With the college basketball season wrapping up this week, I thought it would be a good time to bring a real expert in to talk some Michigan basketball. Chris Balas is the senior editor of TheWolverine.com, and he was willing to answer a few questions on this past season, recruiting, and next year’s outlook for Michigan basketball.
TWB: First, a simple question. After the surprise NCAA tournament appearance last year, what went wrong for this team in 2009-10?
CB: Chemistry, No. 1. This team lacked leadership from its upperclassmen, became a bit “cliquish” after having great camaraderie a year earlier and didn’t have a David Merritt or C.J. Lee type glue guy to hold them together. There just wasn’t enough trust.
These guys got better (and pretty good) defensively, but when you’re playing small, you’ve got to make shots. Thirty percent from long range isn’t going to win you many games, and guys like Zack Novak, Stu Douglass and Laval Lucas-Perry who were expected to improve in this area simply didn’t. If they’d been even adequate from long range this year they’d have been a tournament team again.
After this year’s disappointing season, there has been some questions about John Beilein and if he’s the right man to coach this team (a note: I think these people are crazy, but the questions are out there). Do you still think Beilein is the man for the Michigan job, and what will he have to do next season and beyond to maintain his job security?
Athletic Director David Brandon likes Beilein and the way he runs his program — more than that, he also thinks he’s a good coach. They’ll be on a level playing field when it comes to facilities in a few years, which will help (but which is also overblown) — but honestly, only a few bad breaks have kept a few potential difference makers from being here. IF German Robin Benzing, a projected NBA first-round pick, had qualified, IF Tom Izzo hadn’t decided last minute to offer Draymond Green, IF Ben Cronin hadn’t been injured and had continued to develop … who knows where they’d be right now?
At some point, though, those IFs have to become WHENs. Beilein knows it, and he’s motivated. He’ll get at least a few more years to build his program, and rightfully so. People talk about him inheriting DeShawn Sims, Manny Harris, etc., but conveniently forget that he was also left with several recruits who weren’t capable of playing at this level (and for the record, the thought that keeping Alex Legion (with all his baggage) in the fold would have helped is laughable).
Michigan fans are holding out hope that Trey Zeigler will commit and be able to step into Harris’ role as the go-to wing for Michigan. Do you have a sense of Michigan’s chances to land Zeigler, and how ready do you think he is to be able to step in and contribute immediately?
There’s still a solid chance … had Michigan had a better season, I think he would have already committed. His best relationships are with Beilein and UCLA coach Ben Howland, though MSU’s success has intrigued him and Central Michigan (with father Ernie) is a darkhorse. He wants to play early, he is comfortable in Ann Arbor … if you put a gun to my head, I’d still say U-M lands him. He likes the thought of playing close to family and friends, too.
Zeigler needs work on his perimeter game and especially free throws … he went two for his last 21 at the line, which is cause for concern … but there’s little doubt he’d play as a freshman. They need people with his athleticism, so he’d be playing and learning on the fly the way Manny Harris did as a freshman (though I wouldn’t expect him to have the same impact as a scorer).
Beilein has already put together a solid class in PF Evan Smotrycz and SG Tim Hardaway, Jr. What roles do you see those two having in 2010-11, and what kind of production should we expect from them?
Both will have an opportunity to play. Beilein is looking for added length on the floor, and both fit the bill, though both need to get much stronger. Beilein has talked about adjusting to physical play in the Big Ten – both of these guys had better hit the weight room this summer and be prepared if they want to play significant roles.
I like the thought of Hardaway in the 1-3-1 and his shooting ability, and I like Smotrycz’s skill set at his size, but these guys are still freshmen, and they’ll be vying for minutes against players who have been here for a while. Think Zack Novak, for example – as limited as he might be — is going to give up his minutes without a fight? He’s going to be hard to keep off the floor, whether people want to believe it or not.
Eventually, these guys (and potentially Zeigler) will be the nucleus of some fine teams down the road – at the very least they’ll provide more competition this fall as guys fight to keep their jobs.
With Manny Harris leaving school early and DeShawn Sims, Zack Gibson, and Anthony Wright graduating, Michigan will return less than half of their scoring and rebounding production from 2009-10. What’s your overall outlook for the team next year, and who do you think will step up and replace that production?
No two guys are going to emerge to replace the scoring Sims and Harris supplied the last two years. It’s going to have to be by committee, and a few guys — point guard Darius Morris, for one — are going to have to make huge strides this summer to pick up the slack. Morris has to become at least somewhat of an outside threat to keep defenders honest – hopefully he’s shooting 1,000 jumpers a day this summer — while Novak, Stu Douglass and Laval Lucas-Perry simply have to shoot the ball better.
The problem, though, is the lack of guys who can do much with the ball off the dribble. Watching the tournament, how many open looks were created by just a little bit of penetration? Morris can provide some and Zeigler might, too, but other than that …
On top of that, one of the big men — Blake McLimans, Jordan Morgan or Jon Horford as a true freshman — is going to have to be at least serviceable. We heard good things about McLimans’ progress, but Morgan would take two steps back with injury for every step forward, and Horford is awfully skinny (though we like his potential down the road).
The hope is that a guy like Lucas-Perry, who can be an unbelievable asset when he’s both aggressive and playing with confidence, can really take a huge leap, your alleged shooters start knocking down their open looks and they become a really tight and close-knit team that overachieves. A lot of that is built in the summer, meaning it’s going to take someone to step up in a leadership role and insist everyone goes the extra mile. We’ve seen Beilen teams in the past that as a whole are better than the sum of their parts — if you’re a Michigan fan, that’s what you’re hoping for this season.
Thanks to CB for taking part in this. For more of his thoughts on Michigan sports, and much more, check out TheWolverine.com.