Blogger spotlight: UMHoops breaks down the Big Ten

Leave a comment

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.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

Getty Images
3 Comments

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

Getty Images
3 Comments

McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

jared butler baylor
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

Getty Images
3 Comments

TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

xavier tillman nba draft
Getty Images
Leave a comment

In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.