Friday, March 21, 2008

A little Michigan basketball optimism

I realize that this is an unlikely time to discuss the future of Michigan basketball. Most of you are probably celebrating the fact that the season is finally over. Not to mention, the NCAA Tournament is under way which is considerably more exciting than watching a team that shoots 31% from three-point range throw up 23 three-point attempts per game. Naturally, Kent’s wicked-awful, 10-point first half against UNLV yesterday inspired me to write about Michigan hoops so blame it on the Golden Flashes. On the surface, it would appear that Michigan basketball fans have every reason to be going through a state of basketball depression. Michigan’s final game against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament was soul-crushing. To lose is one thing. To score 34 points is something completely different. So, there is plenty to be discouraged about. However, I think there is a lot to be encouraged about as well.

I’m not sure John Beilein could’ve picked a school with a worse personnel-fit to run his offense than Michigan. Beilein needs shooters, passers, and cutters. Michigan has none of that. In fact, I’m not sure what Michigan actually has. This was a “learning” year but the roster was so ill-equipped to run Beilein’s offense that four “learning years” would not be enough to turn this team into a contender. Thankfully, the right personnel appear to be on the way. At first glance, Beilein’s ’08 recruiting class looks awful. And, for most schools, it would be awful. For Michigan, it’s a program-saver. Michigan has four players coming in who are perfect for Michigan’s offense. Two are precision shooters from Indiana. Michigan had three players jack up 100+ three-point attempts this season and none shot better than 32%. Stu Douglass and Zack Novak will immediately become the best shooters on the team and it won’t be close. I’m guessing something closer to 38% for them which would be a huge upgrade. Think Butler—a team littered with 38% three-point shooters. Ben Cronin is a 7’1 space-eater who is an excellent defensive-post presence. He will team with Ekpe Udoh to make it an incredibly difficult endeavor to score on Michigan in the post. Udoh is already, far and away, the most prolific shot-blocker in the Big Ten. Laval Lucas-Perry is a point-guard who transferred from Arizona. He will give Michigan a formidable 1-2 punch with Kelvin Grady. Michigan is in dire need of ball-handlers and good decision-makers. Perry will immediately make Michigan more efficient with the basketball. Having the right "pieces" will make Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims vastly more effective. They won't have to masquerade as good three-point shooters and perimeter players. They'll be allowed to create which will free up shots for players who can actually shoot.

The type of player that Beilein needs to win games is much different than Michigan fans are used to. It’s going to take some time to get comfortable with “pieces” rather than “highly-rated recruits.” Let’s be honest, it’s not like the latter was falling from the sky in Ann Arbor anyways. Beilein’s first recruiting class is going to be ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten but he is four for four in finding players who will allow Michigan’s efficiency to improve leaps and bounds. It’s no surprise to anyone that Michigan won’t be expected to make the NCAA Tournament next year. But, I believe next season will be the final building block for an NCAA Tournament bid in ’10. That team should truly resemble a John Beilein product and hopefully next season will be the last time—for a long time—that we’ll have to settle for moral victories. Michigan will be better defensively, offensively, and it will have more depth. I can’t say that sounds too bad. It’s easy to get caught up in the short-term and proclaim the Michigan basketball re-building effort a failure. We’ve been through this before with Amaker and nothing ever came of it. But, everyone knew that Beilein would have to tread-water nearly drown through the first couple years with a roster ill-equipped to run his offense. There is absolutely no reason to be less optimistic now than the day Beilein was hired. Don’t let the “Debbie Downers” cloud the big picture. This year was a necessity for Michigan to get back to winning games and next year will be more of the same with flashes of cohesion sprinkled in.

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