Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Is Michigan underrated?
Today I continue my alphabetically sensitive preseason walk-arounds of each Big Ten team with some thoughts on the hitherto defenseless and turnover-prone young men from Ann Arbor, proud members of the Big Ten since its founding in 1896....

Last year
22-11 overall, 8-8 in conference. Lost to South Carolina in title game of the NIT, 76-64.

Dion Harris (11.1 PPG, 1.08 PPWS, 5.9 reb. pct., 5.4 assists per 100 possessions, 3.1 TOs per 100 possessions)
Courtney Sims (10.9 PPG, 1.31 PPWS, 15.9 reb. pct., 2.0 a/100 poss., 6.2 TO/100 poss.)
Lester Abram (10.0 PPG, 1.29 PPWS, 8.1 reb. pct., 2.4 a/100 poss., 3.2 TO/poss.)
Ron Coleman (5.8 PPG, 1.02 PPWS, 8.1 reb. pct., 2.3 a/100 poss., 2.7 TO/100 poss.)
Brent Petway (5.5 PPG, 1.19 PPWS, 14.4 reb. pct., 1.5 a/100 poss., 1.4 TO/100 poss.)
Jerret Smith (2.4 PPG)
Jevohn Shepherd (1.8 PPG)

DeShawn Sims (6-8 F, Detroit)
K'Len Morris (6-4 G, Grand Blanc, MI)
Ekpe Udoh (6-10 F, Edmond, OK)

Daniel Horton (17.6 PPG, 1.19 PPWS, 4.8 reb. pct., 9.3 a/100 poss., 6.2 TO/100 poss.)
Chris Hunter (8.1 PPG, 1.09 PPWS, 13.2 reb. pct., 1.2 a/100 poss., 4.9 TO/100 poss.)
Graham Brown (5.1 PPG, 1.24 PPWS, 18.8 reb. pct., 2.8 a/100poss., 4.1 TO/100 poss.)

Official motto for 2006-07
"Consistently inconsistent since 1998."

What we think we know in November (read the warning label)
Michigan has by far the lowest expectation-to-talent ratio in the Big Ten this preseason. They've been picked by the media to finish sixth in the conference and yet look at what they have:

--A 6-11 player who scores with extreme efficiency, blocks shots, and is the second-best returning rebounder in the conference
--A seasoned wing whose shots simply go in, whether from in close or outside the arc
--An experienced combo guard listed at 6-3 and 225 who hit 39 percent of his threes last year

Why doesn't anyone expect this team to do anything?

Because, well, there's a history here. Mindful of that history, Michigan comes into the season saying this year is different. They do that every year in Ann Arbor. But then it turns out every year is the same as the year before. "I can't say why it hasn't worked," admits Brent Petway this year.

Fear not, Brent! I'm here to help. Here is why it hasn't worked....

(insert throat-clearing noise here)


Join me, won't you, as we journey back in time (cue the harp, screen gets wavy)....

Three games that will live in infamy
Last February 2, Michigan stood at 6-2 in the Big Ten, coming off a road win at Penn State and back-to-back home wins over ranked opponents (Michigan State and Wisconsin). They were scoring 1.09 points per possession in conference play and holding their opponents to just 1.01--this despite the fact that Lester Abram had played in only three of their eight conference games before being sidelined indefinitely.

Then the roof fell in. The Wolverines traveled to Iowa City where the previously poor-shooting Iowa Hawkeyes went berserk and posted the best day of shooting recorded by any Big Ten team in any game last season. Final: Iowa 94, Michigan 66. Sure, a win at Carver-Hawkeye would have been a tall task. (Though not so very tall: the Wolverines won there in 2005.) But the magnitude of the disaster foreshadowed bad things to come....

Next stop: Crisler Arena, where Michigan gave up 94 points to Ohio State in a game that was briskly played (70 possessions) but not a track meet by any means. The Buckeyes made 15 of 24 threes and won by nine on an evening when the Wolverines played without Jerret Smith and saw Dion Harris and Brent Petway both leave the floor in the second half due to injuries.

And then things got even worse. The Wolverines went to West Lafayette without Abram, Harris, and Smith, and were thoroughly outplayed by Purdue, a team that took the floor for this game and for the balance of the year without its entire projected starting five. Final: Purdue 84, Michigan 70.

Over the course of these three games, Michigan opponents made no less than 59.6 percent of their threes and posted an effective FG pct. of 73.2. (Comparison: the worst FG defense in the Big Ten last year belonged to Penn State, who allowed opponents to post a 56.9 eFG pct.)

This three-game defensive collapse cost Michigan its tournament bid. Yes, they played all three games without Abram--but they'd already been doing that for most of the conference season. What's more, their offense over this same stretch was fine. (Indeed, against Ohio State the Wolverines scored a stellar 1.22 points per possession, led by a 26-12 dub-dub from Courtney Sims.)

And, yes, Michigan fumbled away other games after this three-game stretch--most notably the home finale against Indiana, and, most notoriously, the loss in the Big Ten tournament to Minnesota. But had the Wolverines merely played their run-of-the-mill below-average D against Ohio State at home and Purdue on the road, they could have lost both the later games and still heard their name called on Selection Sunday.

Truly, Mr. Petway, defense is "why it hasn't worked." Defense.

So then what about this year's D?
The bad news is that the Wolverines posted their woeful defensive numbers in 2006 even though Graham Brown was the single best defensive rebounder in the conference, one who would personally clean up 24.5 percent of the opponent's misses while he was on the floor. Now Brown is gone and Michigan figures to get fewer defensive boards. (In Brown and Sims, the Wolverines had two of the best seven defensive rebounders in the Big Ten--and yet as a team their defensive rebounding was below-average. No one in a Michigan uniform besides Brown and Sims hit the defensive glass last year.)

But fewer defensive boards can be offset by creating more misses and there is ample room for improvement in Michigan's field goal defense. So expect continued mediocrity in defensive rebounding but nevertheless a slightly improved Wolverine D this year. "Improvement" in this case meaning a giddy ascent from "well below-average" all the way to "average or slightly below." Why the (weak) optimism? Because if opponents hit 39.3 percent of their threes against Michigan two years in a row, it's officially time to order up an exorcism in Crisler.

Abram, Sims (two of them), Harris--this should be a good offense, right?
Speaking of good news/bad news, Daniel Horton's gone. Last year Horton was both very efficient at translating shots into points (yes, that surprised me) and very generous in giving turnovers to the opponent (no, that didn't surprise me).

I think the Michigan offense this year will be a lot like Horton last year: though they'll continue to turn the ball over, they'll also continue to shoot well and so their offense will be good. Not great, like they could be in theory if they held on to the ball, but good. It was good last year but no one could tell--good offense disappears when your defense is really bad.

So, like last year, defense will define this team. Eschew DAD and keep your eye on the Wolverine D.

BONUS note on the 2007 Michigan Wolverines: unwitting captives of extreme evaluative Manichaeism!
The thing to keep in mind about Michigan is that, after eight years on the outside looking in, the goal of an NCAA berth--just the invite itself--has become all-consuming and indeed totemic to a degree that is unequalled anywhere in the Big Ten. It's true, of course, that Northwestern's never been to the tournament. But it's also true that if this year's young Wildcats went 7-9 in conference and got an NIT bid, everyone concerned would be happy. Such is not the case, to say the least, in Ann Arbor. The rest of the Big Ten gets letter grades but Tommy Amaker over the past couple years has been graded strictly pass/fail.

Now, as it happens, I would rate the Wolverines' chances at getting that berth this year as "fair" for the not very sophisticated reason that I think they'll be about as good this year as they were last year, when they missed a bid by a hair. And in that sense Michigan is indeed being underrated this year. But the larger point is the dichotomy itself: the Wolverines will likely be about the same as last year but they'll be spoken of in one of two wildly divergent ways. If they get into the tournament: they're back, stigma's gone, blue-chip recruits are interested, watch out Izzo, 'doze Crisler now. If they don't: a program in limbo, no discipline, no character, bring in the hot seat. And whatever the outcome in March, it will be written about in April as though it were all foreordained in November.

It's not.

Hot shooting and MOTs
Dion Harris hit a fairly robust 39 percent of his threes last year and will thus give opposing defenses another thing to worry about on top of Abram and Sims. Make no mistake, the Wolverines this season have multiple offensive threats (MOTs!), perhaps the best such grouping in the conference. But, hey, I'm here to give out helpful information, so....

BONUS pro bono scouting note for opposing D's! Make Harris put the ball on the floor and even feel free to double-team him. His 2FG pct. is really bad and he's not much of a threat to record an assist.

Nooooooo! We want the old Courtney Sims!
Today marks the first time in this blog's young life when I am unable to do a good portion of my Michigan-preview blog work simply by pointing to entertaining words spoken by Courtney Sims. For you see, in October 2004 and then again in October 2005, Sims forecast that his team would be a threat to win the national championship. (Courtney, if this basketball thing doesn't work out professionally, I would not recommend meteorology as a fall-back.)

This year, in marked contrast, Sims is trying to stay humble. And, what's this, he's also slimmed down? (Yes, everyone's happy about it--more empirical support for my law of November weight change.) Yikes! Discontinuities abound! Well, we'll just see about that! How's this:

In 2005 and again in 2006, Sims scored very efficiently. In 2005 and again in 2006, Sims turned the ball over very frequently.

Expect both to continue.

Abram still keeps in touch with freshman-year roommate Tom Harmon
Lester Abram has, it seems, been in Ann Arbor since the zoot suit. And yet here he is, back again. So time once again to say: Abram will be healthy this year! He's a really efficient scorer! That helps Amaker!

There's no way of knowing if the first statement is true, of course. We do know that the second and the third are. But offense doesn't figure to be the problem in Ann Arbor. (Thanks in large part, granted, to Abram himself.) Defense does. What does Abram do for the defense?

We don't know. Michigan's with- and without-Abram numbers on defense from last year are miles apart but only because the young man was fortunate enough to miss out on the three-game degringolade recounted above. The epic proportions of the catastrophe were much too large to trace to a single player's absence. Keep an eye on this but also remember the more obvious point: minutes for Abram means other less savory roster options are being denied minutes. And that bodes well for Wolverine fans.

Another Abram? If only....
Ron Coleman is in many ways eerily similar to Lester Abram. Both play wing; both are listed at 6-6, 205, give or take; both take very good care of the ball; both pose little threat to get a rebound; both are no threat whatsoever to record an assist.

So how come Abram gets the ink? Because his shots go in. True, Coleman posted a respectable 36.0 3FG pct. last year (though not as respectable as Abram's 42.5). But his 2FG pct. was a lowly 44.8 (compared to Abram's sterling 57.4). I will not, however, resort to a hack trope and call Coleman "Lesster." So there.

Besides the dunks....
Brent Petway has been recognized by his peers as the scariest dunker in the Big Ten and his tomahawks are indeed get-off-your-couch tasty. But in terms of securing actual wins (the nominal purpose of basketball players), Petway's most critical task is to help Sims on the defensive glass this year--that would be huge for a team with defensive worries. Not that Petway hasn't done so up to now (his numbers there are fine), he just hasn't played up to now, missing the first 11 games of the season last year due to academic ineligibility and cracking the 20-minute barrier just six times in the team's final 22 games.

Big things are expected of freshman DeShawn Sims, who arrives in Ann Arbor with the label of "best Michigan recruit since"...well, for a while. (Big photo here. Profile here.)

Amaker says with Horton gone Jerret Smith will split time at point guard this year with Harris.

Freshman Reed Baker has shot threes quite well in the two exhibition games.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Division II Shippensburg beat Penn State 67-61 last night in an exhibition game in State College. The Nittany Lions played this game without two starters, Geary Claxton (broken finger) and David "Mooch" Jackson (twisted ankle). They also played man defense throughout the evening, as opposed to the zone they frequently employed last year. "The game doesn't really count in the win-loss column, but I just think it's embarrassing for us, personally," said Penn State point guard Ben Luber afterward. Shippensburg made 21 of their 34 two-point shots. (Box score (pdf).)

Cross-sport advice flies in East Lansing! Soon-to-be-gone Michigan State football coach John L. Smith says he thinks Spartan two-sport polymath Matt Trannon should play some hoops this season: "If I were advising him, I would probably advise him, 'If you don't get taken in the [football] combine, go ahead and play basketball,' because I think it nothing more than serves as a platform for him to sell himself." For his part Tom Izzo says his good friend and fellow UP native Steve Mariucci might be a good replacement for Smith: "Do I think he can do the job? Yeah, I think he can do the job. I think there are some other guys out there that can do the job. I really do mean that. We've just gotta get the one that fits us best and the one that's excited about being here." (Indefatigable Spartan savant Steve Grinczel, on the other hand, is skeptical that Mooch is a serious candidate. Wait, I'm writing about football. Abort!)...Profile of freshman Raymar Morgan here.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta has challenged his young team to make it to the Final Four this year. Meanwhile at this morning, Luke Winn looks at a couple scenarios for what the timing of Greg Oden's return from wrist surgery could mean to the Buckeyes' seed in the NCAA tournament.

Iowa coach Steve Alford on his young team: "The strength of our team right now is our backcourt. The frontcourt is still learning. It’s kind of a process that’s got to unfold through maturity."

Wisconsin guard Kammron Taylor is eating better this year....Badger recruiting updates here and here.

Junior-has-matured (JHM) profile of Purdue guard Tarrance Crump here.

Senior-has-matured (SHM) profile of Illinois guard Rich McBride here.

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