Thursday, December 30, 2010

In brutal Big Ten, defense will make or break Wolverines


Despite most people saying that Purdue dominated the entire second half of its 80-57 thrashing-that-wasn't-a-thrashing-until-the-other-team-quit over Michigan Tuesday in the teams' Big Ten opener, the truth is that the Wolverines played the Boilers fairly even for the first 12 minutes of the half.

Then coach John Beilein made his biggest blunder, calling timeout with the Wolverines trailing just 57-49 — four points worse than their 30-26 halftime deficit — and putting his team in its shaky 1-3-1 zone.

Seconds later, Ryne Smith found himself wide, wide open on the right wing and proceeded, quite casually, to knock down his fifth 3-pointer in six tries.

Purdue led by 11. Michigan's effort slacked off. And the game, just like that, was over.

Afterward, Beilein wasn't asked about his decision to go to the zone. After a 23-point defeat, that might have seemed like too pointed a question. After all, it was one lousy possession of many on which the Boilers got what they wanted offensively.

Rather, the best question asked was about how to get a  young team like the Wolverines to remain focused on both ends of the floor.

"It’s pretty difficult to go from one end of the floor to the other," Beilein said. And then he repeated himself: "It’s hard to do that. It’s hard to focus both ways for our team."

Of course, he's right.

If the Wolverines (10-3) are going to put together a respectable Big Ten record, they're going to need to meet that challenge and compete for 40 minutes on both ends. On Tuesday, they put together about 15-16 good 94-feet minutes.

But doing that starts on one end for this group — the defensive end.

Why? Because when the Wolverines play good defense, it will usually translate — against tough, defensive-minded foes like Purdue — into easier offense.

Against the Boilers, Michigan looked lost and scared in its halfcourt offense against Purdue's set D. Even with Darius Morris running the show, the Wolverines often found themselves out near midcourt with the shot clock nearing expiration, forced to make a last-ditch effort at a decent shot.

And each time Purdue scored on the other end, it meant another halfcourt possession for the Wolverines — not to mention a larger deficit to think about (Michigan led just once, for 10 seconds, 26-25).

On the other hand, the Wolverines were most effective on the offensive end after a missed shot or turnover by the Boilers. While they didn't get many fast-break opportunities, they scored the majority of their buckets during a 19-4 first-half run on the secondary break, as Morris created open looks for teammates before Purdue's defenders got set.

During Michigan's best stretch, Stu Douglass and Evan Smotrycz each drilled a pair of open, in-rhythm 3s, Douglas made a layup against an unsettled Purdue defense and Jon Horford got a transition dunk to give the Wolverines that short-lived lead.

It all started with stops and forced turnovers on the other end.

Beilein saw things the other way around, saying, "We had some really bad lulls offensively, which really led to some bad defense."

Which, of course, is true. But getting stops on the defensive end, especially during a second half in which Purdue shot 63.3 percent, might have, in turn, created better offensive opportunities for the Wolverines.

Michigan managed to almost keep pace for those first 12 minutes, and during that timeout I thought the game was far from over. But after that horrible defensive possession — Beilein was desperate for a stop so he tried to switch things up; the players weren't ready for it — the Wolverines didn't have enough gas and resolve left to continue trading barbs with one of the Big Ten's best.

They'll get a short reprieve, if you can call it that, with another home game against Penn State Saturday. It's a must-win on a daunting schedule that is followed by a game at Wisconsin — I can't remember the last time they won there — and a nice non-conference break contest at Crisler against, oh, No. 3 Kansas.

To survive such a haunting schedule, the Wolverines need to be much better on defense. Do that, and those offensive lulls might just take care of themselves.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Led by Morris, young Wolverines a pleasant suprise


You know what's amazing? Let me explain...

It's amazing, to me, that in today's sports world, a player can go from being relatively obscure and uninvolved one year to being an absolutely stud the next. And surprise everyone in doing it.

Coming into this college hoops season, any fan knew that a Harrison Barnes, that a Kyrie Irving, that a Josh Selby would be impact players as freshmen for their respective teams. Everyone knew that a player like Tyler Zeller would be much improved  as long as he stayed out of the training room.

But what did anyone know about Michigan guard Darius Morris?

Last season, I watched the majority of Michigan games, and Morris was never really a factor despite the fact that the Wolverines had a major need at point guard — Morris' natural position. Morris started 19 games, but averaged just 4.4 points and 2.6 assists per outing.

He most often played off Michigan's go-to guys, Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, taking spot-up jumpers that looked like misses — and were — the second they left his fingertips.

He looked lost. Disengaged. Unassertive.

In other words, the exact opposite of how he looks now. Because of an aggressive, confidant, creating Morris, the Wolverines (9-2) are easily exceeding the canyon-low expectations that were fairly set for them before the seasons.

On Saturday, they cruised by an Oakland team, 6-6, that is playing a murderer's row non-conference schedule and was coming off its biggest win in school history at No. 7 Tennessee.

Morris has breathed new life into these Wolverines, even if the half-full library crowds at Crisler Arena haven't indicated such a positive upswing. Maybe the fans still don't believe. Heck, I didn't believe my eyes the first three times I watched Morris effortlessly lead the Wolverines fastbreak and create something out of nothing with the shot clock winding down.

But I'm a believer now. Darius Morris, averaging 14.9 points, 7.1 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game, is one of the best point guards in an absolutely stacked Big Ten. And these young, overachieving Wolverines will go as far as he takes them.

Morris worked out with John Wall over the summer, and when watching him, you can see similarities to the No. 1 draft pick. No, Morris isn't as explosive, or quick, or (fill in an exceptional skill of Wall's) — but the guard from California now plays with a great amount of confidence, loves to have the ball in his hands, and never shies away from a big shot.

Michigan needed a leader to step up with Harris and Sims gone. Morris hasn't wasted a second in accepting that role.

He's also been the leader of the Wolverines' biggest strength — their defense. He's put ball pressure on each opponent's PG, making it difficult to set up their offense. He's been the catalyst for Michigan's surprisingly good man-to-man D, which has been so effective, John Beilein hasn't even spent much time working on his patented 1-3-1 zone.

These Wolverines have been far from aesthetic. They've gone through some ugly scoring droughts and built mansions out of 3-point bricks. But their defense has kept them in games, and their point guard has ended those droughts.

Is Michigan an NCAA Tournament team? I would be shocked if that happened. But this extremely young outfit is achieving much more than anyone anticipated, and that's all that one can ask for.

They've been led by their biggest surprise of all.

If you haven't learned the name, you will soon.

Darius Morris, the super sophomore.