Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Weekend Tournament Report

Top Performer:

Derrick Walton Jr. (Sr) - Nobody is playing the point any better than Walton is right now. The Detroit native had a double-double with 26 points and 11 assists against the Cowboys in the first round, and he did it with complete confidence too. He really put on a show. The points did not come as easily for him against Louisville in the round of 32, but he still chipped in 10 more while recording seven rebounds and six more assists. Most importantly, they all got the win. His 8-9 shooting at the free throw line in the first two games was also big, and it proved just how comfortable he is in this situation. It also means that teams are better off not fouling him if they don't have to, so expect him to continue moving his game inside a little bit more. The strategy helped seal the deal at the end of the game against the Cardinals. And if he can continue to pressure teams up the lane then more guys should be clear to take shots from the perimeter. As long as they keep winning he will be in the conversation for the most valuable player in the tournament.

The Next Men Up:

D.J. Wilson (Jr) - A star is being born right in front of our eyes. Wilson, a forward, went from relative obscurity as a backup last year to being one of the nation's best players at the moment. When you consider all that he has done it is definitely hard to leave him out of the conversation for MVP. In the first two games of the NCAA he scored a combined total of 36 points while hitting on 48% of his shots from the field. He also blocked seven shots and has been a perfect 10-10 from the free-throw line, including four in a row he nailed to close the coffin on Louisville. Then for an encore he blocked the last shot on the Cardinal's final possession to officially end it. No sweat. This kid has ice running through his veins. There is no doubt the team will be looking to give him more chances to score against Oregon.

Mortiz Wagner (So) - The multi-faceted forward from Germany has proven himself to be quite a weapon for this offense. And, like the rest of his star teammates, he seems to show up whenever the team needs him the most. Such was the case against Louisville, where he exploded for a career-high 26 points. That's more than one third of the total points for the team. He is currently hitting on 64% of his shots for the tournament so he will get a lot of opportunities down low against Oregon too.

Strategy Against Oregon:

Coach Beilein (10th yr) - The crafty head coach, who loves to get his shooters open beyond the arc, will try to exploit the west coast team that is without it's best inside defender (F Chris Boucher). Look for them to test the paint with Wagner, Wilson, and Walton Jr. All three guys can get in quickly and score. Once that presence is established lower down against the Ducks, it will then be time to start looking for open shooters on the perimeter. On defense they need to spread out and cover their best players, who will be moving around out on the wings. Michigan doesn't match up too badly here but the Ducks can and will score, averaging 79 points per game on the season.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Unbelievable Journey Brings Big Ten Championship to Ann Arbor. So What Now?

To say the University of Michigan men's basketball team has had a roller coaster of a season is an understatement. They were an average team at best. I had even deemed them unwatchable and boring just two months ago. They hit a low point when they got punched in the mouth by arch rivals Michigan State and Ohio State in back to back games on January 29th and February 4th. At that point the Wolverines were at risk of being left out of March Madness altogether. As fans, many of us were already looking to next season as a crashing end to this year almost seemed inevitable. Ironically, nothing could've been further from the truth.

The following game on February 7th brought rival Michigan State to Crisler Arena. It was the second matchup between the two schools in a nine-day span. A make a break game-type of situation that could've propelled a slide into 2017 obscurity. Nobody was optimistic. Not even the Michigan faithful. There were empty seats available at tipoff even though the line had the Wolverines favored by 4. It was too bad as the Wolverines bounced back in a big way and absolutely pummeled the Spartans 85-57.

This would ultimately kick off a 6-2 finish through a tough stretch to end the schedule. An impressive run altogether, as in that span they also produced convincing wins over #11 Wisconsin and #13 Purdue, ultimately securing a place in the Big Ten and the NCAA tournaments. The biggest loss was on the road at Northwestern, who pulled off the most incredible full-court hail mary with one second left in the game. Though we lost that game, I believed the Wolverines grew as a team. The same goes for the Minnesota loss. Though the Gophers just looked like the better team that night, Michigan got a much-needed reminder that every game is going to be a battle from here on out.

Then came the crash, though it wasn't UM's tournament hopes doing the crashing.

As the team, the staff, the band, and the cheerleaders were set to take off on an airplane headed to the Big Ten tournament in Washington D.C. last Wednesday, the unexpected occurred: the plane got blown around on the runway, causing the pilots to abort the takeoff. The plane then ran out of asphalt and crashed through a fence, into a drainage ditch, and onto a service road. Though everybody escaped injury and death, they were forced to evacuate while pondering how lucky they all were to be alive. At that moment it was unclear whether or not the team would even make the trip. Some players, including senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr., voted to forfeit their scheduled matchup with Illinois in the first round.

They managed to make a flight just in time for tipoff on Thursday for the first round, though their jerseys did not. The team's gear was still stuck in the luggage compartment of the crashed plane and they were forced to wear practice uniforms. And despite the brush with death and no gear to wear, the team rallied together and found a surge they had not shown all season. They thumped the Illinis, They had a dramatic OT win against Purdue. They out-paced Minnesota. And they dominated the Badgers in the title game. Somehow, the team that nobody expected much from just six weeks earlier had miraculously found the will to win its first Big Ten Tournament Championship. And they continue to trend upward.

It was the type of season that is only written in movie scripts. It could not have been predicted and it still is unbelievable when put it into perspective. They were 4-6 in the conference after that loss to Ohio State with a 14-9 record overall. They ended the season climbing the ladders to cut down the nets with a 24-11 record. Incredible.

Now they head into the national tourney with a lot of weight lifted off their shoulders. In the grand scheme of things they have very little left to prove to anybody. I mean, escaping death and bringing home a conference title are enough for most fans. Of course, getting bounced in the first round would be a disappointment, but it's not like they are facing a pushover in Oklahoma State (20-12). And if they get through to the round of 32 they will most-likely face #2 seed Louisville (24-8). Both teams are beatable though, and the Wolverines realistically have as good of chance as any to reach the Sweet 16. But as a fan, I'm just glad they are playing for anything at all.

Having said that, let's take a look at what Michigan needs from it's players to make a run towards the Final Four. Here's a player by player breakdown:

1. PG Derrick Walton Jr. (Sr) - Nobody in the conference has been hotter than Walton Jr. over the last few weeks. He has hit numerous big shots while making opponents look foolish. Since he scored only five points in a win against Wisconsin on February 19th the senior has averaged 18 points and seven assists per game. He averaged 20.5 points in the four games in four days they played to win the Big Ten Tournament. He also led the Big Ten conference while hitting on 87% of his free throws on the season. If the team expects to make a run then he will need to continue running the offense with the precision he displayed has over the last month. He will also need to make a few of those tough baskets when the team needs them the most.

2. G Zach Irvin (Sr) - If you asked me five weeks ago how I felt about Irvin I would've said that I couldn't wait until he graduated. His senior year was looking downright forgettable. He turned it on in the last month though, scoring double digits in nine of their last 10 games and hitting on 57% of his field goals during the Big Ten tourney. He also had nine assists in the final two games while displaying the maturity that we all were expecting from him in his final year. He will need to stay hot. Mostly, he will need to keep his misses and miscues down. If he can do that then his leadership will fall into place and help the team get through some tough opponents.

3. F/C Moritz Wagner (So) - Wagner has had a major impact on this team throughout the season. He is the emotional spark plug that can energize his teammates and the crowd alike with a variety of moves. There might not be a better three-point shooting center in the entire field with a 41% average beyond the arc. He does not have to score a ton of points to be effective. He just needs to stay active and not get into foul trouble. And if he can hit on eight of 10 three-point shots in the process, just as he did this past weekend, then he will help create matchup nightmares for just about everybody he faces.

4. F D.J. Wilson (Jr) - No other player has been a bigger surprise this season than this kid. He virtually came out of nowhere and averaged 10.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. He also hit on 80% of his free throws, making him a tough closer at the end of games. He had a great stretch in the run towards the conference championship with a 62% field goal average in those four games. His best game came against Purdue last Friday where he scored 26 points and brought down eight boards. He is no doubt trending upward as a player and he could turn a lot of heads as March Madness heats up.

5. G Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (Jr) - Often the forgotten man in the starting lineup, Abdur-Rahkman is an athletic two-guard who often handles the ball down the floor while the team transitions into its offensive scheme. While he doesn't do any one thing great, he does a lot of things well. If he can continue with his nine points, three rebounds, and two assists per game averages then he will be doing his part. Just don't expect him to blow up for 20 or more points, because that's just not his game. He is more of a clean-up guy that takes advantage of opportunities when they are given to him and that is fine.

6. G Duncan Robinson (Sr) - Robinson could be a starter for a lot of teams, but he fits the sixth-man role perfectly in coach Beilein's scheme. He plays about 20 minutes per game and can hit big shots when open. In the last seven games he has hit a whopping 68% of his field goals and 58% of his three-point attempts. Needless to say, he can be dangerous. He has also surprised some opponents with his defense as of late, making him less off a liability late in games.

7. F Mark Donnal (Sr) - The top backup to Wilson and Wagner, Donnal was a starter last year and has taken to his backup role well. He has averaged 61% from the field, 47% from three-point range, and 79% from the charity strip while playing nearly 13 minutes per game. The team needs continued production from him in order to keep the starters fresh throughout the tournament.

8. PG Xavier Simpson (Fr) - The only real backup to Walton Jr., Simpson has improved the most over the course of the season. While he is not much of a scoring threat yet he does play very good on the defensive end of the floor. He has also made some very nice passes while getting assists to other players, which gives a lot of hope for his future. And if the team wants to keep their top leader fresh he will need to keep providing a steady 10 minutes per game just like he has over the last seven contests.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Basketball Update

My quick opinion on this Michigan Men's basketball team hasn't changed much. That loss at Northwestern is what it is: a talented home team with a fired up crowd going toe-to-toe with a hot but streaky Wolverine team in the middle of a tough stretch to wrap up the season. Good on the Wildcats for playing a tough game and making the play of the year at the end. Way to go! Now let's focus on Nebraska!

We will know more about this team in the coming weeks. The Big Ten tournament will be very interesting. If Michigan gets hot they could make a couple runs like they did last year. No doubt.

One player that I'd like to point out right away is freshman point guard Xavier Simpson. If he continues to rise the way that he has been over the last few weeks then this team could become a real threat to make a run for the Final Four. And yes, I do mean that. Why not? A team with great depth can stay more fresh during March Madness, and there are plenty of rising stars on this roster right now.

Hat's off to Derrick Walton Jr. as he has had the type of season that any out-going senior would be proud to have. Let's hope that he gets more rest than he did last year with the emergence of Simpson, so that he can stay fresh throughout games in the upcoming tournaments. The sky is the limit for this team, as it would be for any late-rising team with the caliber of young talent that is on this roster.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Four Games an the Horizon and Everything Is On the Line

After that sloppy loss to Minnesota on Sunday evening, the 17-10 Wolverines are teetering back into desperation mode. We knew the Gophers were going to be a tough out, but they were clearly the better team in that game and deserved the win. Hand it to the Wolverines for never giving up and taking it to overtime after trailing most of the game, but don't deny the fact that this team lacks any quality depth and elite-level leadership at the moment. And one more loss will instantly put them right back to where they were two weeks ago - facing elimination from the NCAA tournament.

Realistically, it looks like this team is a year away from really making run at anything, with a healthy mixture of youth and experience returning for the 2017-2018 season. Senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. has made a great effort offensively to keep this team hanging around nearly every game, but he has had lapses of motivation on defense along with some untimely mistakes with the ball in his hands that seem to be due to exhaustion. If he doesn't find a third wind here to finish this season on a strong note, then this team is done. The other senior leader, Zach Irvin, has had a terribly disappointing year, and very few people are hopeful that he can pull out of that slump to take this team to another level. If he does rise up to leave the college game with one last streak of big three-point shots, it would help alleviate some of the pressure off of Walton. Wilson and Wagner are young, rising players that are not quite leaders yet, but they will be counting on to be stars next year so anything could happen in the next few weeks. Both guys need to toughen up and play smarter defense. Abdur-Rahkman continues to put up numbers in the stat sheet, but he needs to be at least a third option in the offense to really be effective. In other words, he is not particularly a natural leader that plays with a lot passion.

One surprise player off the bench as of late has been Mark Donnal. Though he has occasionally peppered in some minutes over the course of the last two years, he has shown a bit of a fire off the bench in the last few contests that I haven't really seen much before. It makes me think he really wants to compete for something. He rarely takes a bad shot, and he has hit on four out of his last five attempts from the feild. He also has five rebounds, two blocks, and six points in the last three games. Not too bad for a big man getting less than 14 minutes per game off the bench. If he can help provide some toughness on defense down the stretch it will go a long way towards deciding the team's ultimate postseason fate.

At least one of the younger guys have begun to step up too. Freshman point guard Xavier Simpson has shown some spark and lot a of promise while playing about nine minutes per game. He has six assists, five rebounds, and one steal in the last four games. Look for him to get more quality minutes going forward.

I am still holding my hopes this team can make a run this year. Though the schedule is tough, it is not unbeatable. Luckily, tomorrow night's must-win road game is at 13-15 Rutgers, and their toughest opponent, Purdue, comes to the Crisler Center this Saturday. If they go 2-0 it will have them in control of their own destiny with road games at Northwestern and Nebraska to close out the season. Either way, the team needs to win three of those games to really impress anybody. Otherwise, it might be looking at an NIT invitation instead.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Hot Streak Continues As Final Stretch Begins

During an ugly 10-9 run from November to February the Wolverines were one of the most unwatchable teams in the nation. They had no fire. They were boring. And they capped it all off with a February 4th home loss to Ohio State. As a fan I was left wondering if this program was beiginning to crumble out from underneath Coach Beilein. Had his stoic ways eroded any passion the players had? Where was that promising team that had an exciting run to the Big Ten Tournament semifinal last year? Nobody seemed to have an answer.

But that was two weeks ago.

On February 7th the team walked into the Crisler Center building and put up a game for the ages with a 29-point blowout of the rival Spartans. Since then they have added two more huge wins on the road at Indiana, where they rarely get a win, and at home against #11 Wisconsin, who they rarely ever beat. They are currently 17-9 and slowly rising up the conference ladder.

The differences of the team playing right now and the one that was just barely hanging in there a few weeks ago is simple - the leadership has emerged. You are seeing guys taking on their responsibilities "with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind" and you are seeing guys feeding off each other's energy. It's been fun, regreshing, and much-needed in regards to saving the season.

Despite having a rather quiet game against Wisconsin on Thursday night, PG Derrick Walton Jr. has scored 99 points in the last five games while looking exactly like the point guard that this program had envisioned him to be when they recruited him four years ago. He has hit key shots in key moments and he has been the catalyst that has kept this team together. G Mahammed-Ali Abdur Rahkman has averaged 12 points per game over the last four while also hitting 50% from three-point range. G/F Zack Irvin finally woke up from a slump in the win against the Badgers, hitting 50% from the field for 18 points. Six of those points came off big three-pointers after he had only hit on two of his previous 15 attempts from beyond the arc in the previous four games. F/C Moritz Wagner has been a much-needed spark plug on the floor. He seems to be gaining momentum as the season goes on, just as he did late last year. He has reached
double digit points in four out of the last five games while hitting on 46% of his 19 three-point attempts. He also pulled off a double-double at Indiana while taking down 10 rebounds and putting up 11 points. He is an emerging star. F D.J. Wilson, who has been the most-improved player on the team this year, He has hitting a whopping 49% from the field over the last five games. He too is a rising star. G/F Duncan Robinsson has been killing teams while shooting 59% from the field and 50% from three-point range over the last three games. His eight points per game off the bench have been huge. PG Xavier Simpson has been getting more game time too. He saw a lot of minutes against Michigan State and Indiana, hitting on four of five shots for nine points and three rebounds in those two contests. His defense has been solid too. F Mark Donnal has been decent at times in relief of Wagner and Wilson. He is averaging 64% from the feild, 46% from downtown, five points per game, and 2.5 rebounds per game on the season. That depth will be much-needed in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

All hands will be needed on deck as the team cruises into the final five game stretch that includes four road games. They head to Minnesota tomorrow to play the 19-7 Gophers. Not an easy game, but it's very important as both teams are currently tied with a 7-6 conference record. Then it's a trip to the East Coast for a Wednesday night game at Rutgers. That's a more winnable game but could be a trap with #16 Purdue looming ahead on Saturday. They close the season on the road at Northwestern on March 1st and at Nebraska on the 5th. If they can win four out of those five it would be amazing, but anything less than a 3-2 record in that stretch would be enough to keep them out of the NCAA Tournament.

Can this hot streak continue? We shall see...

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Basketball Team Showing Signs of Life After Being Left for Dead

It is amazing what a little desperation can do for team chemistry. Sometimes the weight of all the pressure can be crushing enough to cause a complete meltdown within the program, resulting in coaching firings and player transfers. For a great example of this just look back to the end of the Brady Hoke era in 2014. At other times, having their proverbial backs to the wall can bring out some emotion in a group of players, collectively raising their game to new heights.

Since the the Big Ten schedule started back on Janurary 1st, the UM men's basketball team has been inconsistent and completely boring at best. While posting a 5-6 conference record, they have struggled to find any sort of rhythm and have appeared lost on the court. The seniors have not provided the leadership that the roster needed, and the youngsters still looked like high school kids trying to play college ball. They all lacked any sense of urgency. It was ugly. Then they lost to their two biggest rivals in back to back games, one being a home loss to unranked Ohio State. As a result, the Wolverines find themselves on the outside looking in as a potential tournament team. And let's face it, there was nothing leading up to the month of February to make anybody think this team could compete among the top teams in the country.

Then came in-state rivals and perrenial basketball beast Michigan State to Crisler Arena on Tuesday night. And though the Spartans are experiencing their own troubles as a young, developing roster, hopes were not high for Michigan to pull out a crucial and much-needed win. They did manage to beat UM on their own court pretty handedly just a week earlier. And with confidence down it was being reported right before game time that there were still plenty of seats available. But despite a growing sense of negativity, the Wolverines exploded for one of their best games in John Beilein's 10-year career at Michigan - blasting MSU 86-57 while shooting 48% from the field.

What was the difference? Energy. Intensity. Emotion. It all showed up on Tuesday night and it never really wavered. D.J. Wilson even got charged with a technical foul for his celebration after a big dunk. Usually that type of play would upset Beilein, and it is surely against his coaching philosophy, but it was a much-needed display of fire and rage that this team desperately needs. And if this team wants any kind of chance at competing in the tourney next month, it will need more of that, despite what any coach might tell you.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Team Recruiting Rankings: Where Does Michigan Really Stand?

It's not debatable, recruiting matters. Why? Well, Alabama has consistently dominated the national recruiting scene over the last decade and look at the results - four national titles in eight years. Ohio State has been consistently near the top of the recuiting rankings, just behind Alabama, under both Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer. They have made the playoffs twice in the last three years - winning it all in 2014. Recruiting matters. And those teams that can consistently produce the better haul of prospects finds themselves in good position to win championships year in and year out.

So where does this year's crop of Michigan recruits rank on the national scene? By all accounts, they are solidly in the top five. Alabama is the run-away winner with what could be one of the best classes ever assembled. Ohio State is solidly in second place with a group that is very top-heavy. Harbuagh and company come in third, just a hair ahead Georgia. The Wolverines and the Bulldogs both have two 5-Stars, but more 4-Stars are going blue. USC edges out FSU to round the top five.

Any way you dice it, these 10 teams definitely improved in the talent department this recruiting season:

  1. Alabama - 575 pts
  2. Ohio State - 560 pts
  3. Michigan - 547 pts
  4. Georgia - 538 pts
  5. USC - 520 pts
  6. Florida State - 518 pts
  7. Oklahoma - 505 pts
  8. LSU - 496 pts
  9. Florida - 489 pts
  10. Auburn - 478 pts