The Blueprint

Dylan Burkhardt
on
virgina1[1]West Virginia celebrates the 2007 NIT championship in their unique t-shirts

I spent some time this summer writing season previews about teams that I knew very little about. Sure every team is different, but once you simplify things, the process for previewing a team is rather routine. How good was the  team last year, how many players do they return, and do replacement players show promise. As a prognosticator, the only logical method of ranking teams in the preseason is to give the nod to teams returning the most productive players.

By that logic, it’s impossible to predict any semblance of success for next year’s Michigan squad. They return just 46% of their minutes, 31% of their scoring, 34% of their defensive rebounding from a team that went just 15-17 last year. There’s nothing else to expect when you remove not just the two most productive players, but all players over 6-foot-5, from a team that woefully underachieved. On paper, Michigan should be terrible next season.

Fortunately, or unfortunately (Michigan Wolverines circa 2009-10), that logic doesn’t always work out. There are teams that return everyone and fall flat on their face, and there are teams that return nobody and surprise pundits coast-to-coast. Basketball isn’t played on paper.

Pointing out the reasons Michigan will struggle this year is so painfully easy that it becomes almost comical. I would look silly writing 15 blog posts about how Michigan is going to miss Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims and that Zack Novak isn’t cut out to take over 20% of the team’s shots.  Instead, here’s one reason that this year’s Michigan team could defy the odds: West Virginia 2006-2007.

That West Virginia team returned just two players from the previous (Sweet 16) team’s rotation. The returnees accounted for a mere 19% of the team’s minutes a year ago. The notable returnees were Frank Young, previously a 7 point per game scorer, and Darris Nichols, a guard that never scored more than 9 points is any game the season before. The Mountaineers were picked around 15th in the Big East but managed to finish 8th in the conference and on the NCAA bubble. After just missing the dance, they rolled to an NIT title and Beilein slipped away to Ann Arbor.

Young doubled his scoring output and was named to the all-Big East team. Nichols doubled his three point shooting percentage (21.9% on 32 attempts to 42% on 119 attempts) and more than tripled his scoring (3 to 11 ppg) and assist(1.5 to 4.6 apg) averages. Frank Young and Joe Alexander, two sophomores that combined to play just 120 minutes total during their freshmen years, both transformed into double digit scorers.

There were also seven incoming freshmen rated between 2 and 3 stars by Rivals.com. This class was highlighted by DaSean Butler, who also averaged 10 points per game that year. Several other freshmen would play but only sparingly over the course of the year. The transformation was complete. A group of players that most basketball fans had never heard of went on to win 27 games and an NIT Championship. [2007 WVU in Video Form: Preview / Highlights]

Looking at that team, it’s hard not to draw comparisons. Harris and Sims had a similar statistical effect to Pittsnoggle and Gansey. Even if they came up comparatively short in the win column, they still demanded a majority of the shots and minutes, blocking others from playing time. Beilein clearly was going to ride it out and stick with his big guns despite the team’s struggles.

The players will obviously have unique careers but comparing the roles and styles of players on this year’s squad to that West Virginia team leads to some interesting results.

Novak-Zack-112808_300Frank%20Young%20300x400%20(by%20allison%20toffle)[1]Guard Darius Morris (#4) during Michigan's 67-53 victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Crisler arena on Saturday December 5th 2009.  (SAM WOLSON/Daily)042110063751_Darris%20Nichols1[1]

  • Zack Novak –> Frank Young [comparison]
    Wing forward that averaged 7 points per game before being forced into a larger role. Novak played a few more minutes than Young but otherwise their junior (Young) and sophomore (Novak) years are very similar statistically.
  • Blake McLimans –> Jamie Smalligan [stats]
    Big men that love the three point shot and provide a weapon with their range. Smalligan, a Butler transfer, played about 15 minutes per game while shooting 46% on 68 three point attempts. Similarly, I think the key for McLimans is whether he can knock down enough perimeter shots to continue to stretch the defense.
  • Darius Morris –> Darris Nichols [comparison]
    Both guards had up and down seasons early on in their careers with extremely subpar shooting numbers. Nichols came into his own during his junior year and was suddenly an able shooter. Early reports are that Morris is still struggling with his jumpshot, but improvement is not out of the question.
  • Evan Smotrycz –> Joe Alexander [stats]
    Evan Smotrycz has been lumped into comparisons with every 6-foot-8ish outside-inside skilled four man in college basketball. You’ve heard them all – Robbie Hummel, Gordon Hayward, Joe Alexander, etc. etc. Most of the comparisons are unfair, and expecting that type of production is foolish.  At the end of the day, Smotrycz’ skillset is what it is – the question is how “college ready” his game is.

Matt Vogrich takes the ball down the court in the game against Houston Baptist at Chrysler Arena  in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Nov. 20, 2009. Michigan beat Houston 77 - 55.  Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.comruoff[1]68311_1536174655882_1580313514_1257732_762807_n[1]DaSeanButler_display_image[1]

  • Matt Vogrich –> Alex Ruoff [comparison]
    Ruoff is a bit bigger and stronger but both players are terrific shooters that barely got off the bench during their rookie campaigns. Rudolf averaged 10 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds per game his sophomore year after playing 4 minutes per game and making a total of 6 threes the year before. Ruoff attempted 205 (!) threes the next year, making them at a 34% clip.
  • Tim Hardaway Jr. –> DaSean Butler [stats]
    Both freshmen wings were borderline top 100 recruits. Both will likely be thrust into the offensive spotlight as a key cog of a young team. DaSean Butler thrived, averaging 10 points per game in 23 minutes per game.
  • Jordan Morgan –> Rob Summers [stats]
    This comparison is a bit weak but Summers gave WVU 20 minutes per game and averaged right around 5 points and 5 minutes per game. Summers was taller (listed at 7-foot) and also much older, a fifth year senior, than Morgan. Michigan needs Morgan to play a similar role – grab rebounds and finish around the hoop.

Drastic improvement from every returning player is a ridiculous expectation to set, but improvement is also the one thing that John Beilein has hung his hat on throughout his coaching career. When he was hired, many pointed to that 2007 team’s performance as one of his most impressive. The 2008-09 Michigan season was another that showed dramatic improvement, in the form of an 11 win turnaround.  Of course, it’s tough to buy into any improvement talk when last year’s squad regressed across the board and made an anemic number of three point shots.

The one thing that team could do was shoot the three. Smalligan shot 46%, Young shot a ridiculous 43% on 270 attempts. Nichols shot 42%. Da’Sean Butler shot 35%, Ruoff shot 34%, and Alexander shot 31%. Michigan shot 29.7% from three last year compared to that West Virginia team’s 37.5% behind the line.

Michigan won’t be West Virginia, and they shouldn’t be picked anywhere other than the bottom third of the conference. However, there are reasons to believe they could show some signs of life this year. At the very least, this is reason not to pass judgment on a number of players who haven’t played or have played sparingly.

  • Here’s an AnnArbor.com article that Mike Rothstein wrote with some interesting notes on a similar subject.

    http://www.annarbor.com/sports/um-basketball/michigan-basketball-is-young-and-inexperienced-but-john-beilein-has-been-there-before/

  • Dirtgrain

    Nice post. I don’t believe this team will inevitably have a bad year; I’m optimistic. I’m most concerned about how the team will react to high-pressure defense, and if they make to the post-season, how they will react to even higher pressure defense.

  • GregGoBlue

    Great article, Dylan. 12 days til SVSU and counting!

  • Old Style

    My worry is can they play defense.

  • Polisci

    Wow, great article! Thanks.

  • I DO believe they will have a bad year by most fan’s standards. I would consider an NIT invite a happy miracle. But I do believe in Beilein–not so much as a recruiter, yet, but in every other facet of the game. I look forward to watching this team improve, and taking some good teams by surprise later in the season.

    Good substantial piece, Dylan. This could get published anywhere.

  • Carcajous

    Hopefully they will spell “Michigan” correctly on the shirts if this comparison plays out…

    [Notice the “West Virgina” shirts…]

  • Mith

    Nice article, Dylan. I appreciate your hard work. I suspect this year’s squad will struggle, but despite that I still think it might be an enjoyable season getting to watch the young guys play and improve. I’m hoping they can do just what you said- “show sone signs of life this year.”

  • Mike

    Very nice article, Dylan. I am actually excited about this season (and not just because I would welcome a distraction from thinking incessantly about the football team). It seems as though Beilein’s teams perform well when nothing is expected of them (e.g., 2008-09), partially because he might be an adept motivator, particularly when he can harness a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality. I would be thrilled with an NIT berth, maybe with a couple of quality Big Ten wins thrown in there. I think starting next season is where hopefully the Tournament becomes a realistic destination on a perennial basis.

  • Bill

    I’m not too concerned with wins and losses.
    1: Do they play together.
    2: Do they play the right way.(Watch the football team and you will see how important this is, watch the line backers).

    3: How do they react to adversity. (Ditto)

    4: Most important in my mind-Are they having fun!

    If they can do these things I believe they will win over time. Take care of the basics and learn to compete.

  • gordie bell

    Very good, very good. I agree with so little experience coming back, we have little to go upon. I was floored when Belien said Stu is a point guard. We are going to have a completely different look this season. I think it will be pretty exciting watching the young fellas mature.

  • GregGoBlue

    Lol @Carcajous

  • ummafan

    lmao @ carcajous

    I think this year team will win more games than last years squad imo . I actually think with the added size and the assumed team chemistry that we will beat a bunch of teams we are not supposed to beat. I say in comparison we can either be like a Butler squad or a poor man’s wisconsin . I actually like our chance of succed because there are no pressure or expectations .

    We might not have a bunch of all conference type players returning but I am going with my gut feeling and say a couple players will really step up and surprise . I can see Matt Vogrich , Hardaway J.r , Evan Smot and Zach Novak stepping up and surprising . I also see daruis morris having a very productive season as well .

    I also will go out on a limb and say that we will be a better defensive team . I can’t wait for the season to get started . With our early season schedule , I can truly say that our team will have a chance to compete by the time Bigten season comes around .

    If we stick to the basics , shoot well , play scrappy , show passion , share the ball and be tough we can surprise . I think we will actually because our new assistants are working on this teams mentality . They seem eager to play with each other and being a hoops family .

    I am very very optimistic and think this team will overachieve because of attitude and the willingness to work hard .

  • bf1118

    Love the article, hopefully there are some truth to these comparisons this season. Looking forward to finally getting to see these fresh faces play together with the returnees. I have a funny feeling stu douglass is in for a breakout year. Go blue!

  • Champswest

    I would be delighted with a .500 season and I think that it is possible. I think that we will be much like the football team: young and inexperienced, but with great chemistry and desire. However, that isn’t always enough to win. The past 2 IU teams have been very talented and young and have struggled.

    I look forward to seeing us play. I think that this team will be more fun to watch than last years team.

  • Kenny

    Dylan, congrats on a nice article. The team has some talents and more depth than previous seasons, and appear to have the chemistry that last year’s team so lacked. Novak is going to be a leader, THJr is going to be very good, but the biggest surprises will be Christian and Morgan.

  • kevin

    couple things.

    1. seems to be a reoccurring statement, but, dylan this piece was legit. i don’t know how the hell you thought of that but good job. good to see you can put your own personal opinions in while managing to be politically correct because you’re representin’

    2. I agree with the guy that said Stu is going to have a breakout year. I think he could be a Jon Diebler type player (consistently)

    3. Having fun is important, but that can be your main priority (imo), the guys that played to have fun are watching u of m and other d1 schools. No knock to whoever said that, because you do have fun when you play but I think it comes with playing hard and giving your all and get better on a daily basis, that i think leads to fun.

    4. I cannot wait for the season to start

    take it easy everyone

  • Brick

    I’m not really worried about the defense this year. I think we should be better. We are adding quite a bit of size at the 4 and 5 positions which will help with rebounding and defense. I’m excited to see what Christian can do as well. He was a rebounding machine last year and supposedly a lock down type defender. I’m most concerned with the freshman turning the ball over and I’d like to see if anyone can score one on one in the post.

  • kevin

    can’t*

  • Dylan, Kevin – nice commentary. Line me up with those who expect us to surprise some people this year and be seriously good next year.

  • Section13Row15

    I have a hunch that Vogrich is going to be moist this year. As long as he can defend out there, he will get some good looks with D’Mo at the point. I think the 3 pt % will go up this year with Vogrich, Douglass, and Novak getting more looks. I’m not too concerned with our defense but rather how we play against other teams’ defenses. We played terrible against the zone last year, whether that was 2-3 or 1-3-1 (i.e., Northwestern loss at home last year). I would play zone against us every time until our 3 ball improves.

  • Don

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe there wasn’t a single player who shot many 3s whose 3-point percentage improved when comparing Year 1 and Year 3 under JB.

    TA got fired for making the NIT every year, yet now making the NIT would be a “happy miracle” and great coaching?

  • V.O.R.

    The way I see it, we’ll have to let this be a year where the team continues to come together form and grow. They are still so very young that it is unrealistic to expect let’s say a twenty win season or a post season birth even if you get one. JB’s system has to take a year or so to digest, and the true freshman will make more mistakes while they are learning it that could cost us some games. However, we will see their talent and potential.

    On the other hand, Michigan has three starters [arguably] returning, Novack, Douglas, and Morris. They also have experienced depth in Aukenne, Vogrich, and to a lesser extent Person, and Bartlestein that has actual floor minutes and is grounded within JB’s system. Then you have the red shirt freshman who also has a year in practicing within the system, McLimans, and Morgan and they’re not starting from scratch which is a big advantage. Even though they’ll make their share of mistakes because they’re still learning, they’ll make less of them and their contributions should be more significant and consistent.

    In other words, the Beilein system [or culture] is well established there at Michigan. Then when you add the true freshman although new to the system, they are Beilein’s type of players who should adapt more quickly to what’s being asked of them. Plus there are other players that can “coach” them so to speak during unoffical practice time. This puts Michigan a step ahead of the curve this year. Although we’re not predicting a post season birth, they should be competative and a tough out for any team this year. But however well they do play this year, they should be expected to challenge for the Big Ten title next year IMO.

    Then finally regarding defense. I believe that I read the basketball team was going to stick with the man to man defense during their trip to Europe because they weren’t ready and didn’t know how to play their zone well enough. If that was correct, then this is going to have to be a priority for the season. It would seem that how fast they master their defense will determine how much damage they will do during the season.

  • Don says: “TA got fired for making the NIT every year, yet now making the NIT would be a ‘happy miracle’ and great coaching?”

    Since you’re quoting me–in the context of Tommy Amaker, who I never mentioned–I should respond.

    First, I really liked Amaker, and have acknowledged that Beilein’s troops, so far, may be underperforming in comparison to Tommy’s. I watched Tommy closely for a while and can say that a) he recruited well, b) was a better x’s and o’s coaches than he got credit for (I think Beilein is VERY good, in game) and c) that he did not acquit himself very well in the press, on his own behalf, or with the administration. In the end I think it was the sense that the team was not improving markedly that got him canned, a creeping sense of entropy after a reasonable term at the helm.

    I have been critical of Beilein’s recruiting; we’re building pretty danged slowly for my taste. But going around pissed off about sports is not my style. If you’re going to quote me, get the context right: I said that we’re likely to be bad this year, have to hope to see the team building to better things. So–yeah–the NIT WOULD be a happy miracle, IMO. Though I didn’t say it, that probably WOULD be the result of some damned fine helmsmanship from Coach B.

  • gordie bell

    I am most bullish for the future because, I think Belien has put together a really nice base for this year and the 2 guards we have coming in next year have a chance to be dynamite college players. Brundidge and Burke come complete with polished college ready offensive games, I expect them to contribute from the get go.

  • JimC

    Dylan, nice work as always.

    I have no expectations for this year, and that’s a good thing for me — last year I really believed the preseason #15 ranking or whatever it was, and then I was furious and in despair by the end of the Old Spice classic!