Michigan Men’s Basketball Big Ten Season Preview

BIG TEN Hoops Season Preview

Schedule Analysis.

Here we check out the best and worst-case scenarios for the Michigan men’s basketball team coming into the Big Ten season.  The way the schedule is set up, each team plays a home and home series against all the other teams in the conference except for four.  Michigan plays lowly Penn State and Northwestern only at home – and plays Ohio State (14-0) and Illinois (12-2) only on the road.

With losses against a respectable group of Arizona, Duke, and Iowa State (for the record Charlotte was not a respectable loss), Michigan may be the best 4-loss team in the country right now.   And the Big Ten has more teams set to make the tournament than the seven they sent last year in 2013! Evidence of the depth of the league showed when 6/7 won their first matchup.  It will be a fight to the finish in the Big Ten and the schedule can make or break your season… I’m looking at you right now, Iowa.

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[1] http://kenpom.com/ updated as of 1/1/14

This table shows the average ranking of the teams on each contender’s Big Ten schedule.  Illinois and Indiana are stretch contenders that will need a miraculous run so I didn’t include them, but they may very well be top-50 teams in contention to make the tournament at the end of the season.  The verdict is the teams Michigan misses are an unfortunate group to miss.  They would probably rather get a shot at Ohio State and Illinois at home to give those two an extra loss in the end-of-year conference standings instead of guaranteeing wins at home against Penn State and Northwestern.

Wisconsin is a classic example of how important holding home-court is to the Big Ten championship race.  Imagine a world where home-court is the most important statistic to predict if a team will win or not.  A team playing in that world would win their nine conference games at home each year, lose their nine on the road, and go home 9-9.  In Wisconsin’s case, they identify easily winnable road games to put their record at a solid 12-6 or 13-5 annually.  Recruiting world-class talent is not easy for Wisconsin basketball, so it needs another way to guarantee success over the median even if the schedule is unfavorable.  The way they did it? Home-court advantage.

Well….this seemingly modest formula for success works so well that the last time they didn’t finish in the TOP FOUR in the conference was before Bo Ryan was introduced as coach in 2001! A CRAZY record considering Michigan celebrated the Manny Harris-led team that finished 7th place in the conference – the team that broke the NCAA tournament drought.  In Ryan’s first 8 seasons, his team was a remarkable 61-5 at home!  And the team had a part of three Big Ten titles.  Winning in the Big Ten is easy now, right? Wrong.

After Indiana seemingly had the Big Ten locked down going into the final week of the season in 2013, Ohio State came into their house and unseated them just in time for the final day of the year pitting Indiana against Michigan in Bloomington, IN.  The game was a raucous affair and came down to the buzzer. Hypothetically thinking now for anyone who remembers the game.  If Michigan’s last second scoring attempts had fallen through against Indiana, Trey Burke finishes tied for first atop the conference with Indiana, Michigan State, and Ohio State all combined at 13-5.  In reality, neither Burke’s last-ditch lay-up nor Morgan’s put-back attempt fall through after hanging on the edge of the rim a few milliseconds longer than Cody Zeller would have liked.  In reality, Indiana wins and finishes in sole possession of first place at 14-4.  Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers and the Michigan Wolverines slide together into a tie for 4th place at 12-6 – extending the fourth place or better streak to an astounding 12 years.

It is so incredibly difficult to maintain focus throughout the long season that there’s bound to be letdowns.  Although the season before Michigan had a miraculous run led by fantastic, senior classmen Zack Novak and Stu Douglas, and a perfect infusion of young talent in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to tie for first in the conference the season before, the Big Ten is so tough Michigan’s best team in recent memory couldn’t win it all (let’s be honest, the team that made it to the Final Four in 2013 was way better than the one that won the Big Ten in 2012).  The good news is Michigan has improved its home Big Ten record from 4-5 and 5-4 from 2009-2011 to 8-1 in each of the past two seasons, indicating they play at a higher level of intensity consistently from January to March and are more focused throughout the season.  In fact, it’s no coincidence Michigan got to hang its first Big Ten championship banner since 1986 when it started holding its own on home-court, and was only a tip-in away from hanging its second in a row last season.

With that done… Here are the best and worst-case scenario forecasts for Michigan’s Big Ten basketball season.

BEST CASE (13-5)

@Minnesota.                         L

NORTHWESTERN.             W

@Nebraska.                         W

PENN STATE.             W

@Wisconsin.                         L

IOWA.                                     W

@Michigan State.             L

PURDUE.                         W

@Indiana.                         W

NEBRASKA.                         W

@Iowa.                         L

@Ohio State.                         L

WISCONSIN.                         W

MICHIGAN STATE.             W

@Purdue.                         W

MINNESOTA.                         W

@Illinois.                         W

INDIANA                         W

Tied for 1st! Also tied: Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State.

home record = 9-0; away record = 4-5;

WORST CASE(8-10)

@Minnesota.                         L

NORTHWESTERN.             W

@Nebraska.                         W

PENN STATE.             W

@Wisconsin.                         L

IOWA.                                     L

@Michigan State.             L

PURDUE.                         W

@Indiana.                         L

NEBRASKA.                         W

@Iowa.                         L

@Ohio State.                         L

WISCONSIN.                         L

MICHIGAN STATE.             L

@Purdue.                         W

MINNESOTA.                         W

@Illinois.                         L

INDIANA.                         W

7th place;    Behind Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, Indiana, and Minnesota.

home record = 6-3; away record = 2-8;

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No McGary. No Worries.

BIG TEN Hoops Season Preview

No McGary. No Worries.

Mitch McGary was a huge bonus to the University of Michigan basketball team. Don’t get me wrong.  He consistently finished strong under the hoop to the tune of at least ten points a game and got the fast break going often – a testament to his tenacious rebounding as he corralled over 8 boards a game (including 3 on the offensive side).  On the defensive side, his energy and quick hands (42 steals and 28 blocks) are tough to imitate.   However, Michigan has a couple elder statesmen ready to go for the full marathon competition that is the Big Ten basketball schedule.

Starting off is redshirt senior 6’8” forward Jordan Morgan. While liable to explode in the pick n roll game against lesser teams (he once scored 27 against Northwestern) he hasn’t ever averaged more than 10 points per game in a season.  While unfortunate to not have a weapon in the paint, Michigan’s offense relies on scoring from its wings and guards, which I will talk about in a minute.

However average on offense Morgan may be, he has an established track record on defense as a coach’s dream because he always boxes out and is a solid hustler.  His first season on the court as a redshirt freshman, he played significant minutes helping Michigan to a series sweep against a hugely talented MSU frontcourt of Derrick Nix, Adreian Payne, Delvon Roe, and led by consensus All-American Draymond Green.  As a steady force in the paint for 4 years, Morgan is well equipped to handle those defensive responsibilities smartly.

6’10” redshirt junior Jon Horford has always been more athletic and is a better shooter than Morgan.  However, a couple unfortunate knee injuries hampered his development with the nuances of the games by keeping him off the court against real competition.  Whereas Morgan struggles on offense against tall crowds under the hoop (especially trying to catch short, quick passes) Horford can finish through defenders.  He is faster and has more hop in his step, but with a knack for picking up fouls early and often he can’t be relied on as a go-to scorer.  While he is yet to sustain demonstrated success with the pick n roll, there’s an opportunity for huge improvements in his game as the year goes on and he develops chemistry with the point guards.  Some plays, Horford will dunk down a powerful jam, teasing the potential that makes him a valuable player.  Some plays, he is visibly overmatched.

Since John Beilein’s offense traditionally doesn’t run through its lone post position, many of McGary’s points were in the form of his own high energy ability to create opportunities like put-backs.  The Michigan offense is led by 45 points of scoring per game from Nik Stauskus, Glenn Robinson III, and Caris Levert.  The two point guards, Spike Albrecht and Derrick Walton Jr, put in another 10 points per game together while performing their main job admirably – preventing turnovers.  In other words, we’ve got some guys that can score the ball.

The key question for Michigan this year now revolves around bouncing back from losing one of its leaders.  McGary’s defense is replaceable, but having one less big in the rotation can always hurt when foul trouble strikes.  6’7” redshirt sophomore Max Bielfeldt will bear some of the load on that front.  What may be less replaceable is the heart McGary plays the game with – shown when he is hustling to save balls from going out of bounds and getting on the floor when there is a loose ball to secure an extra possession.  McGary is immensely talented, but Coach Beilein’s offense doesn’t require a game-changing big.  The game plans will be adjusted to account for his missed presence.  And opposing players are probably glad they don’t have to guard him.  When he committed to play at the University of Michigan, everyone on campus celebrated like it was a terrific day.  And rightfully so!  He was crucial to Michigan’s national runner-up finish in 2013.

The verdict on losing McGary is that Michigan will survive, but losing him is losing a potentially game-changing mismatch against teams day in and day out.  Over the course of the Big Ten schedule, it may result in an extra loss or two, but Coach Beilein was playing with house money before and knows how to prepare a strategy for his team in any lineup.  With McGary, Michigan is 12-6 in the Big Ten and in the tournament for sure.  Without him, a tournament bid is very much still in order but expect some rough patches where his energy is missed.  Michigan should still finish the Big Ten season 10-8 or better.