At Big Ten Media Day on Thursday, I talked to several different players around the conference and asked them a handful of questions about playing Michigan and Michigan’s key players. There were only two or three players there from each team, so the guys there were some of the best players in the league who have been around for awhile.
I never asked about the departed Darius Morris but, nearly every player I talked to mentioned him. “I bet there’s a lot of teams in the league that are pretty happy that Darius Morris left,” said Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor, “because that definitely makes a difference.” Added Michigan State guard Austin Thornton: “Anytime you have a point guard like they’ve had in Morris, it makes for a very good team.” So does that mean since Darius gone, the Wolverines will be a bad team this year? Not necessarily – but it did seem pretty clear that opponents are sleeping easier knowing that Darius is gone.
Opposing players still have plenty of respect for Michigan and won’t take the Wolverines lightly. Based on the guys I talked to, opponents hate playing against John Beilein’s 1-3-1 defense. A couple players mentioned that their respective teams put in specific offenses solely to play against the Michigan defense. “If it’s ran right, they give you fits,” said Iowa point guard Bryce Cartwright. Taylor, one of the best floor generals in the nation, said, “I’m not a big fan playing against the 1-3-1. It’s a tough defense. Michigan and Northwestern are two of the best in the country at it.” Many players also mentioned it’s not easy to defend Michigan’s offense – one that features plenty of ball screens and cuts. “It’s always tough, because they present match-up problems for you in a lot of different areas,” Thornton said. Penn State guard Tim Frazier mentioned it’s hard to play against a team where almost every player has the potential to drain a three at any time. “They have a great system for the guys they have,” he said. “Coach Beilein has definitely recruited in the guys they want.”
Tim Hardaway Jr., in the spotlight
Tim Hardaway Jr. came to Ann Arbor a little under the radar but this year, he’s front and center. “He’s probably one of the most talented, raw talented guys in the Big Ten,” Taylor said. “He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with, and tough for any team to stop. The sky is the limit for him.” Northwestern guard Drew Crawford – who has known Hardaway since seventh grade when the two would shoot hoops together while Hardaway, Sr. played in pro-am events and Dan Crawford, Drew’s father and NBA referee, was an official – said Hardaway “is really improving and is gonna keep improving.” Players said Hardaway’s versatility – specifically his ability to jump, shoot and attack the basket – makes him one of the most difficult players in the conference to guard.
Stu Douglass aka Ash Ketchum and Zack Novak
While Hardaway seems to be the focal point of opposing defenses, opponents haven’t forgotten about Stu Douglass or Zack Novak. For Taylor, Douglass’s appearance made him impossible forget. “He kind of looks like Ash Ketchum from Pokemon,” he said, laughing. Taylor had good things to say about Douglass’s playing ability too. “He’s a good player. He’s kinda like a hybrid guard. He does whatever they need him to do a lot of times. I feel like he’s kind of more like a natural 2 but he does a great job of playing the point.” Opponents still regard him as one of the betters shooters in the league; “He can shoot the ball with the best of them,” said Illinois guard Brandon Paul.
It seemed whenever Stu’s name came up, Zack’s did too. Opponents seem to put both of them in the same type of category – guys who don’t appear to have the best athletic ability, but they always find a way to get it done. “They’re both good shooters, and they’re really able to stretch the court. They play to their strengths very well,” noted Crawford. When asked about Novak, Frazier gave one of the best compliments an athlete could ask for. “You hate to play against him, but you’d love to have him on your team,” he said. Added Cartwright: “He’s all over the place. He’s guarding big men, he stretches the floor and he’s pretty strong.”
Jordan Morgan and Evan Smotrycz
While Novak may be strong, Jordan Morgan is stronger – and opponents have taken note. When asked about Morgan, nearly everybody I talked to mentioned his strength has one of his biggest assets. “He’s strong and he’s a very physical player. It’s always tough to guard guys who are super strong. I think that’s what he offers” said Michigan State’s Draymond Green. Minnesota big man Trevor Mbakwe gave himself a bit of a compliment when talking about Morgan: “He’s somebody whose equal strength and just as athletic as me. You don’t get that too often.”
Last season, Morgan was often Michigan’s only true threat down low. This year, Michigan may have another in Evan Smotrycz. The 6-foot-9 sophomore forward added 30 pounds of muscle over the summer, and Beilein has continually noted Smotrycz as the most improved player so far this preseason. Opposing players have already heard the rumors about his transformation. “Zack and Stu were telling me how he put on like 20, 30 pounds,” Mbakwe said, “and he has the ability to knock down threes, so he stretches the defense. I know they’re expecting big things from him, and he’s definitely one of the guys that we worry about when we play Michigan.”