Welcome to part 1 of our 3-part Michigan Wolverines basketball season preview. This segment will give an overview of the upcoming season, part 2 will profile the players, and part 3 will be where Rob and I put ourselves out there and predict the schedule.
With three Big Ten teams firmly entrenched in the preseason Top 5, The Michigan Wolverines basketball team is going to be hard-pressed to repeat last year’s regular season success.
Michigan finished the 2012 campaign 24-10 and tied for 1st in the Big Ten Conference. After a sluggish Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines were bounced in the first round of the NCAA’s by an inspired Ohio Bobcats team.
And much has changed since. Gone are seniors Stu Douglass and Zack Novak. Among several transfers, the most notable was power forward Evan Smotrycz leaving for Maryland. But Michigan retooled quite effectively.
A 5-player freshman class has descended upon Ann Arbor, and 3 of those players will see a lot of minutes right off the bat. Glenn “Tre” Robinson III and Mitch McGary are probable starters while shooting guard/small forward Nik Stauskas will be one of the first guys off the bench. This freshman class is far and away the most highly ranked and talented to set up shop at the Crisler Center in ages.
Michigan plays in what is generally regarded now as the best conference in college basketball. As a byproduct, they will play a slew of ranked teams. During the Big Ten portion of the schedule, Michigan will play 7 games against teams ranked in the preseason Top 25.
John Beilein’s biggest test will be to navigate his team through a very difficult 4-game stretch in early February. In a span of 11 days, Michigan will play at #1 ranked Indiana, then host #4 Ohio State, and cap it off with travel to Wisconsin and Michigan State, ranked 23 and 14 respectively, and perhaps the two toughest places to play in the Big Ten.
Their most notable non-conference game comes in the Big Ten/ACC challenge. Michigan finally gets to host this matchup for the first time since 2009 and they drew the #6 ranked North Carolina State Wolfpack. This will be the marquee matchup of the annual challenge between the two conferences.
The NC State game comes right after Michigan wraps up play in the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament. Michigan will kick off that tourney by hosting IUPUI in the opening round. They will then play the winner of Bowling Green v. Cleveland State for a chance to advance to the semifinals. Other teams of interest in the NIT Tourney that Michigan could face in the later rounds include Pitt, Virginia, and Kansas State.
We are predicting an all underclassmen starting lineup that looks like this:
PG – Trey Burke – Sophomore
SG – Tim Hardaway, Jr. – Junior
SF – Glenn Robinson III – Freshman
PF – Mitch McGary – Freshman
C – Jordan Morgan – Junior
The main components off the bench would then be senior Matt Vogrich and freshman Nik Stauskas. Both of these players will be looking to rain down the long-range jumpers on the opposition. Jon Horford and Blake McLimans will bring size off the bench. Look for senior guard Eso Akunne to log significant moments of playing time throughout the season as well.
Both Horford and McGary are currently dinged up. Horford scared us all last week with a knee injury, but it turned out to just be a sprain, and he hopes to be ready for the opener. McGary has been a limited participant in practice of late due to a foot/ankle issue. He should also be ready to go for the opening tip.
One thing that Michigan has not dealt with much of late is exactly that, injury. Strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson is one of the best in the business and deserves a lot of credit for this team’s recent success.
There have been a lot of hot topics this preseason and we’ll briefly cover those here.
1-2 Punch: Despite all of the changes from last year, it may be the returning players that have Michigan hoops fans most excited. Trey Burke bucked the NBA call to return for his sophomore season and attempt to lead his team toward something truly special. His running mate will be junior Tim Hardaway, Jr.. After an up and down sophomore season, expect Hardaway, who won’t have to shoulder the load this year, to play loose and effectively.
Leadership: The vacancy in leadership left via the departures of Douglass and Novak will be felt all season long. Hardaway is probably the most natural leader on the team, but he has had his moments of self-discouragement. He will need to stay upbeat and remember that he needs to lead his team both on and off the court. Expect Jordan Morgan and Burke to take on additional leadership roles as well. Reserves Josh Bartelstein and Corey Person will be the bridge between players and coaches and both expect to play an invaluable part in guiding this team through the treacherous waters of Big Ten play.
Post Play: For the first time in a long, long time, Michigan will feature a tall, athletic, and solidly built front court. Rebounding should no longer be this team’s bugaboo, but one of its assets. Morgan and McGary figure to share the court often and Horford will also log significant minutes in the post, at times alongside one of his buddies down low. Opposing teams will no longer have the luxury of avoiding Michigan’s low-post offense, which should free up the guards to bombard the nets with 3-balls.
Defense: Douglass is going to be missed most on the court for his ability to be a shutdown defender. The Wolverines will match up with the size of other teams this year better than they have in quite some time. No more 6’4’’ Zack Novak covering a 6’9’’ power forward who outweighs him by 60 pounds. But even with that, it takes heart, hustle, and tenacity to become a great defensive player and team. If Beilein can get these guys, who are more than athletically capable, to put their every ounce of energy into shutting down the opposition, then I just don’t see too many teams that are better.
Expectations: Michigan is currently ranked #5 in the country. The team and coaches are saying all the right things but don’t think they haven’t taken notice of their lofty ranking. With three freshman playing key roles, I would have ranked them closer to #10-15 to start the year, but here they are. Burke is one of the elite point guards in the nation. When you combine that kind of skill set with supremely talented players across the board, the expectations are not only legit, but something this team can and should be able to live up to.
Chemistry: Rob and I have had the pleasure of being around this team for several years now. One thing we took away from Media Day was just how truly together this team already is despite a lot of new faces on the roster. They are brothers on and off the court. The experience in terms of minutes played may not be what it was coming into last year, but the talent, along with the super glue that keeps these guys together, will pay major dividends throughout a daunting season.
Go Blue, Go Big
With the ever changing environment of college basketball, a team can never take for granted the opportunity it has right here, right now. Who knows what will become of this roster after the final bell of March Madness tolls. There will be rumors swirling all season long about the potential departures to the NBA by Burke and Hardaway. Some have also projected Robinson as a potential one-and-done player.
Michigan has the skill, the size, and the ability to do whatever they want this year if they buy into the team concept and play for one another. It’s time for Michigan to go big.