Expectations and Learning from the Past

Dylan Burkhardt


With the National Championship game officially in our rearview mirror, we’ve reached the point in the off-season when national journalists churn out the first of many “way too early preseason top 25” lists. Not surprisingly, almost every national analyst has Michigan somewhere within their top-25. NBCSports’ Mike Miller has Michigan projected at No. 9, Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn at No. 13 and FOX Sports’ Jeff Goodman at No. 17. Rivals.com appears to be one of the few publications that doesn’t have Michigan ranked. These early rankings obviously don’t mean much, especially when NBA draft entries will change the landscape over the next month. Despite the apparent foolishness behind these lists, one thing is clear: the national media feels great about Michigan’s 2011-12 team.

The reasons for optimism are obvious. The Wolverines played great basketball for the final two months of the season, outscoring their final 15 opponents (with an average KenPom rank of 38) by .12 points per trip en route to a 10-5 finish and a trip to the NCAA tournament round of 32. Michigan was the second youngest NCAA tournament team and, as Dan Hanner notes, gave more possessions (42.5%) to its freshman than all but four other teams.

Two years ago, Michigan returned what seemed to be every important piece of the puzzle before realizing that some of those lost pieces were more important than they appeared. This season, pending Darius Morris’s NBA Draft decision*, the Wolverines return every piece of the puzzle. Add in a relatively strong freshman class and it’s almost impossible not to be optimistic about the future.


One of the first things you do when previewing a team is make a table of what percentage of the team’s production (minutes, points, rebounds, etc.) returns. Compare those numbers across the conference along with rankings of the league’s incoming classes and then start to move teams up or down. It’s practical but rudimentary and, as Michigan fans have learned over the last two seasons, far from perfect.

There is one ominous metric that can serve as a red flag: negative conference efficiency margins. The 2009 Michigan team finished Big Ten play at 9-9 with a negative efficiency margin before winning a first round NCAA tournament game. This year’s Michigan team was actually outscored by .01 more points per trip than that team. Generally speaking, finishing .500 with a negative efficiency margin means that Michigan slightly overachieved in both seasons.

There are some notable differences between the two teams. This team finished with a final KenPom ranking 25 spots higher (25 vs. 50), improved by leaps and bounds as the season progressed and also let a couple big leads turn into narrow victories.

Still, Michigan should return its entire team. 1 through 15. Assuming Morris returns that group includes strong senior leadership, one of the best point guards in the college game and a sophomore that transformed from nice player to legitimate star over the course of his freshman season. In a situation that should almost demand unequivocal optimism, Michigan fans are unable to shake reoccurring nightmares of two years ago.


Watching Michigan go from the preseason top-20 team to below .500 was every bit as agonizing as this last season was enjoyable. That team bought into the hype, believing the press clippings and thinking that they deserved to win. The chip-on-the-shoulder mentality that pushed them that far disintegrated into a sense of complacency. Michigan didn’t have a team full of lottery picks that could just roll the ball out and win games. By the time the Wolverines started to figure that out, it was too little too late.

The best news for the upcoming season is that the 2009 season happened. This team’s core leadership all played on that team and saw the season slip away with their own eyes. Zack Novak, Stu Douglass and Darius Morris know how that season fell apart and certainly won’t want to let it slip away again in what could be their last collegiate seasons. That group managed to pull Michigan out of a 1-6 Big Ten record this year and will undoubtedly set firm expectations this off season.

Pre-season rankings and expectations, even ones that might be unrealistic, are good things for the program. They generate excitement and create a buzz which in turn sells tickets. That buzz, coupled with facility renovations also goes a long ways to improve recruiting as well.  I wrote two years ago about taking the next step and beginning to build a program. That obviously didn’t happen, but this is yet another chance.

The first test will take place in Maui. Pre-season tournaments and early season games have to potential to have dramatic effects on teams. Michigan State sputtered early on in Maui and never seemed to regain control of the season. Conversely, Connecticut rode a wave of momentum from Maui all the way to the NCAA championship. These are obviously extreme situations but Michigan’s trip to Maui will be extremely important. The field is loaded – Duke, Kansas, Georgetown, UCLA, Memphis and Tennessee – but a strong performance will give the Wolverines early confidence. Reaching pre-season expectations won’t be easy, Michigan’s non-conference strength of schedule should be ranked in the top 15, but it’s a safe bet that this team is more mentally prepared to handle success than the team we saw fall flat two years ago.

*This post operates on the assumption that Darius will be back in Ann Arbor. Not necessarily because we have any insight on his decision but because most of these rankings appear to be making the same assumption.

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  • mountain52

    Hello Dylan,

    You mention that Michigan’s non-conference strength of schedule should be ranked in the top 15. I was just wondering if any of the other teams on the non-conference schedule have been released other than the teams in the Maui invitational? Thanks.

    • Dylan Burkhardt

      Maui is obviously loaded so that’s three tough neutral games. I suspect we will draw Virginia Tech or Florida State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge – or a team about on that level. Beilein has also talked about adding a higher profile home and home so that’s another game.

      That’ll be the core of the schedule.

  • georgeesq.

    I’d peg us in the 20-25 range going into the season. I’m counting on “Tiger Blood” Novak to kick butt and keep the team’s eye on the prize. I ran into Beilein a couple of weeks ago just after we were eliminated and he made sure to tell me that Hardaway was in the gym working on his game that morning.

    We need to recapture what we had in the last dozen games of last season and add to it. The margin for error in each game is small. Improvement can come from individual players, particularly Smotrycz and Horford. Also, as a unit, we can keep adding nuances to out repertoire and become very, very difficult to prepare for. Defensively, a beefed up Smotrycz at the 4 would help so that we don’t have to double down against big 4s like we do when Novak is guarding a big man.

    Lastly, Burke will likely get a long look because Morris is probably done after next season. When we play upper echelon teams, though, Beilein may decide to stick with the veterans as his best chance to win. Ideally, Burke learns quickly and can help us during the Big 10 season. He plays a completely different style than Darius, so his insertion in the lineup will require some adjustments. OTOH, it will give us another look that opponents will have to deal with if Trey can make the transition to college ball.

  • I’m kind of torn in regards to the high preseason expectations. A lot of people are already saying that this could be a 2009 season all over again, but I’m more worried that Michigan could play more like it did in the beginning of the Big Ten season than it did at the end. Michigan did finish the season really hot, but everybody’s forgetting how bad they were against IU and NW early on. A few games in, we’ll be able to tell if that sinking feeling is flat wrong.

    • Mattski

      Tough as the early-season schedule looks to be, they are likely to sustain some tough losses early even if they do play well. Fans will just need to ride with them through that, assume that the experience will prove helpful once they get into B10 play.

      • Beast1530

        Big 10 is going to be down big time compared to this past season. OSU and Michigan are likely to be the top two teams in the conference. This is why JB wants to load up tough non-conference schedule because of the Big 10.

  • MikeB

    Agree about the Maui tourney. The 2009 team opened with a tournament, I think, in Orlando. I remember watching those games, and they struggled beating an average, at best, Creighton team in OT, and losing to Marquette and Alabama. You could tell watching those games the team was missing something, but I thought it was early in the season and they could pull together. That never quite happend.
    The problem with early season tournaments for Michigan is their offense requires timing and team work. Something that requires practice, which is obviously limited early on. UM can’t just “out-athletic” teams early in the season, like those Marquette and Bama teams from ’09 or someone like kansas in maui. Hopefully the experience they gained this year can carry over to next and the Maui tournament can be a springboard to a great year.

    • billiam

      You do realize that every single player is coming back?* That means our core unit has a full year of practice together, more than any team we will face in Maui.

  • Mark

    I’m going to be in Maui in November. Do we know what exact dates UM will be in Maui playing?

    • Dylan Burkhardt

      Monday, Nov. 21 to Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011.

      • gobluetwo

        I will so try to be there. I might be able to finagle a work trip (seriously!) to Hawaii.

        One note about Maui is that Duke will be a much different team. They lose Singler and Smith to graduation and Kyrie Irving just declared for the draft. They’re still loaded (I hate those Plumlees), but they do lose a ton of talent. That can only help our chances for revenge. The rest of the field is loaded, of course, but we’ve shown we can play with Kansas, Tennessee will have a new coach, Memphis has been a bit down since Calipari left. Don’t know much about G’town and UCLA.

        • Mattski

          You’re making the case, sorta. But that is one big mouthful of consistently fine teams!

          • MikeSal

            Even though those teams are losing talent they are still big names with big reps. They have talent coming in so we can expect them to be relatively good maybe not at the same level…but about the same

        • Sahiln

          I think that mchigan will remember the duke game in the NCAA and we will have an extra oomph to our game

  • If that Texas rumor is true that would be a crazy schedule…but manageable because of our experience and potential NBA departures from Duke, UCLA, Kansas, Texas ect…

    • ScottGoBlue

      This is what I love about college basketball (vs. football). You can play a murderous OOC schedule without obliterating your chances of playing for the national championship. So you actually get to see quality match-ups all season long. And it’s beneficial to your team, even if you lose. Looking forward to watching us play with all those big name schools. Go Blue!

      • MichiganFan

        I like both and I also like college footballs concept about how every game counts. Ur right about matchups though.

  • MiamiWolv

    Couple comments.

    Rivals’ preseason rankings presume that Darius Morris will stay in the NBA draft. Speifically, the article states it presumes all players that have already declared will actually stay in the draft. If Morris returns, Michigan will almost certainly enter the rivals rankings.

    The Maui field is loaded. Georgetown, however, is rebuilding. The key for Michigan’s schedule strength will be to win the first game. If they lose the opener, we could face Tennessee and Chaminade instead of say UCLA and Memphis. All of the sudden, our schedule may not be as imposing.

    Virginia Tech won’t be UM’s opponent. The Hokies lose everyone from their team. That would be a major mismatch in Michigan’s favor. I’d expect Florida State or UNC.

    • georgeesq.

      Morris hasn’t declared yet.He’s gathering info in order to decide whether to put his name in.

    • Every team that will be in the Maui field with the exception of maybe Memphis is losing alot of talent.

      Duke: Smith, Singler and Irving, their 3 best players
      Tennessee: Hopson and Tobias Harris, 2 best players
      Georgetown: rebuilding, as you said
      UCLA: Honeycutt and possibly Malcolm Lee, 2 best players
      Kansas: Morris twins and probably Selby, 2 best players and Selby could be 3rd best, though debatable

      All these teams with the possible exception of Tenn recruit well enough to reload, but none will be as up to speed in the beginning of the season as they will later on after they’ve adjusted to their new lineups. Meanwhile, as long as Darius returns, UM should be building on this year, and incorporate new talent instead of dealing with replacing lost production.

      I like UM’s chances in Maui alot of Morris returns.

      • rlc

        Dylan noted “Michigan was the second youngest NCAA tournament team” – Memphis was the youngest – they do graduate one senior, but they got even more minutes from freshmen than we did.

        That’s a tough field – Chaminade, 3 conference champions and 4 at large teams.

      • Kenny

        I am sure that programs like duke and Kansas reload their roster with 5 star freshmen. A lot of people are saying that Rivers is NBA ready.

        • They do reload, but they’ll likely struggle in the beginning of the season as they adjust to the college game and their new teammates, not to mention finding out who is going to step up and replace all the production they lost.

          If Darius returns, UM shouldn’t have that problem next year as the entire team returns, which should give them an advantage in a early season tourney like Maui.

    • MichiganFan

      If unc is our opponent then I would love to watch that. Game of the week in college basketball

  • Jimmy

    Dylan, with the addition of 3 scholarship freshman and preferred walk-on Sai Tummala our roster will swell to 19 players.

    Is there a limit to how many players a team can carry? Certainly there has to be a limit to how many players can dress or travel for games, but is it realistic to assume that we will see Eso, Person, Dumars, Bartlestein, and Ervin return?

    I’d hate to have to cut a kid who pays his own way to bust his butt every day in practice. I think if they’ve paid their dues over the past couple of years then they deserve to be a part of next years Final Four team (or so I hope). But I also understand that rules and rules.

    Do we cut any of our walk-ons?

    • georgeesq.

      Ervin is not a preferred walk-on so he would be the most likely cut.

    • Kenny

      Went through the NCAA rule book, could find a limit of number of players eligible to play for each game. If beilein submit a list of 19 players, guess that they are all eligible to enter the game.

    • Kenny

      Went through the NCAA rule book, couldn’t find a limit of number of players eligible to play for each game. If beilein submit a list of 19 players, guess that they are all eligible to enter the game.

  • Jimmy

    *rules are rules.

    I agree that Ervin is most likely to be cut, but that still leaves 18…

    • jmblue

      I don’t think there is any such rule. There is a scholarship limit (13) but beyond that, I don’t think the NCAA cares. I know that in football, some schools (like Nebraska) have far more walk-ons than others.

  • MichiganFan

    Dylan do u know when the full Michigan basketball schedule for next season is out.

  • Chris

    I do not believe there is a limit on the number of walk-ons permitted by the NCAA. The number of players that may travel with the team, however, may be limited, either by the NCAA or just by school policy.

  • ks

    Put me in the group who is blindly optimistic about next season (assuming darius is back). The biggest difference between 2009-2010 and next year is the leadership that is returning. I don’t think this can be understated. While UM didn’t lose that much production after lee and merritt, et al graduated they lost all of the leadership. Dylan wrote about this extensively last season.

    Next season all of our leadership is back. novak, morris, and stu went thru the disappointment of 2009-2010 but they have also experienced the success that they spearheaded (as opposed to harris and sims during the last tourney run) this past year. The expectations are definitely high for this team but i think the team is ready to handle it.

  • jmblue

    I’m optimistic about next season, and it’s not just because we should return everyone. We should have a better roster than we’ve ever had under Beilein. In ’09-’10 we were still seriously undersized, and had a lack of reliable outside shooting. We went into that year hoping to get something out of Cronin and Morgan (if not McLimans), but both missed the season due to injuries, leaving us with Sims and Gibson as the only remotely tall players on the team. Then on the perimeter, Novak and Douglass simply did not improve their shooting numbers from their so-so freshman ones, and no one else stepped up. And then we also had a real shortage of ballhandlers.

    Next year we’ll have more available size than ever before, and most of it will have 1-2 years in the program under its belt. If JB chooses to go the two-post route (which he apparently told Biefeldt he’d start doing), he’s got a lot of options. Even if he doesn’t, Smotrycz should be able to win the 4 spot, which would give us a pretty tall lineup (Novak/Smotrycz/Morgan/Hardaway/Morris). On the perimeter, Novak, Smotrycz, Hardaway, Vogrich and Douglass are all coming off 35+% 3-point years. Morris is an established ballhandler, and Burke could offer him some rest. We’re not counting on too many big question marks. Most of these guys have proven themselves already.

  • Alex

    I think if the team keeps the attitude of win every day of practice, then we’ll be fine. Merritt and Beilein stressed that a lot during the year and it seemed to pay. I’m optimistic about next year but it really is way too early. You just never know what can happen which can be scary or really good.

  • Kainkitizen

    All we can do his voice our post-season thoughts about next pre-season opinions. It will come down to how much motivation this past season gave them for competition against the so-called big boys of the NCAA. We won some, we lost some, and came with-in 1 shot 1 possession of many nay-sayers being defeated. I see great things for next season and it will be exciting to watch and be a very proud Michigan Basketball fan.