Five Reasons Michigan Will Struggle

Dylan Burkhardt
Michigan basketball coach John Beilein hangs his head late in the second half of the Wolverine's 62-44 loss to Wisconsin, Saturday afternoon, February 6th at UM's Crisler Arena.
Lon Horwedel |

Earlier today we looked at five reasons why Michigan should excel this season but now we take a look at why the Wolverines might struggle. Michigan fans remember the last time the Wolverines were ranked in the preseason top 25, a disappointing 15-17 season in 2010, and here are five reasons why it could happen again.

1. Negative Conference Efficiency Margin

In 2010 this was the red flag that nobody saw coming. Despite a .500 Big Ten record and a second round NCAA appearance, Michigan was outscored during Big Ten games. We’ve touched on how effective John Beilein has been at winning (NCAA tournament games specifically) with a negative conference efficiency margin, but that doesn’t always translate to success down the road.

A negative conference efficiency margin means that Michigan’s record was actually better than its performance (U-M was outscored by its opponents but went .500). There’s no more natural statistical indicator of regression, just as a team that outscored it’s opponents but lost a lot of games is a prime candidate to improve. Michigan fans should take solace in the fact that their season changed so dramatically. This wasn’t the case of a mediocre team playing inconsistent basketball all season. Instead it was the case of a seemingly hapless team figuring things out and playing some of the best basketball in the country for the final two months of the year.

2. The Loss of Darius Morris and Perils of a Freshman Point Guard

Darius Morris accounted for right around 50 percent of Michigan’s offensive production last season whether by scoring the basketball himself or setting up his teammates. That was a figure matched by very few players across the country and production that will be tough to replace. Trey Burke isn’t going to be able to replace all of that as a freshman, he’ll need help from Tim Hardaway Jr., Evan Smotrycz, Jordan Morgan and others. Morris’s struggles as a freshmen and success as a sophomore serves a stern reminder of how hard it can be to play point guard as a true freshman at the high major level. Sure fire blue chips like John Wall can excel but it takes a special player – someone like Ohio State’s Aaron Craft – to excel as a freshmen without NBA-level size and athleticism.

3. Maui Looms Large

One of the biggest reasons that Michigan’s 2009-10 season went south was a disappointing finish in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. The Wolverines came into that tournament with their sails flying higher before sneaking past Creighton and losing to Marquette and Alabama. Never able to regain their momentum, the early struggles compounded and Michigan never seemed to be confident.

If the Old Spice field two seasons ago was a strong field, the Maui Invitational is loaded. Michigan opens the event with the toughest first round game, against top ten ranked Memphis, and would likely face Duke if they win the first game. Regardless of results in the first two games, there are a number of talented teams on the other side of the bracket including Kansas, Georgetown and UCLA.

Michigan could easily lose to Memphis, a top 10 team, beat Tennessee and lose to Georgetown or UCLA in the final day – two losses in three days without a bad loss. A 2-1 stretch, or an impressive championship run, could just as easily springboard Michigan’s season. The rest of Michigan’s non-conference slate isn’t going to bump the RPI scale much but it is filled with very winnable games.

Barring the monumental upset over UCLA three seasons ago, Michigan hasn’t fared too well under John Beilein in preseason tournaments. Michigan went 0-2 in Atlantic City last year, 1-2 in Orlando, 1-1 in New York City, and 1-2 in the Alaska Shootout.

4. Conference Depth

As we mentioned in our reasons for optimism post, the Big Ten might be lacking truly elite teams this season. That’s encouraging but there are also a lot of teams that should be competitive on any given night. The only truly bad team in the league appears to be Penn State. Beyond that there won’t be many easy games at home or away on any given night. Michigan does get to play Penn State twice – with single plays versus Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska – but after that the Big Ten slate will be challenging. Road games are always a battle in Big Ten play and venues like Assembly Hall, Breslin or Mackey Arena have never been easy places to win.

Eamonn Brennan says the Big Ten is the second best conference in the country Joe Lunardi projects eight Big Ten teams in his preseason NCAA tournament field with Indiana listed among the first four out. That’s nine of 12 teams that are considered legitimate NCAA tournament contenders at this point in the season. Perhaps the Big Ten’s demise has been overblown by Big Ten fans that have watched the league’s stars of the last four seasons graduate.

5. Post Scoring

Michigan’s post players were one of the most glaring weaknesses during the Wolverines exhibition game. Jordan Morgan converted two point shots at a high level last season – 63 percent – but a majority of his offensive production was generated by Darius Morris.

Neither Morgan or Horford have shown the ability to consistently score the ball with their back to the basket. They haven’t proven to be players that you’ll dump the ball to on the block seven or eight times per game and let them go to work. That’s certainly a potential stage in their development, but right now it’s not there.

There’s also the possibility that Michigan can find scoring from it’s big men in less traditional ways. Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan have both experimented with their jumpshots to mixed results and Evan Smotrycz has proven himself as a three point shooter. If Horford or Morgan can master the mid-range jumpshot or Smotrycz can diversify his game inside, Michigan could get by for another year without a true back to the basket scorer.

  • Sebastian

    It was Alabama, not Florida State that Michigan lost to in the last game in Orlando if I remember correctly, but same idea either way.

  • Guest

    It’s a lot easier to play point guard when you have Jared Sullinger, David Lighty, William Buford, and Jon Diebler (3 upperclassmen, 1 phenom) playing alongside you than what Darius had as a freshman (I know he had Manny and Peedi, but there was always an awkward sense that the offense that year had no balance or chemistry). Trey’s got a good amount of talent playing alongside him this year, and the team seems very cohesive, so I think he will have a surprisingly strong year. Plus, the kid is just seems like a natural at the position with his quickness, handle, smarts, and work ethic.

    • Erob

      You make a very good point about Aaron Craft. 

    • UM Hoops Fan

      Darius’s game (poor shooting, great ball handling/vision/post-play) also meshed poorly with Manny’s and Peedi’s (who both needed the ball in their hands).  Darius didn’t have a complementary-type game.  Trey can shoot the ball as a complement to THJr and others, and those players are also better bombers and/or rollers (Morgan) so they can play off Trey’s getting in the lane.  So both the talent around and the fit could help Trey vs. Darius.     

      • Guest

        That was exactly what I was trying to get at. Very clear and precise, much better than I explained. Thank you.

        • UM Hoops Fan

          Nah, just piggybacking on your insights.

  • Mattski

    This is a very nice feature, Dylan. I would consider calling it “could” struggle, instead of will. 

    • Went with the emphatic headline to emphasize the contrasting nature… Probably didn’t make much sense though.  Fair point. 

  • C_weezy

    Will the Ferris State game be televised ?

    • streaming service on Friday night.
      Replayed on Monday at 4:30 pm on BTN.

  • C_weezy

    If UM would’ve got a commitment from “Sir” Dominique Pointer who would we had missed out on ?? Trey ??

    • No Trey committed in August, Pointer committed in October.

    • Kenny

      Max Bielfeldt

  • Anthony

    Let me say this is first i think michigan goes 22-8 this year, but they will struggle in maui. I think it is very hard to lose a player like darius morris who at times was the offense last year. PG play is the reason they will struggle early, and i think will have a tough time in maui. The reason i think this team is better and will be a legit team is because of the defense and turnovers mentioned in the blog before this.

    Also lok for cb4 to come on later in the season i still think he can be a spark off the bench this year.

  • Tay from the Bay

    Cant wait until Maui… it will be a measuring stick for sure. Id love to see Rivers vs Trey but also Trey go up aginst Memphis too since they recruit nba talent… I think Trey has been slept on big time and will continue and improve upon the good string of PG play Darius started with this program