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Three Resilient "Baby Blues" Spark Michigan Resurgence

Back when Tim Doyle was trying his very hardest to be a younger, more hip Dick Vitale and back when Michigan was struggling to put away non-conference cupcakes like North Carolina Central and NAIA Concordia, Doyle bestowed a Vitale-esque nickname upon Michigan: The Baby Blues. While this wasn’t anywhere as egregious as calling Darius Morris “The Butterfly”, Doyle gave this obvious moniker to Michigan Basketball’s 2010-2011 as a way to point out the Wolverines’ biggest flaw and a way to excuse their poor early season performances.

This youth – six of the ten players who saw meaningful minutes at points throughout the season were freshmen and there weren't any seniors – was one of the primary reasons that Michigan struggled against the likes of NCCU and Concordia early on, and it was the most commonly cited reason that Michigan was likely to struggle this past year. In a veteran league with many NCAA Tournament contenders, a team that had lost its two best players from an incredibly disappointing sub-.500 season and had the youngest team in any BCS conference was an afterthought to say the least. Everyone knows what transpired last year: Michigan was the biggest surprise in the conference and finished as the four seed in the Big Ten Tournament with a .500 conference record before making the NCAA Tournament and giving a scare to the defending national champions in their final game.

On a smaller scale, Michigan’s surprising year can be broken down by looking at three young Wolverines who were each pretty big surprises in their own right: Tim Hardaway, Jordan Morgan, and Darius Morris. Without any of these young players (Hardaway and Morgan were freshmen and Morris was a sophomore), Michigan would not have been even close to as successful as they were in this past season as each of them exceeded expectations and contributed to varying degrees as integral parts of the team.

Tim Hardaway arrived in Ann Arbor as a pretty decent prospect, hovering around the edge of the ESPN Top 100, but he wasn’t recruited by the three big schools in his native state of Florida. Being ignored by Florida, FSU, and Miami was one of the primary factors that Michigan was able to land Hardaway; the Wolverines recruited him early on and secured his commitment early in the process. Still Miami, a lower-tier high-major program, didn’t recruit Hardaway, who was a hometown kid and the son of an NBA all-star, so that was disconcerting.

Hardaway received some early buzz on the team’s trip to Europe and was reportedly the team’s best player, but throughout the non-conference season and the early part conference play, he looked like a stereotypical freshman player. He settled for bad shots, essentially hid in the corner, shot three pointers at a pretty poor rate and Michigan fans conjectured from some comments from John Beilein that Hardaway didn’t have the “green light”. He was a talented but didn’t play to his potential for the Wolverines.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Hardaway burst onto the scene with a key 13 points – his first of the game – in the last eight minutes in a come-from-behind win to keep Michigan’s feeble tournament hopes alive. He didn’t slow down; Michigan needed all of his 30 points in an OT win in Iowa City, he made five threes in the first twelve minutes on the road against Minnesota, scored twenty points in the second half in Michigan’s win against MSU, and almost singlehandedly brought the team back from a late double-digit deficit against Duke.

Hardaway attacked the basket better, set up his teammates better (adding a dimension to the pick and roll play with Morgan that Morris couldn’t provide: three point shooting), and despite being inconsistent, his hot streaks were longer and more frequent. A lot of his improvement has to do with confidence, but drifting towards the wing on offense so he could attack the rim better and float to the top of the key helped his game immensely as well. Basically, he went from a freshman that lingered in the corner to one of the best freshmen in the country – and if that seems like hyperbole, he was able to steal some Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors from Jared Sullinger down the stretch and Sullinger was probably the best freshman in the nation.

Jordan Morgan surprised in an entirely different way, but he was probably a more pleasant surprise than even Hardaway’s torrid emergence late in the season. Morgan was not highly rated as a prospect; he committed as one of Beilein’s firsts at U of M after Michigan State decided to prioritize fellow Detroit big man Derrick Nix instead of him (and there’s no doubt that Morgan’s been a better college player so far). After arriving on campus, Morgan suffered two serious injuries that required long rehabilitation stints: a knee injury caused him to redshirt and a shoulder injury in practice after he was healthy late in the 2009-2010 season hampered his chances to produce in 2010-2011. After two debilitating injuries, Michigan fans questioned if Morgan would be able to contribute at all, and almost no one thought that the injury prone center would make it through the season unscathed.

The biggest worry in the preseason for Michigan fans other than “wait, we don’t have anyone that can score” was “oh boy, all three of our centers are freshmen, and they are going to get killed.” Deshawn Sims wasn’t a great post presence, but losing him had Michigan staring down a really old freshman (Blake McLimans; he went to prep school and redshirted) who was known as a shooter, Al Horford’s skinny younger brother (Jon), and an injury-riddled Morgan as the only players at the five position, and it looked like none of them were ready to play college ball.

Jordan Morgan totally and unequivocally erased those doubts about the center position with his solid play throughout the season. He didn’t miss any time at all due to injury, he held his own against some of the best that the country had to offer on defense, he helped rectify one of Michigan’s biggest flaws under Beilein – defensive rebounding, and he was extremely efficient on offense (although most of his looks were on fabulous passes by Morris; all Morgan had to do was slam the ball home with authority. He did improve his back to the basket game as the season went on). Morgan was antithetical to Hardaway with his breakthrough: Morgan was very consistent throughout the year, averaging just over nine points per game and five rebounds per game. He was solid but unspectacular outside of the occasional great post move for most of the season, but two performances of his that Michigan sorely needed helped provide big wins to avoid falling off the bubble: 27 points on 11-13 shooting in a home win against Northwestern and 18 points and two clutch free throws in an OT win in Iowa City.

Darius Morris was the only one of these three players to be on the court for the 2009-2010 disappointment, and after arriving as John Beilein’s most highly rated recruit over his entire career, he had a season that fell well short of expectations as well. Michigan had lost two senior point guards (CJ Lee and David Merritt, interestingly both now work with the basketball program) who did not score many points but ran the offense very well and were tremendous leaders, but most Michigan fans assumed that Morris would be an upgrade over Lee and Merritt because we thought he would be more of a scoring threat.

Unfortunately, Morris looked lost on offense and defense and finished with a measly four points per game and two rebounds per game. It wasn’t entirely his fault though: the team was out of sync in so many ways and college basketball is extremely tough for a first year point guard to pick up, but nevertheless, Morris didn’t play well at all during his freshman season. Expectations for him were at a low coming into the season, and no one could have possibly foreseen his improvement, which was one of the biggest in the country.

I’m sure everyone is more familiar with Darius Morris’s breakout year, so I’ll just use a few excerpts from my goodbye post over at The Wolverine Blog:

Coming into his sophomore season on a team with no expectations for success, Morris thrived early on and throughout the whole season. He finished with Michigan’s Team MVP award, led the team in points, had the highest assist rate of any major-conference player, and broke Gary Grant’s record for most assists in a single-season by any Michigan player. Darius Morris was the leader on the court for a Michigan team that defied every rational prediction to earn a bid in the NCAA Tournament, and along the way, he provided the only consistent scoring presence on the team, was a steadying force on an offense with streaky young players, and showed off his remarkable ability to find the open man in myriad ways for easy looks at the basket.

Michigan’s remarkable turnaround was partially due to the skill and savvy of Morris; his last-second miss to end the season against Duke in the NCAA Tournament didn’t diminish what he did this season. After initially declaring that he would return to the Wolverines for the 2011-2012 season, Darius Morris decided to enter the NBA Draft and subsequently decided to remain in the draft permanently.

Morris was a solidly above-average rebounder and scorer inside the paint, an okay defender, a pretty awful three point shooter, and one of the best passers in the country. His size was his biggest asset and he was easily able to bully smaller guards for good looks inside (sometimes with the somewhat illegal use of his off hand), and his ability to create shots for himself and others was unparalleled by anyone else on the roster. He was a consistently stellar player for the Wolverines, and his entering the NBA Draft was a pretty devastating loss for next season, pretty much ending any outside shot at beating out Ohio State for the Big Ten title.

Tim Hardaway, Jordan Morgan, and Darius Morris were all much better than expected for this past season, and this idea for a post was created before it looked as if Morris would leave. Hardaway and Morgan are back of course, but losing Darius is tough. The Wolverines had a surprising season last year, but to meet the already lofty expectations, Hardaway and Morgan will have to continue to improve and a similar improvement needs to come from elsewhere (Jon Horford and Evan Smotrycz are prime candidates).

Still, looking back at this past season, it was great to see these three “Baby Blues” turn into solid Big Ten basketball players as they took Michigan on the first step back to where it once was.