John Beilein and the Michigan basketball program exceeded expectations this year. I don’t think there’s any other way of looking at it. Last year, Michigan finished 172nd in the RPI. ‘M’ had one win in the RPI 100 in 14 chances. It also went 5-13 in one of the weakest seasons the Big Ten Conference has ever had. Michigan improved dramatically in just one season and without much in the name of personnel additions. Just two years after Beilein took over the program, “M” is 41st in the RPI with seven wins over the RPI 50. I’m befuddled by the fact that Beilein isn’t under consideration for National Coach of the Year let alone Big Ten Coach of the Year. There wasn’t a better coach in college basketball this year.
The fact that Michigan made the tournament at least a year earlier than anticipated was a welcome gift for a fanbase that has struggled through the near death of a once glorious program. Nobody is ready to complain about anything nor should they be. Seeing Michigan in the tournament against Clemson was more than enough excitement for me. The fact that it actually beat Clemson was just gravy. The season is over. The basking has just begun. The fact that Michigan is relevant has its basketball fans as content as any program in the country including whichever team ends up winning the National Championship. Trust me on this one.
Next season, expectations will rise a bit. One tournament bid should yield a second tournament bid. I don’t think anyone is aiming for the Final Four but with virtually every contributor back—C.J. Lee is the only expected attrition—it’s more than reasonable to expect a better showing next season. However, it’s important that people understand just how good of a coaching job Beilein did this season. The only personnel differences between this season and last were the additions of two freshmen guards whose best offers between them were Western Michigan and Valparaiso and a mid-season addition who scored a total of zero points in Michigan’s last three games. Beilein basically took the same team that finished 172nd in the RPI last season and turned it into a team with the 41st RPI. There wasn’t a ballyhooed recruiting class or a high-profile transfer that came in and changed the dynamics. This team is nowhere near as talented as its record would indicate. There are considerable flaws that could—if left unchecked—result in a regression next season. Michigan has no offensive or defensive post presence. Manny Harris is the only player who can get to the basket. Sims is the only player who can reliably hit a mid-range jumper. ‘M’ took 26 three-pointers per game and only hit on a paltry 33%. This team won with superior coaching and—for the lack of a better word—grit. That doesn’t take anything away from the fact that it did win and the unadulterated joy that came with it. However, it does raise questions for next season.
Zack Novak, Stu Douglass and—to some extent—Laval Lucas-Perry—were the only additions to the program from last season. All three certainly excelled in the “grit” category but statistically speaking, they didn’t add much beyond being scholarship players. More importantly, they did little to help Michigan’s most pressing problem of having no post presence on either side of the court. Novak and Douglass will eventually be vital for the success of Beilein’s offense and actually were pivotal this season as well despite their statistics. However, if this team is going to make a leap next season, it will need vast improvements in a number of weak areas; specifically, post-defense, rebounding, and creating shots. Beilein gets the services of five newcomers for 2009. They are an unheralded bunch according to the recruiting rankings but they bring the program much-needed relief in the areas in most disrepair. Michigan should be a fringe bubble-team next season regardless of how the newcomers fair but whether the program makes a leap next season depends almost entirely on the contributions of Darius Morris, Matt Vogrich, Blake McLimans, Jordan Morgan, and Ben Cronin.
Are these players going to have major impacts statistically next season? The answer is almost certainly and emphatically, “No!” Sometimes, though, simply having certain measurables and basic skills can mean just as much as an impressive stat-line. Consider that Michigan’s starting lineup this season consisted of zero players over 6’7. There were no “bigs” to finish off easy buckets at the basket. There were no “bigs” to pound the glass or cause defensive problems in the paint. Ohio St. and Wisconsin—two otherwise average Big Ten teams—dominated Michigan because of their size in the paint. I have absolutely no idea how John Beilein managed a 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament while being overwhelmingly undermanned in the post in virtually every game. It is a remarkable accomplishment. McLimans, Morgan, and Cronin are all taller than 6’7. Morgan is a solid, 6’8 power forward. McLimans is 6’10 and Cronin is 7’0. Having those players in the game—regardless of experience—will significantly decrease the ability for opponents to dribble-drive to the lane. Just think of how difficult Mike Tisdale—Illinois’s 7’1 sophomore center—made things for the Big Ten. Tisdale is developing into a solid player but his length alone causes problems. If Cronin can recover from his hip injury, simply having him on the court will improve Michigan’s post-defense and rebounding. McLimans is the closest thing Michigan will have to Kevin Pittsnogle next season and maybe even for the next four seasons. At 6’10, he can shoot from long distance and pass. It might take a year or two for his skill-set to catch up to D1 level but his length will help immediately. Morgan is a Jamelle Cornley/Cyrus Tate type player. Michigan sorely lacks that sort of presence in the paint. Morgan is thick-shouldered and at 6’8 should immediately have the ability to pound on the glass as a freshman. McLimans, Morgan, and Cronin will probably develop into solid all-around players by the time they’re done at Michigan. However, none of that really matters for next season. Simply having their bodies will help Michigan tremendously in two areas in need of desperate improvement: post defense and rebounding.
Morris and Vogrich are more skilled and will likely contribute more statistically than the big men. Morris is a 6’4 point guard who should team with Manny Harris to give Michigan a superior rebounding backcourt. Harris is one of the best—if not the best—rebounding guards in the country. Morris is also a solid rebounder but also excels at penetrating and finding the open man. With Harris the only player who takes the ball to the basket, Morris’s ability to break down a defense will be a huge help for the Michigan offense. As much of an impact as Douglass and Novak had this season, Vogrich is, by far, the best prospect of the three. He received scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Stanford, and Georgia Tech among others. He may have the least impact of the five newcomers simply because Douglass and Novak are of similar size and stature but a team that shoots 33% from the three-point will benefit immediately from a shooter of his caliber.
Certainly, it would help if current players took major steps in their development. Would it be a godsend if Laval Lucas-Perry started taking his man on dribble with regularity? Sure. Would it be a huge relief if DeShawn Sims turned into the player that his skills and our eyeballs project he could be? You bet. The improvement curve in basketball is a gradual one and sometimes it can be painfully slow. Video of Lucas-Perry driving at will in a University of Arizona open gym made him look like a college-ready point guard. Whether it was a lack of confidence or the lack of talent at said open gym, he was clearly not ready to contribute. Sims has improved ever-so-slightly in his three seasons and has more to improve mentally than physically. These things may or may not happen over the off-season. However, one thing that will for sure happen is that Michigan will triple the number of players 6’8 or taller and it will add two ball handlers who are more highly-rated coming out of high school than any players on the team with the exception of Harris and Sims. The returnees should keep Michigan a fringe-NCAA Tournament team at worst. The newcomers—and their much-needed niches—will likely determine whether this team is better next season and, if so, how much better.