Blogger spotlight: UMHoops breaks down the Big Ten

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Few teams have a more formidable task Wednesday than Michigan basketball — the Wolverines play host to their second-straight unbeaten team in the 16-0 Ohio State Buckeyes.

Perhaps Sunday’s 67-60 overtime loss to Kansas provides some hope, but that’s asking a lot of John Beilein’s young squad. Are better times ahead for his program, and can they compete in the Big Ten?

Those are just some of the questions asked of Dylan Burkhardt, the man behind UMHoops. He’s the focus of the second installment of Blogger Spotlight.

Q: In the last two weeks, Michigan lost by 23 to Purdue and by 16 to Wisconsin. So explain Sunday’s overtime loss to Kansas. Did you see that coming?

A: I wouldn’t say that I saw it coming but Michigan has played some good games this year. For example, they won at Clemson and lost to Syracuse by three points in Atlantic City. Michigan’s primary issue has been consistency, mostly because the Wolverines are the ninth youngest team in Division I and the youngest in any major conference. With three freshmen starters and no seniors on the roster, it’s not surprising that Michigan has been up and down this year.

The 23 point home loss to Purdue was disheartening because Michigan was down just 3 points with 15 minutes to go. Wisconsin was more of the same, as Michigan actually led at the half. So in many ways, taking Kansas to overtime was an example of Michigan finally playing a complete game. Then again, the only ties in that game were at 0-0 and the regulation final of 51-51 so it’s safe to say that Kansas did outplay Michigan by a pretty significant margin.

The hope is that as this team continues to mature it will start winning a few of these close games. 

Q: Combine Sunday with Ohio State’s recent issues – blowing big leads and barely beating Iowa and Minnesota – are you optimistic about the Wolverines’ chances?

A: I wouldn’t go that far.  For my money, Ohio State is the most talented team in the conference by a wide margin. Sullinger is an absolute beast and the experience and talent that Ohio State has on the wings is just unfair. David Lighty has been there forever, Will Buford is a future lottery pick, and then Jon Diebler can knock down threes from anywhere.  Aaron Craft, Dallas Lauderdale, DeShaun Thomas the list of talented players goes on and on.

On the other hand, when Michigan is playing at home I’d like to think they have a chance to beat anyone, or at least be in the game down the stretch. As you mention, Ohio State has not necessarily been perfect throughout early Big Ten play so perhaps they are ripe for an upset.

Q: OK then. Will the Buckeyes dominate the Big Ten? Purdue and Illinois will have something to say about that, not to mention Wisconsin and (possibly!) Michigan State.

A: Purdue has been playing great basketball on both ends and the Illinois offense has been ridiculous [until losing to Penn State Tuesday night], but these teams will have to beat Ohio State before I’m a believer. That being said, I don’t see the Buckeyes winning the conference by more than a couple games because I think they’ll drop a few on the road and one or two at home. 

Q: Rate the Big Ten’s overall depth compared to previous seasons.

A: The Big Ten is deep, but I’m not sure the conference is quite as deep as many expected before the season began. Ohio State, Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin are all just about what we expected. Michigan State has disappointed but we’d be foolish to count them out now.  The disappointment is the next tier. Northwestern simply hasn’t proven they are the team that everyone wants to anoint them. Minnesota just hasn’t been as impressive as most expected after early season wins over North Carolina and West Virginia.

Michigan, Penn State, Iowa, and Indiana appear to be in that final tier but Michigan or Penn State could have the potential to climb into the middle fray. 

Q: Pick a Final Four.

A: I don’t have any sort of inspirational and unique Final Four picks but I’ll go with Duke, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, and a sleeper pick with Texas.  I really struggled to come up with a fourth team as it seems pretty wide open but I love the way Texas defends.  

Q: I was one of those who bought into last season’s squad, then watched as Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims played a ton of minutes, jacked up a ton of shots and rarely looked good doing it. Was it one of those seasons where a few close losses compounded problems until the end became a mess?

A: Something just wasn’t right. Things got off on the wrong foot with a 1-2 trip to the Old Spice Classic and Michigan was pressing to live up to preseason expectations and never was able to get back on the right track. Harris and Sims had their moments of brilliance but were never quite as consistent and efficient as they were when Michigan made the NCAA tournament the year before. Almost all of Michigan’s complementary players and shooters had a down year and, as you say, the struggles compounded. 

Q: It’s Year Four of the John Beilein era. Rate his progress.

A: Year one was a mulligan due to the coaching transition but in year two Michigan managed to not only make the NCAA tournament but advance to the second round. In year three, expectations were as high as they’ve been in over a decade for a Michigan basketball team. Rather than rise to the challenge, Michigan collapsed and took a giant step back. Now Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims are gone and we are left with one of the youngest teams in the country for Beilein’s fourth season. Expectations were low going into this season and it seems like Michigan could have an NIT-type season which is about all you could reasonably ask for this year.

It’s all going to come down to next year for Beilein. The Big Ten loses a lot of talent and Michigan returns their entire team while adding a couple skilled guards. Next year’s team has to compete in the upper half of the conference and should earn an NCAA tournament bid.

Q: Is he farther along than Tommy Amaker was at this point? Or is the comparison unfair because of the mess Amaker inherited?

A: Similar to the expectations question, this one is tough. Amaker was never able to reach the NCAA tournament at Michigan and Beilein accomplished that feat in year 2. The other side of this argument  is that Amaker was 108-84 in his six years at Michigan while Beilein is just 57-58 to this point. I guess it all comes down to the criteria that you want to use to judge the two coaches. Amaker inherited a program that was in worse shape than Beilein but was just never able to get over that hump. Beilein has gotten over the hump but has also had his fair share of disappointing seasons. I don’t have an answer.

Q: Ever wish Michigan would shoot slightly less often from beyond the arc?

A: As a fan I just want to see Michigan win. Honestly, I don’t really care how they win. I’m a believer that all styles of play have their strengths and weaknesses but you can win with anything, whether it’s 40 minutes of full-court press or a low-turnover, high-three perimeter oriented scheme. I’m fine with whatever.  Beilein was an overtime away from the Final Four running the exact same system at West Virginia so it’s fair to say that the system can work. On the other hand, I’d like it if Michigan could knock down threes at a bit higher rate.

Q: How much do you love your freshman class? They exceeding or matching your expectations?

A: The freshman class is strong with Jordan Morgan (RS), Tim Hardaway Jr., and Evan Smotrycz all in the starting lineup and Jon Horford and Blake McLimans (RS) also playing a role. Morgan is playing about as well as you could expect from a relatively unheralded freshman big man. On the other hand, Hardaway has played well but you can tell the 6-foot-6 wing is just scratching the surface of his potential. Smotrycz is a 6-foot-9 kid that can shoot but has been up and down this year. 

Q: Do you ever think Darius Morris is trying to do too much? Or is that by necessity?

A: Yes and yes. Morris has improved by leaps and bounds this season, averaging 15 points and 7 assists per game, but he still does a bit too much at times. Sometimes Michigan’s offense will break down and it seems like he dribbles the air out of the ball. Those possessions typically end one of two ways: Morris shooting some sort of circus shot in the lane or the opposing defense collapsing on Morris and leaving someone open for an assist.

Morris has the will to lead, which you love to see, but he has to learn when to do it all and when to play within the offense.

Q: Zack Novak, Stu Douglass. Role players who’ve been thrust into important roles or guys crucial to the development of a young team. (Or both?)

A: They are role players to a degree but Michigan needs them to continue to play a bigger role. Douglass is shooting just under 40 percent from three this year but he has been in a slump the last couple games. Michigan needs him to consistently hit perimeter shots to give them some scoring production off the bench.

Novak is in many ways the heart of the team. At 6-foot-4 he plays the rare combination of two guard and power forward. He averages 9 points and 7 rebounds per game and he’s the guy you want shooting a clutch shot, grabbing an important rebound, or fighting for a loose ball.

Q: Fondest Michigan hoops memory?

A: I’m just 22, so my memory bank isn’t quite as expansive as others so I’d have to go with Michigan’s NCAA Tournament selection in 2009 and the subsequent victory in Kansas City. My family first purchased season tickets about 10 years before that and you could argue that I grew up on one of the worst 10 year stretches in Michigan basketball history.

I had been teased by teams before that just weren’t able to get over the NCAA tournament hump so it was rewarding to finally see them make that jump. The drive down to Kansas City, win over Clemson, and upset bid cut short versus Oklahoma made the whole experience even more worthwhile.

Q: You’re on the highway, trying to flag someone down to help you fix your car. But there’s a woman on the other side of the road, who also needs help. She also happens to be wearing a bikini and thus gets all the attention. Hopefully that’s an overstatement when it comes to keeping a blog on Michigan basketball. But given the nonstop football coaching-search stories of late, I doubt it.  

A: Ha! Not to mention the best team specific football blog overshadowing my site. Obviously basketball isn’t of the highest priority for Michigan fans but there are enough people that care to make running the site worthwhile. I’ve been running the site for just over three years now and, quite honestly, it has already grown more than I would have ever expected. The three year stretch that I’ve been running the blog just happens to coincide with one of the worst stretches in Michigan football history – hopefully I’m not part of the problem.

Q: You’ve been doing this since 2007. Have you changed your approach or your emphasis?

A: I’d like to think that I’ve gotten better but that’s for others to judge. Over the past year we’ve continued to expand the site. I’ve added some help in the form of Joe Stapleton who has done a lot for us to expand our recruiting coverage (we covered 8+ AAU tournaments this summer) and handles typical press duties like video interviews from the locker room. At the end of the day those are just perks though and the core of the site continues to be tempo free analysis about Michigan basketball.

Q: Moment of truth – Do the Wolverines make this year’s NCAA tournament?

A: No.  I won’t mention the NCAA tournament until this team can pick up a few quality wins. When your best RPI win is Harvard, you probably aren’t quite there yet. That being said, if Michigan can pick up a couple home upsets the picture could change overnight.

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller.