching the PF/C position and changed Jordan Morgan from a low-rated, injured, overweight PF into a 10 point-per-game post player in his redshirt freshman season.  Michigan again made the tournament, winning their first game and coming one shot away from beating Duke in the second round.  The coaches also went out and got committments from some of the best players in the country, including Trey Burke (Mr. Ohio Basketball winner ’10), Carlton Brundidge (Mr. Basketball Michigan finalist ’10), Glenn Robinson III (top-30 player for class of ’12), Nick Stauskus (top-100 player for class of ’12), and Mitch McGary, the most hyped recruit Michigan has had since Blanchard and the #2 overall player in the country for the class of ’12.  

Even with star point guard Darius Morris leaving early for the NBA Draft, expectations for the Michigan basketball team are the highest they have been in a very long time.  They have talent, experience, great coaching, and a pipeline of talent ready to come in the next two years to keep generating wins and raising expectations.  The ’11-’12 season hasn’t even tipped off yet, but fans and basketball analysts are whispering the words “final four caliber” when talking about the ’12-’13 season.  That is not meant to take anything away from the current team though, because they are primed to build on the 2nd round NCAA Tournament appearance last year with the return of all of their key contributors outside of Morris.  Let’s hope the paradox is over and this year’s team reaches the high expectations they have for themselves. 

To help the football fans get to know this year’s hoops team, I’ve put together a list of some of the key players with their football-team equivalents.  If you don’t know the players already, you will by the end of the season.

Tim Hardaway Jr (SG) :: Denard Robinson – Just like Robinson, Hardaway was the breakout star of last season, and just like Robinson, the current season’s success will fall squarely on Tim’s shoulders.  He has the pedigree, the swagger, and a year’s experience in his utility belt.  The leading returning scorer on the team, he will be the go-to player when the team needs a big play.  As we’ve seen with Denard, there will likely be times Tim tries to do too much on his own to take over a game, but the skills are there for him to be one of the next great Michigan players to play in the NBA.

 

 

 

 

Zack Novak (SF/PF) :: Jordan Kovacs – All Zack Novak does is make plays. He was a zero-star recruit out of high school in Indiana who had no college offers before John Beilein asked him to play at Michigan.  He stepped in as the leader of the team last year and lead them back to the NCAA tournament.  Coming in as a 3-point specialist, he has become the heart and soul of this team, grabbing loose balls, taking charges, knocking down threes, and leading by example.  When he graduates after this year, he will be remembered as a fan favorite for a very long time.  

 Stu Douglass (PG/SG) :: Martavious Odoms – I hate to do this to Stu because Odoms has been injured most of his senior season, but I think the comparison is valid. Both played significant minutes their true freshman years and are now in their final year of eligibility.  Neither are the biggest or strongest players on the team, but both have found a niche that they fill well and do what the coaches ask of them.  Odoms has been a great blocker at the WR position, and a reliable punt returner over his four year career.  Stu has been a consistent 3-point shooter, defender, and great leader as he took Darius Morris under his wing to learn the offense, then became a key sub when Darius took over the starting role.  Odoms was recruited in RichRod’s first year because he had nobody capable of playing slot receiver on the roster.  Stu was recruited in Beilein’s first season because he needed more 3-point shooters on the team.  Both have made the most of their 4 year careers and will leave as true Michigan Men. 

Trey Burke (PG) :: Blake Countess – Burke comes in as Michigan’s highest rated recruit and future starting point guard.  Just like Countess coming in with 5th year senior Troy Woolfolk there to show him the ropes at CB, Burke will get to learn behind 4-year veteran Stu Douglass who will likely start at point guard.  We saw Countess take over the starting CB spot a couple weeks ago because his talent was too much to keep him on the bench.  Stu will start the season, but there is no question in my mind Burke will take over the job at some point this season.  His ball handling, speed, and passing are exactly what Michigan needs to replace Darius Morris in the lineup, and his 47% 3-point shooting his senior year in high school make him far more deadly than Morris ever was at stretching the defense.
Carlton Brundidge (PG/SG) :: Will Campbell – Brundidge comes into his freshman season after being a finalist for the Mr. Basketball award in the state of Michigan.  He was a highly rated recruit that committed to Michigan very early his junior year of school, just like Campbell did when he was at Cass Tech.  It’s likely we will see Brundidge on the court this year, but it could take him a couple seasons to really make his mark on the team.  He has a very high ceiling and I expect in 2-3 years he will be a key contributor, but for his first couple seasons he will need to find the key areas he can contribute.  He’s already talked about as one of the better perimeter defenders on the team, so his early role could be coming in to guard the opponent’s top outside shooter. 

Matt Vogrich (SG/SF) :: Jeremy Gallon – I wrote about Gallon in my stock market analogy of football players and listed him as the Penny Stock because he had tons of potential, but his time on the field was most known for his constant fumbling of punts.  So far this year, he has given significant returns to people who invested in him, becoming one of our most consistent wide receivers and regular punt returner.  Vogrich is in the same position heading into this basketball season.  In the previous two seasons he was sometimes a liability on the floor, not being able to defend well and jacking up too many bad shots.  Coming out of high school in Illinois though, Vogrich was a 4* player who was considered the best 3-point shooter in the country by some analysts.  He started to improve his defense as the season went on last year, and with another year in the weight room he should be even better.  Matt should be a regular sub this season, and if he can get the consistent shooting touch back he had in high school, he could continue to get more minutes throughout the season. 
Evan Smotrycz (SF/PF) :: Craig Roh – When Beilein offered Smotrycz, fans had never heard of him because Michigan didn’t get too many players from New Hampshire where he went to school. He was an unranked recruit when he committed, but tore up the AAU circuit that summer and jumped into the top-100 overall players coming out of high school.  Roh followed a similar path, being a rare recruit from Arizona who killed every camp he went to and the Under Armour all star game before ending up a 4* recruit.  This offseason, Smotrycz worked just as hard as Roh, who had been asked to gain a lot of weight to play DE in Greg Mattison’s defense, and both of them gained around 30 pounds of muscle so they could really handle the punishment of the Big Ten play.  Evan is a fantastic 3-point shooter, but is no longer a one-dimensional player being able to beat his defender off the dribble as well as post up if they try to cover him with somebody smaller.  As we’ve seen with Craig Roh the last couple months, Evan is ready to have a breakout season.

Jordan Morgan (PF/C) :: Thomas Gordon – Nobody expected much out of Morgan when he was recruited.  The best description of him entering his freshman season was that he was an undersized power forward who was seriously out of shape due to a major injury he had suffered.  Gordon was thought to be a “filler” scholarship offer coming out of Cass Tech because Michigan wanted to make sure they kept his teammates Will Campbell and Teric Jones committed.  Last season was a breakout year for Morgan, getting into great shape and working on his pick-and-roll moves to average 10 points per game and do a solid job guarding much bigger centers from the Big Ten.  He will split time with Jon Horford this season, but just like Gordon shocked people by being the only one of the Cass trio to be starting on the football team, Morgan has already beaten every expectation people had for him coming in.

Jon Horford (PF/C) :: Jake Ryan – People following the Michigan Spring practices kept hearing about Jake Ryan. People following pre-season hoops practices keep hearing about Jon Horford.  Horford is a sophomore who played sparingly last year and battled injury.  He met with the coaches in the offseason though and asked them what he needed to do to get more playing time.  He took the recommendations seriously and came back adding 30+ pounds of muscle and having a variety of new post moves.  It likely helped that he worked out with his brother, Al Horford of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, all offseason, and has other NBA genes in his blood since his father, Tito Horford, also played in the NBA.  We saw Jake Ryan beat out incumbent starter Cam Gordon on the football field, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Horford steal the starting center position from returning starter Jordan Morgan.  The two could even end up on the court together to give Michigan some size in the front court it hasn’t seen in a long time.  Jon is expected to be a solid contributor this season, and fans should be excited to see his progress.

-Mike Randazzo

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