Recalibrating Expectations

Dylan Burkhardt

Photo Credit:

Expectations were slim to none heading into this season. The last off season was filled with fluff pieces, top 25 rankings, and preseason All-American hype. This off season was the opposite; an array of disappointments and calamities. Michigan lost Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, the two players that accounted for over half its production. Junior guard Laval Lucas-Perry was dismissed from the team for mysterious reasons. The assistant coaching staff was completely gutted and revamped. Michigan’s tour of Belgium netted just one win to three losses. The list goes on and on and, from April to November, there was really nothing positive to say.

Fast forward two months through the majority of non-conference play and this year’s team has the same record, 10-2, as the last Michigan team that made the NCAA tournament. A 10-2 record is good enough to get people talking, even if a majority of those 10 wins were over subpar opponents. Whether it’s fair or not, phrases like “NCAA tournament” and “bubble team” are cautiously being thrown around by Michigan supporters.

Is it fair to deem Michigan a bubble team right now? Probably not. The first twelve games have created more questions than answers, but they’ve avoided all of the bad answers. If this team was 9-3 or 8-4 we’d have plenty of answers, they just wouldn’t be the ones we want to hear. Instead, Michigan enters the Big Ten season with a ray of hope and an opportunity to surprise.

At this point NCAA dreams are just that, dreams. Michigan has a handful of solid wins – at Clemson, Harvard, and Oakland – but they have yet to register a victory that would count as a “quality win” on Selection Sunday. The Wolverines have zero wins versus the RPI or Pomeroy top 50 and have only played one game versus an RPI top 50 opponent. Michigan’s strength of schedule ranks right around 200 and there aren’t many metrics beyond overall record that lend credence to the notion that this is an NCAA team. That’s not to say that couldn’t change rapidly.

Before the season started I drew comparisons to John Beilein’s 2007 West Virginia squad. That team got off to a 10-1 start and eventually fell just short of the NCAA tournament before winning the NIT. West Virginia was picked to finish near the bottom of the Big East that year and had a team full of freshmen and sophomores that most had never heard of. Many considered that season one of John Beilein’s best of his career.

Michigan’s next 19 games won’t be particularly easy – few of them are any easier than the first 12 games of the season – but there will be plenty of opportunity to improve the NCAA resume. That includes a rash of top 50 opponents and three games versus two of the top three teams in the country. When you add in road trips to hostile Big Ten arenas like the Kohl Center, Breslin Center, or Assembly Hall, it starts to become clear just how large of a challenge lies ahead.


These are Pomeroy’s latest projected win probability graphs for Michigan. His most likely outcome is 17-14 (7-11), a figure that certainly sounds reasonable and would likely put Michigan in the NIT. There looks to be just over a 20% chance that Michigan wins the 19 games that it would take to at least get the in the bubble conversation.

Home wins are the key. Winning games on your home court in the Big Ten is similar to treading water. If you win them, you stay alive. If you lose, you start drowning rapidly. Michigan will be in the mix if it able to win a majority of their games at home. That means beating a team like Purdue, Michigan State, or someone else of that caliber on your home floor. It also means not being upset by a lower-half team at home. Then it comes down to winning on the road. Coincidentally, three of the road games that Michigan has an above average chance to win r(Penn State, Iowa, and Minnesota) fall in the second half of the conference schedule.

The start of Big Ten play has been a rude awakening for recent Michigan teams. One game two years ago versus Wisconsin stands out. The Wolverines entered that game with their heads held high, touting a top 25 ranking, before watching the Badgers surgically dismantle their defense in Crisler Arena. The Badgers opened up a double digit lead by the second media timeout and Michigan was never able to make it much closer.

We don’t know how this team will react to adversity. They responded to their losses in Atlantic City with a win at Clemson but that’s all we’ve seen. There will undoubtedly be ups and downs throughout the conference slate and this young team’s ability to cope with the highs and lows will be the story line to watch. Ready or not, the games begin on Tuesday afternoon.

This site is supported by donations

Like what you see? Click the button below to donate and access exclusive content.

  • Aaron

    Thanks for introducing me to Rivals College Basketball player power rankings!

  • Austin

    Couldn’t be more excited to tip off Big Ten play tomorrow. I’m even taking the day off work. Go Blue!

  • UM Hoops Fan

    Here’s the recipe if we’re going to get 9 more wins before BTT:
    -Must beat NWU, IU, Iowa, PSU at home (4 wins)
    -Get two or three on road at PSU, IU, Iowa, NWU, Minny (2 or 3 wins). PSU and Iowa best shots.
    -Get two or three at home versus PU, Minny, MSU, Wiscy (2 or 3 wins). Feel best about Minny, worst about Wiscy.
    -If stuck at 8, possible upset at home vs Kansas and OSU
    -Road at Wiscy, MSU, Illinois, OSU (don’t count on it)

  • Dylan Burkhardt

    Darius was named Big Ten player of the week while Hardaway Jr. shared the freshman of the week honors with Sullinger. Press release:

    Michigan and Ohio State Claim Weekly Conference Honors

    Player of the Week
    Darius Morris – Michigan
    So. – G – 6-4
    Los Angeles, Calif. – Windward High School

    Michigan’s Darius Morris earns the first Player of the Week honor of his career after recording his fourth points and assists double-double of the season with 26 points and 12 assists in the Wolverines’ 87-71 victory against Bryant. He finished the game with a team-best six rebounds and posted career highs in three-pointers and free throws, connecting on four of six (67 percent) shots from long range while shooting 80 percent (8-for-10) from the line. Morris and his teammates tied the Michigan record for three-pointers in a game with 16 as the Maize and Blue equaled the team’s best start in the John Beilein era.

    Last Michigan Player of the Week: DeShawn Sims (Jan. 11, 2010)

    Co-Freshman of the Week
    Tim Hardaway Jr. – Michigan
    G – 6-5
    Miami, Fla. – Palmetto Senior

    Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr. earns the Wolverines’ first Freshman of the Week award after recording a career-best 20 points in the Wolverines’ 87-71 victory against Bryant. He added five rebounds and two assists while making four three-pointers against the Bulldogs, helping Michigan equal the program record for threes in a single game with 16.

    Last Michigan Freshman of the Week: N/A

    Jared Sullinger – Ohio State
    C – 6-9
    Columbus, Ohio – Northland

    Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger earns his fourth consecutive Freshman of the Week award after averaging a double-double with 12.5 points and 12.5 rebounds in wins against UNC-Asheville and Oakland last week. Against UNC-Asheville, he scored nine points and grabbed 16 boards before reversing his totals against Oakland with 16 points and nine rebounds. The 6-9 center currently leads Ohio State with 17.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.

    Last Ohio State Freshman of the Week: Jared Sullinger (Dec. 20, 2010)

  • Section13Row15

    Nice post Dylan! I couldn’t agree more with UM Hoops Fan. We must win the ones we’re supposed to win, particularly at home, and then steal 1 or 2 we’re not supposed to on the road. The Kansas game is kind of a win-win for us assuming we at least hang with them and don’t get smoked. It’s kind of like that UConn game a couple years ago where we hung with them well enough for the NCAA tournament committee to realize that we can play with anyone. I took tomorrow off also and can’t wait to be there! Hopefully it’s a decent crowd even though it’s at an odd time and most of the students won’t be there. Why is the game at 2pm on a weekday?

  • Champswest

    It is too early to try to figure out what games they can win or if they can make a post season tourney. They could lose 4 or 5 of their next 5 games (or they could win 3 or more).
    I am just going to enjoy watching them play and continue to grow and see what happens.

    • UM Hoops Fan

      I hear what you’re saying, but while it’s early to predict what games they “can” win, especially in a couple months, I don’t think it’s too hard to predict which games will be relatively winnable IF they’re going to be a bubble team and which won’t be. Sure, teams could rise and fall via injuries or otherwise, but it’s relatively clear how the B10 will shake out: bottom of Iowa, PSU, IU — top of OSU, followed by PU, Wiscy, IL and MSU — middle of NWU and Minny.

      But I agree with the principle, enjoying one game at a time is the best way to go, especially with such a young team.

  • gordie bell

    I give them a shot at the Big Dance and would be disappointed if we didn’t make the NIT. I don’t think we know how good this team is yet, but we are about to find out. If we were squeaking by team on our way to 10-2, I would be less sanguine about our prospects. We are beating teams handily, fans are actually complaining about 20 point wins.
    If we keep playing good D we are gonna make a run at it, we have enough offense to compete with teams. First step; beat Purdue, and I really think we have a better than average shot to beat the Boilers.
    I think NIT is most likely but if we beat Purdue…. look out

  • Gary

    I am sure that coaches are telling them to play one game at a time and not concern themselves with expectations. I think that is good advice for fans as well. I am just enjoying watching this team slowly improve. There will be plenty of ups and downs in the B10 season. I would be thrilled to see them in any post-season play, but I am not counting on it. I will be annoyed when the bandwagon fans start dissing them for anything less than an NCAA or NIT bid.

    On the other hand, the rest of the B10 looks a lot more vulnerable than they did pre-season. So far only OSU has looked really impressive. It should be a fun conference season.

  • Beast1530

    NIT bound for sure. NCAA, not really unless Michigan somehow manage to upset top 5 Big 10 teams 3 times. Their schedule is pretty weak yet at the same time, Michigan does not have any bad losses.

  • Mattski

    If they continue to play with the poise they have shown lately, they will win those five to nine games that push them toward the NIT and NCAA bubble. But that’s a big if for such a young team.

  • Dave

    They have greatly exceeded my expectations so far. I expected the worst from this team after posting a sub.500 season last year, losing their only two essentially NBA caliber players and not fielding any comparable talent on the roster this year. Add in a complete lack of experience in the frontcourt and it looked like a disaster. But Morris improved remarkably and most of the freshman are already decent contributors. With a real pointguard/playmaker in the backcourt and much more depth in the frontcourt, this year’s team is probably much better than last year’s. But now they face superior competition after playing mostly creampuffs. So where this team ends up is still a bit of a mystery. They may win as few as 16 games or many more. The keys will be winning at home, winning the close ones and above all, staying healthy. This team should be fun to watch with many young players who may blossom under Beilein’s coaching.

  • Xerxes

    It’s been a great season so far. What I love about this team is their rock solid defense and the ability they have to have anyone step up and take the game over offensively (ie Smot vs Clemson & Stu vs Harvard). If they can keep up the defense, then they feasibly can win a lot of games in the B1G.

  • ScottGoBlue

    I’m optimistic and pleasantly surprised, too. Gonna watch this one on TV as I’m no where near Ann Arbor. Otherwise I’d be there. And I’ve been telling my parents and in-laws and everyone who will listen to go to this game. It will be very telling. Our future is bright.

    At this point, if I’m an opponent facing Michigan, I think I would gameplan to pressure Darius Morris all game long. He is the one who is really making this thing go. Nearly every game so far, he leads in assists and is one of our two leading scorers, and he creates baskets out of improbable situations. Remember this guy last year? His improvement has been nothing short of phenomenal. But if my memory serves me correctly, he has consistently turned in poor performances against pressure. If he’s bothered, turning the ball over, double-teamed, and contested consistently throughout a game, I bet we will look like a team of freshmen and sophomores. Probably easier said than done, but it will be interesting to see if anyone tries that.

    Go Blue!

    • bird

      Would that Darius could go left.

  • Pingback: Rush The Court » Blog Archive » Checking in on… the Big Ten()

  • Kenny

    the defense is the key, if we can hold opponents under 65, our offense will be on at least half of the time to win 9 big ten games.

  • Ewing Theory? Was Manny good enough to even qualify?

  • Alex

    Happy New Year.