Michigan’s process of adjusting to key personnel losses hasn’t been a smooth one

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Caris LeVert (AP Photo)

TUCSON — The last four seasons under John Beilein have been the most successful at Michigan since the 1990’s, with the Wolverines winning an average of 26 games per season, a pair of Big Ten regular season titles and a trip to the 2013 national title game. During that run, the Wolverines were able to account for the premature loss of key players, with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. grabbing the reins following the departure of Darius Morris, and a talented group led by Nik Stauskas doing so once Burke and Hardaway moved on to the NBA.

The consensus this preseason was that this current group, led by junior Caris LeVert and sophomores Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin, would be able to do the same. LeVert was a preseason all-american. Walton and Irvin? They were high-profile recruits with a year of college hoops under their belts, primed for a breakout season.

Things haven’t worked out that way, as the Wolverines have now lost three consecutive games, the most recent — an 80-53 loss on national television to No. 3 Arizona Saturday evening in Tucson — being only marginally less embarrassing than homes losses to Eastern Michigan and NJIT.

Expected to be every bit as competitive as last season’s meeting, a 72-70 Wildcat victory in Ann Arbor, Saturday’s game saw Arizona look every bit a national title contender. This Michigan team is still in search of an identity, the biggest issue on Saturday being their most glaring problem: The Wolverines have yet to find a consistent option in the middle.

That may seem weird considering that the loss of Jordan Morgan didn’t receive nearly as much attention as Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary bolting to the NBA. But Morgan was a valuable player for those Wolverines, making 27 starts and averaging 6.4 points and 5.0 rebounds per contest as a senior.

Morgan’s numbers may not have been eye-popping but he was consistent for the Wolverines. Offensively he was a capable passer in the high post, and he also did a solid job of finishing at the basket in pick-and-roll situations. Also good on the glass (remove McGary’s average through the eight games he played and Morgan led the team in rebounding), Morgan defended his position well for the Wolverines. In short, Morgan performed at a level that Michigan’s current big men have yet yo reach on a consistent basis.

It’s a bit unfair to use Saturday’s showing against a Mark Donnal (five points, one rebound) or Ricky Doyle (eight points, three rebounds). Arizona’s front court has multiple players whose names will likely be called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver at some point in the near future, and Doyle and Donnal are both playing their first season of college hoops.

Doyle displayed flashes of what he can do earlier this season, as he averaged 13.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in wins over Nicholls and Syracuse, but due in large part to their inexperience Michigan’s interior players haven’t been as consistent as one would like. Arizona scored 42 points in the paint Saturday, and while there were highlight-reel worthy dunks from wings Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson the Wildcat big men also proved to be an issue for the Wolverines.

“They have much bigger players, much more experienced players,” Beilein said after the game. “Our two freshman centers, Mark Donnal, Max Bielfeldt who’s a senior, and Ricky Doyle, were having trouble against the size of Tarczewski and [Brandon Ashley].”

But even with that being the case, Saturday’s contest proved to be a valuable one for the young Michigan big men as it gave them a good idea of what it takes to compete against some of the nation’s best big men.

“I really wanted to get Ricky as much [playing time] as we [could] to see what this level’s about,” Beilein said of Doyle. “It’s motivation now, it’s motivation all year. For him to see, ‘this is what the big boys play like, that’s what you have to learn to be able to do.’ There were really valuable small victories in some of the things he did.”

With Morgan out of eligibility and Jon Horford transferring to Florida, it was known that the Wolverines were going to be young in the paint this season. It’ll take time for the likes of Doyle and Donnal to develop into consistent players, as is the case for most freshmen in college basketball.

What that means is that Michigan may need to go with a lineup that allows them to exploit those mismatches for their perimeter players. But in order for that to be effective, Michigan has to use the resulting lanes to attack the basket and not simply settle for perimeter shots. Do that, and a team that ranks 12th in the Big Ten in free throw attempts (165) will be able to take advantage of the fact that they’re one of the conference’s best foul shooting teams (75.8%).

When it comes to Walton Jr. and Irvin, they’re making the transition from being part of a rotation one year to being critical pieces the next. LeVert went through that process last season, as his minutes tripled and he emerged as one of the most improved players in the Big Ten if not the country. With the lack of experience and consistent production inside those three have even more on their plates offensively, and the added attention is something they’ve had to battle this season. After being one of the best shooting teams in America last season, Michigan’s effective field goal percentage (55.7% to 50.1%) and three-point shooting (40.2% to 36.8%) are both way down this year.

According to Walton, the bigger concern is the team’s play on the defensive end, as Michigan is currently last in the Big Ten in both field goal (45.4%) and three-point (38.4%) percentage defense.

“I [don’t] think offense is the problem right now. I think it’s more so on the defensive end,” Walton Jr. said following Saturday’s loss. “[There are] just times when guys are falling asleep and missing boxouts and stuff like that. Film study will always help. At the end of the day this team needs to focus on the defensive end more than offense.”

After finding a way to account for the loss of key players with few major hiccups over the four seasons prior, that hasn’t been the case for Michigan in 2014-15. While losses to No. 7 Villanova and No. 3 Arizona will be understood given the caliber of those teams, a similar case can’t be made for their home losses to N.J.I.T. and Eastern Michigan. With finals this week, Michigan has just two games left to play (SMU and Coppin State) before they start Big Ten play December 30 against Illinois.

The time spent on the court and in the film room during this period will be vital for this group, as its most experienced options adjust to greater roles and the younger players work to become more comfortable not only with the system but also high-level Division I basketball. While the impulse for some may be to rush to judgment when it comes to this Michigan team, they’ve still got time to figure things out.

The process won’t be an easy one, as evidenced by their current three-game skid, but it is one the Wolverines are capable of navigating.

Best Bets: Previewing the weekend’s biggest college basketball games

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There are no Vegas lines for these games just yet. All analysis will be based on KenPom projections, which typically end up close to the opening lines anyway.

No. 7 NORTH CAROLINA at No. 5 VIRGINIA, Sun. 4:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Virginia 61, North Carolina 55
  • TICKETS: Click here

I am going to be fascinated to see where the line for this game opens up, because neither of these teams are playing all that well right now, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Virginia was blown out by unranked Purdue on the road, 69-40, while North Carolina is coming off of a drubbing at the hands of Ohio State in their own building, 74-49.

My initial lean here is going to be the Virginia side, depending on how much they are laying, but I do think that the best bet would likely be the under assuming the line opens at or around 116. The logic is relatively simple, really. Virginia has still been one of college basketball’s most intimidating defenses this season despite what happened against Purdue. While nice, 69 points doesn’t sound like a lot, but the 1.19 points-per-possession the Boilermakers did post was one of just four times in the last two-plus years that a team has done that against Virginia.

Purdue has done it twice.

That’s because the Boilermakers run the precise kind of action you need to run to beat the Pack-Line. There is a ton of motion, guys running off of screens every which way and action happening simultaneously on both sides of the floor. This is not what North Carolina does, and when combined with the fact that – as shown in the video embedded below – the Tar Heels have basically one option offensively right now, leads me to believe that the Wahoos will control tempo, overwhelm UNC defensively and keep this game in the 50s.

Think about it like this. Ohio State-UNC finished at 123 total points. Virginia is the only defense in the country ranked higher on KenPom that Ohio State, and Virginia is a full 100 spots lower offensively.

PICKS: I like Virginia -5 and below, and I like the under for everything 115 and above.

No. 12 ARIZONA at No. 18 BAYLOR, Sat. 12:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Baylor 75, Arizona 71
  • TICKETS: Click here

There are a couple of things to take into account here.

For starters, this game is being played in Waco, but there are some real questions about just how much of a home court advantage the Bears are going to have here. The football team is in the Big 12 title game, which will be played at the same time. I have a feeling that is going to take priority for the majority of the Baylor fanbase. Baylor has resorted to giving away free tickets to make sure the stands are filled.

That said, I think that Baylor has the matchup advantage here. The Bears haven’t been playing as much zone this year but it’s still something they can fall back into, which will be tricky for an Arizona team built around three freshmen. I also think the size Baylor has inside is less than ideal for a team that relies on Zeke Nnaji quite a bit. Then throw in the fact that this is Arizona’s first true road game and first game outside of the western time zone, and I like the spot for Baylor.

PICKS: I’m refraining from betting on this. I don’t have a great feel.

No. 9 GONZAGA at No. 22 WASHINGTON, Sun. 7:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Gonzaga 73, Washington 71
  • TICKETS: Click here

A rivalry game, one where I expect Gonzaga to be favored on the road. I think I like Washington here. I don’t fully trust Gonzaga’s guard play at this point in the season, and if anyone remembers the way that the Washington-Baylor game ended the first week of the season, Isaiah Stewart completely dominated Baylor’s frontline down the stretch. I can see that happening again, considering just how much Gonzaga relies on running offense through their posts.

PICKS: I think Washington will win, so getting the Huskies on the money line at +125 would be nice.

FLORIDA at No. 24 BUTLER, Sat. 12:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Butler 63, Florida 57
  • TICKETS: Click here

We’ve been betting Butler this season because the Bulldogs have been undervalued by the market all year. But now that they have that number next to their name and coming off of a really impressive win at Ole Miss, I think our chance to be all in on this team may have come to an end.

I also think that six points is a lot in this matchup, which I expect to be really low-scoring. The Gators can defend, are good at running teams off of the three-point line and can’t make threes themselves. They have a number of guards they can throw at Kamar Baldwin and have shown no desire to play fast at all this season. Butler is 348th in average possession length offensively.

PICKS: Let’s see where the total opens, but if it’s in the low-to-mid 120s, I think the under is the play in this game.

No. 20 COLORADO at No. 2 KANSAS, Sat. 7:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Kansas 73, Colorado 65
  • TICKETS: Click here

I am definitely looking forward to this game because I feel like I haven’t had a chance to really watch Colorado yet this season. I saw a little bit of their game against Arizona State in the opener, but that’s it. So keep that in mind as I proceed to tout the Buffaloes. Here’s the logic: The Jayhawks want to run their offense through Udoka Azubuike in the post, and Colorado is top ten nationally in defensive two-point field goal percentage. They have big bodies, they have strong posts and they can make life tough for Azubuike inside.

PICKS: I think this line will open up higher than Colorado (+8). Getting the Buffaloes (+10.5) would make all of my wildest dreams come true.

No. 19 DAYTON vs. SAINT MARY’S, Sun. 4:00 p.m. (Phoenix)

  • KENPOM: Dayton 70, Saint Mary’s 68
  • TICKETS: Click here

I’ll be on Dayton here. What makes Saint Mary’s dangerous is their ability to spread teams out with their shooting and create mismatches all over the court. Dayton does the same thing, only they have Player of the Year candidate Obi Toppin creating mismatches, who should, in theory, be able to limit Malik Fitts’ advantage at the four. Playing this game at a neutral site is a bonus as well.

PICKS: I like Dayton up to (-4.5), and I would think about the under as well. Both of these teams are built on shooting, and neutral sites environments can be tough to shoot in. Saint Mary’s wanting to play at a slow pace will help as well.

CINCINNATI at XAVIER, Sat. 5:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Xavier 73, Cincinnati 67
  • TICKETS: Click here

My take on Cincinnati is that the Bearcats are overvalued right now. The biggest reason for that is that there seems to still be some tension between new head coach John Brannen and star guard Jarron Cumberland. I also think that Xavier is one of the teams that is being undervalued at this point. I know they struggle shooting the rock, but they are tough, they are athletic and they have a couple of game-changers in Naji Marshall, Tyrique Jones and Paul Scruggs. If Kyky Tandy can provide a bit of shooting and Quentin Goodin is truly out of his funk, the Musketeers are a top 20 team.

The only concern I have: This is a rivalry game. If Jarron Cumberland is ever going to play like a National Player of the Year candidate, this is the game he’ll do it.

PICKS: I will probably be staying away at Xavier (-6).

CBT Podcast: Georgetown’s problems, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, a weekend preview

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Rob Dauster and Bobby Reagan from the Fundamentally Sound podcast go through everything that happened in a wild week of basketball, from the four – yes, four! – blowouts of in the marquee games of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge as well as the rise of DePaul and the enigma that is Indiana. Rob also discusses the situation at Georgetown at the top, and the podcast ends with a preview of what should be a lively weekend of college hoops.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot to be ‘out a while’

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North Carolina’s freshman center Armando Bacot suffered a left ankle injury in the first half of Wednesday night’s game against Ohio State and did not return.

Bacot, who came down on a defender’s foot and had to be helped off of the floor, immediately when back to the locker.

“It was swollen by the time he got to the locker room,” coach Roy Williams said. “My guess is he’ll be out a while.”

The 6-foot-10 Bacot was averaging 11.7 points and 9.6 boards and was coming off of his best game of the season, when he posted 23 points, 12 boards and six blocks while playing a season-high 30 minutes against Oregon.

Michigan, Kentucky schedule basketball game in London

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan and Kentucky have agreed to play a basketball game in London next season as part of a three-year deal that also includes a home-and-home series between the two programs.

Michigan announced the deal Thursday. The teams will play at O2 Arena in London in December 2020. The teams will meet at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor in 2021 and at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena in 2022.

“When the idea of playing Kentucky came up, we knew it would be an exciting opportunity, not only for ourselves, but for our fans as well,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “What a unique three-game series. First, we get to showcase collegiate basketball overseas in London before playing that traditional home-and-home series in front of two of the nation’s best basketball environments.”

The teams have met seven times previously, with Kentucky holding a 5-2 edge. The Wildcats beat Michigan in a 2014 Elite Eight game in their most recent contest. When Howard was a player at Michigan, his Wolverines beat Kentucky in a 1993 national semifinal.

Film Room: How Ohio State handed North Carolina their worst loss in nearly two decades

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At this point, no one should be surprised when Chris Holtmann does something smart as a head coach, and I certainly was not surprised to see him find a way to smother North Carolina on the defensive side of the ball on Wednesday night.

In a 74-49 win in the Dean Dome, the worst home loss the Tar Heels have taken since 2002, when Matt Doherty was in charge, the Buckeyes held North Carolina to just 27.8 percent shooting from the floor. They shot 25.6 percent on two-point field goal attempts, the lowest number of the Roy Williams era. And I think so much of it had to do with what Holtmann did defensively on Cole Anthony.

The game-plan was, frankly, pretty simple. When Anthony had the ball, Ohio State climbed up in him, they hedged hard on all ball-screens and they sent bodies at him whenever he put the ball on the floor to drive. They made a conscious decision to force Anthony into either playing 1-on-2 and 1-on-3 or giving the ball up to a teammate. As soon as he gave the ball up, they face-guarded him. Full denial, even if it meant playing 4-on-4 for the rest of that possession.

And it worked.

Starting point guard C.J. Walker did the heavy lifting on Anthony, but he was hardly the only one. Luther Muhammad started out on Anthony before getting into four trouble and playing just nine minutes. D.J. Carton, Andre Wesson and Duane Washington all took a shot at UNC’s freshman stud as well. That’s a lot of bodies, all of whom have some size, some length and some athleticism and happen to be good individual defenders. Anthony got tired before they did.

This method was effective mainly due to the fact that because is one of the nation’s elite defenses. Combining all those athletic wings with a center in Kaleb Wesson that dropped the baby fat this summer is a luxury for Holtmann.

But it wasn’t all Ohio State.

Because what became painfully obvious for those that had not yet recognized it is that North Carolina has a startling lack of offensive weaponry. It’s almost like losing five NBA players to the draft is tough to deal with.

No matter who is on the floor with him, defenses are going to dedicate the majority of their attention to Anthony. He’s a game-changing talent. We saw him blow the game wide open against Notre Dame in the opener. He’s going to be the most dangerous player on the floor in just about every game he plays this season. But with a limited supporting cast to rely on, this is the decision Ohio State forced Roy Williams into:

1. Allow Anthony to go full iso-ball and try to win this game on his own taking deep, contested threes off the dribble or driving into two or three defenders; or

2. Run offense for the other guys on the roster even if the shots they are getting are tough shots for them. To put this into context, watch the clip below:

North Carolina ran that first play for Cam Johnson, the No. 11 pick in the draft, last season. This year it’s Brandon Robinson. In past seasons, the guy getting the post touch in the second clip was Kennedy Meeks, or Luke Maye, or Brice Johnson. Last night, it was Brandon Huffman. When they’re running pick-and-pop action like the third clip, it’s Garrison Brooks, not Maye, that is taking those jumpers.

If you’re coaching against North Carolina, I think you’re just five with Brooks shooting 17-footers. That’s the shot you live with.

Now, to be clear, Robinson is not a bad player. In fact, he’s significantly better than I realized coming into the season. And the x-factor here is that Armando Bacot played just seven minutes before spraining his ankle. He may “be our for a while,” as Roy Williams put it after the game, and even then, he’s been much better was a guy that cleans up misses than as a go-to scorer in the post. According to Synergy, he’s scored just .769 points-per-possession on post-ups, which is in the 42nd percentile nationally. You just saw all four of the post-up buckets he’s scored against high-major foes this season.

Bacot is a monster on the offensive glass, and his return will help keep defenses honest because of that. Sell out on a Cole Anthony drive like this, and Bacot is putting that miss back with a tip-dunk.

But that only mitigates the issue North Carolina has this season.

They don’t have enough talent around Cole Anthony.