Friday, November 2, 2007

Michigan hoops preview: Beilein's first season won't be smooth

ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

The John Beilein Era is unofficially underway in Ann Arbor. Beilein coached his first game as a Wolverine Thursday night, leading Michigan to a 78-40 exhibition victory over Ferris State inside a brighter Crisler Arena.

While the dank arena's light finally has been adjusted to create a little atmosphere in the building, don't expect Beilein's first team to to light up opponents. This season is going to be a learning process for both Beilein and his players.

Michigan has just one contributing senior in Ron Coleman, who isn't exactly a take-over-the-game player. He occasionally makes open outside jumpers, but averaged only 5.7 points per game last season and isn't very apt at creating shots for himself.

OK, let's move to the juniors expected to play significant minutes: Jerret Smith and Jevohn Shepherd. I'm going to continue to rip Smith as the worst starting point guard in the Big Ten until he proves me wrong. Maybe Beilein will be able to mold him into a consistent floor leader.

But last season Smith was painfully inconsistent, which isn't a good sign for a player who to begin with displays just average skills. Thursday's 15-minute, five-point, four-turnover performance was not a good harbinger for Smith. Freshman point guard Kelvin Grady played 16 minutes and was a putrid 1-for-7 from the field, but he didn't turn it over.

Beilein shouldn't wait long on Smith. If he's not adequately leading the team, give the freshman a shot.

A junior new to the team who could be a pleasant surprise is Zack Gibson, a Rutgers transplant. The 6-foot-10 Gibson showed potential against Ferris State, making all three of his field goal attempts and grabbing three rebounds in 19 minutes. On a team lacking experience, Gibson will likely be thrown into the fire right away. Thursday was an indication that he might just be ready.

Now, as we get to the sophomores, we're finally exploring the meat of the team — albeit inexperienced meat.

Ekpe Udoh and DeShawn Sims played significant minutes last season and should start in the Nov. 9 opener against Radford. While Sims struggled during the Big Ten slate last winter — when he was clearly affected by the tragic death of his brother — he played his best in the final few games, scoring a career-high 14 points in Michigan's second-to-last game — a NIT win over Utah State.

Now the 6-foot-8 forward has expanded his shooting range to 3-point land, where he made three of six attempts Thursday — three more than he made all last season. Reports have it that Sims picked up Beilein's 3-point shooting/Princeton-like offense the quickest of any player and his 14 points in 25 minutes Thursday agreed.

Sims still has a lot of room for improvement, including in the rebounding department. Sims grabbed just 2.3 boards a game last season, and with Michigan's top two rebounders gone, he'll be counted on for at least four or five a game.

Udoh, Michigan's third leading rebounder of a year ago, will also be relied on heavily to hit the boards. The wiry 6-10 forward showed signs of brilliance last year, especially on the defensive end where his extremely long wingspan got in the way of myriad opponents' shots. With fellow shot blockers Courtney Sims and Brent Petway gone, it will be Udoh's responsibility to lead Michigan's interior defense.

Udoh provided a sneak preview of the defensive season he might have Thursday, blocking four shots and snatching five boards in 19 minutes. The big question is regarding his offensive versatility. He'll likely be counted on to make several passes from the interior in Beilein's offense. Will he read defenses correctly? And will he be able to finish his opportunities in the paint?

After playing in all 35 games a year ago, Udoh should be prepared to accept a significant role as one of the team's leaders.

OK, just like that, we're down to the freshmen, the biggest question marks who could make this squad a group of overachievers or be a part of a team that compiles several losses.

Thursday was just one exhibition game, but the signs are positive. Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan, Manny Harris, was the Wolverines' best player, scoring 15 points — including 7-of-9 from the free-throw line — and grabbing nine rebounds.

The 6-5 forward displayed an aggressiveness that has been lacking on the Michigan teams of the past few years. If he can develop into a player who can drive to the basket at will and create for his teammates, the dividends will be enormous. Of course it was only one exhibition game, but Harris could become the player who — along with Beilein — gets Michigan to its first NCAA tournament since 1998.

The other key true freshman is Grady, who is billed as a true point guard. Michigan has lacked a fundamentally sound pass-first floor leader for quite awhile now, so if Grady can develop into that player, it will be a huge boost for the program.

Grady definitely needs to improve his shooting, however, in order to thrive in Beilein's offense. He made just 1-of-5 3-pointers on Thursday, offsetting the biggest positive he brought to the court: a 4-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Medical redshirt freshman K'Len Morris was the other frosh who played significant minutes Thursday. The 6-4 wingman scored seven points to go along with five rebounds in 21 minutes. With Morris and redshirt freshman Anthony Wright, a 6-6 forward, in the rotation, Beilein has 10 players he can rotate in and out, which will allow the Wolverines to run more and jack up loads of 3-pointers.

Michigan's new style of play was evident right away Thursday when it launched two 3-pointers in the opening 28 seconds. It finished the night 10-for-28 (35.7 percent) from behind the arc — not a bad debut at all.

Expect the Wolverines to shoot 3-pointers until their arms fall off this season. I wouldn't be surprised if everyone except Gibson attempts a 3 — even Udoh, who has a decent mid-range shot but would be hard-pressed to expand the range of his line-drive release.

Unfortunately for this young squad, wins won't come easy — especially early in the season. After home games against Radford and Brown, the Wolverines play Georgetown, a national title contender, on the road and then face Butler in the first round of the Great Alaska Shootout, with a possible second round game against the ACC's Virginia Tech.

Michigan closes out November by hosting Boston College in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and then plays at Duke and home against UCLA in December. Home games against Oakland and Central Michigan and a trip to take on fired coach Tommy Amaker's Harvard team won't be walkovers, either.

When the Wolverines open their Big Ten schedule by hosting Wisconsin on Jan. 2, they could easily have a losing record. And while the Big Ten is down this season — a recurring theme, it seems, in the past couple years — Michigan would do well to win half its conference games (even though it's lucky to face conference favorite Michigan State just once).

Here's how I see the Big Ten shaking out:

1. Michigan State.
2. Indiana.
3. Ohio State.
4. Wisconsin.
5. Minnesota.
6. Illinois.
7. Penn State.
8. Michigan.
9. Purdue.
10. Iowa.
11. Northwestern.


The only two teams who I see having a shot are MSU and Indiana, who both feature players who could win national awards — MSU senior guard Drew Neitzel and Indiana super freshman guard Eric Gordon. The Hoosiers also return several experienced veterans, including senior forward D.J. White who scored 13.8 points per game last season.

But will the Hoosiers and coach Kelvin Sampson be distracted by the illegal phone calls case which has already resulted in an assistant coach resigning?

Ohio State and Wisconsin are both question marks, with several newcomers, not to mention injury issues (at least for the Badgers), but Thad Matta of the Buckeyes and Bo Ryan of the Badgers always get the most out of their players, and I expect them to get everyone on the same page to make the NCAA tournament.

What happens with Tubby Smith and the Gophers is up for debate, but with every starter back from last year's team — although, I must add, last year's team was awful — a return to the NCAA tournament isn't out of the question.

I see Illinois and Penn State on the outside looking in, although I didn't expect last year's Illinois squad to make the tournament and it surprised me.

Either way, the Big Ten will be challenged to get five teams in the tournament come mid-March. Michigan won't be one of them for 10th consecutive season.

But that doesn't mean there won't be excitement within the brighter cobwebs of Crisler Arena this season. These young Wolverines could put a scare in some of the big dogs on their schedule with their new shoot-until-you-drop system, and they might just surprise a few people.

Most importantly, just one key player — Coleman — is scheduled to leave the program at the season's conclusion. By March all the freshmen, sophomores and juniors should be comfortable following Beilein's lead, which will lay the foundation for a bright future.

And maybe, at some point, a long-awaited return to tournament they call the Big Dance.

4 comments:

Joey K. said...

It may not be this year but Michigan is a sleeping giant in the world of College Basketball.

This is Joey from West Coast Bias and ArmchairGM. I have added the Sports Columnist to my blogroll. Would you add WCB to yours?

J-bo said...

Does Michigan State's exhibition upset change your mind that they'll win the Big Ten?

zekejennings said...

Jake,

Nice analysis of Michigan. I think Manny is already the team's best player. Beilein and the group will surprise somebody that people don't expect, but I think an above-.500 record and an NIT berth given the team's talent and youth would be a decent season.

Your girl Meggan Freeland didn't get it done at state today. Third place at 18:11. McAlary was 5th. LC girls won it all.

Neil Joshi said...

Two Big 10 teams have already lost to Division II programs in the preaseason, with the Buckeyes losing to Findlay last night.