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.