Monday, January 11, 2010

Lack of leadership dearly costing Wolverines

ON BASKETBALL

Michigan hoops coach John Beilein is an honest, forthright guy. So it wasn't a surprise that after Michigan's debacle of a loss Sunday, 68-62, at home to the never-been-to-the-NCAA-Tournament Northwestern Wildcats, he came out and said exactly what's wrong with his underachieving squad.

And didn't waste any words.

"When things are going south, the leadership has to come from more than just me," Beilein said of his 8-7 team. "There has to be positive stuff from people within this team."

While he won't win any Pulitzers for using the noun "positive stuff," Beilein knows his basketball team inside and out and knows what's missing. To put it succinctly, leadership.

But why? I mean, the Wolverines returned virtually everybody from the team last year that took Michigan to the Big Dance for the first time in 11 seasons. They brought back their one-two punch of Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. Add up experience and the addition of a real point guard in freshman Darius Morris, and this team was supposed to be a great improvement on last year's team that won a tournament game.

Pundits bought the hype, with some even ranking the Wolverines as high as No. 15 nationally (and maybe higher in some polls; I can't keep track of all of them these days). What was there not to like?

Well, now it's clear. Michigan lost three players from last year's team, and two of them -- C.J. Lee and David Merritt -- had about enough talent to play at a lowly Division I school. Seriously. Dude's had no moves.

But the pair made the team and earned playing time. In fact, they each started 14 games -- with Lee averaging 16.4 minutes per game and Merritt 13.6. Forget the numbers, however. What the duo of old guys brought was leadership, confidence, enthusiasm. They helped pick up the young, inexperienced team during struggling times (of which there were many). They were vocal. They didn't allow meltdowns (or at least not as many as in previous years).

Bottom line: Sans C.J. Lee and David Merritt, the 2008-09 Wolverines don't make the NCAA Tournament, don't snap the horrifying drought. Hard to believe, but it's the truth. And now, as we wonder what the heck has happened to a team with such high expectations, it's becoming much easier to see.

Where's the leadership on this team? Who is getting into guys' faces when they make a lazy play, when they give up on a defensive transition possession (as was the case during a recent game). Nobody -- that's who.

One might expect it to come from Harris and Sims, who are averaging 53 percent of the team's points. But that's not their style. An ESPN analyst made a great point the other night when he applauded Harris for not going wild after making a big-time, clutch play late in Michigan's comeback win over Penn State. Harris simply waltzed back on defense, not muttering a word.

There's definitely a good side to that -- and Manny is one of the classiest, best kids you'll find in college basketball; he doesn't display the brazen antics that turn off so many fans to today's players -- but there's also the fact that Harris has not been a vocal player this season. Rarely, when watching a game, will you see him talk to a teammate after they commit an error.

The same can be said for Sims, who goes about his business and speaks only a little more than Harris while on the court. I wish he would, because Michigan is often at its best -- especially against small teams -- when it throws the ball down low to Sims to create inside-out action. Too often, even in games when the Wolverines couldn't hit a 3 if the basket became a hula hoop, Sims is ignored for long stretches. This can't happen. Someone needs to speak up.

For now, that's the team's biggest issue, the main reason the Wolverines don't have a single quality win under their belts with just 15 regular-season games remaining. Beilein is especially perturbed with his team's lack of leadership on defense, and, again, that goes back to communication. To be a good 35-second defensive team, players need to talk, must yell out every screen, have to know where their teammates are.

That hasn't always been the case for this rollercoaster team. And if things don't come together ASAP, the Wolverines are almost certainly headed for the NIT (or worse). So who will step up? Who will become a leader and take the reins in trying to salvage the season? Beilein, for one, isn't sure, saying, "It's tough to change people's personalities sometimes, but we'll work at it."

And, I guess, we'll just have to keep waiting.

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