Predicting Michigan's record in the non-conference was never going to be an easy task. Some believed that the inexperience in both frontcourt positions and a bigger role for Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. would be too much to ask for. Others hoped that the trio of Caris LeVert, Irvin and Walton would be able to shoulder the scoring load, and the play of the freshmen would pick up as non-conference play continued.
Truthfully, both predictions were partially right, but Michigan fans can't honestly say they're content with how the non-conference season ended. The Wolverines finished at 7-5, and are left with lots of questions, injury concerns and a whole lot of uncertainty with Big Ten play around the corner. We evaluate how Michigan has fared through their first 12 games and what improvements need to be made for this team to be successful against better competition.
Against Hillsdale and Bucknell, Michigan was able to beat its opponent simply based on more talent and size. The Wolverines looked like one of the crispest offenses, as had been the case in the previous two seasons, led by the backcourt. All was dandy in Ann Arbor, but trouble loomed. A Detroit team with less talent gave the Wolverines all they could handle before the veteran quartet of LeVert, Irvin, Walton and Spike Albrecht willed the Wolverines to victory.
Next followed a trip to New York for the Legends Classic. All four teams had excellent backcourts with weaker frontcourts, and Michigan was able to escape a pesky Oregon team in the first game. But Villanova had too much talent, and both Daniel Ochefu and JayVaughn Pinkston were trouble inside as the Wolverines dropped a heartbreaker, 60-55, despite taking a lead in the second half and being outplayed for the majority of the game.
Michigan then had no trouble putting away Nicholls State, dismantling them by a score of 91-62. This confidence spilled over into the next game, a phenomenal battle against Syracuse in front of a raucous Crisler Center crowd. Despite Syracuse's big men dominating the Wolverines inside with 25 points, Michigan was able to pull out the victory thanks to a timely 3-pointer from Spike Albrecht with 30 seconds left, ultimately winning 68-65.
What Just Happened...
This left Michigan at 5-1 and heading in the right direction. Or so Wolverine fans thought. In one of the most painful losses in Michigan basketball memory, NJIT came into Crisler and knocked off Michigan 72-70 behind scorching hot 3-point shooting and Michigan's offensive ineptitude down the stretch. The loss left a sour taste in the mouth of both the fans and players, and it was a low moment for a team that had displayed such dominance at home over the last few seasons.
And then it got worse. There was seemingly no way Michigan could repeat such a horrific performance in back-to-back games, but the young Wolverines pulled it off. In one of the most disgusting displays of basketball this season, Michigan limped to the finish line in a 45-42 loss to Eastern Michigan. Four days and two losses later, Ann Arbor, Michigan became the laughing stock of the entire college basketball world.
After two meltdowns against teams Michigan should have blown out, a visit to Arizona and one of the country's best teams arrived. Most predicted a Michigan loss, but a 27-point throttling on national TV was plain embarrassing. If not for a few late baskets, Michigan would have lost by 30+ points. John Beilein, a man generally known for positivity and optimism, could do nothing but watch his team get flat out embarrassed.
But Michigan had one more chance to impress college basketball analysts and bracketologists in the non-conference. SMU, a team many believed had a chance to be one of the best in the country, visited Ann Arbor desperately needing a win like Michigan. The Wolverines disappointed again, losing 62-51 and giving up 19 points to center Yanick Moreira, who averaged 6 points a game throughout his career.
Despite the chaos amid Michigan basketball, Monday night in Ann Arbor proved to be exactly what the Wolverines needed. John Beilein's men beat Coppin State 72-56, bringing the Eagles record to 1-10 and improving Michigan's to 7-5. Ricky Doyle had a very solid game with 16 points, but shot 4-9 from the free throw line and was playing against a significantly smaller front line. Michigan won the game, but there wasn't a whole lot to use going forward.
With 12 games in the books, Michigan still needs to sharpen up a few things before conference play begins on Tuesday. First and foremost, they must recover and address any injury concerns. The list continues to mount, and some players might be forced to play the entire season with nagging injuries. One of those players, Spike Albrecht, is clearly not himself. The junior guard was rendered ineffective against a very weak Coppin State team. Albrecht is at his best when he is able to drive through the lane and create open shots for his teammates, and his current injury is limiting him to the point where he doesn't have the same level of creativity. He has also clearly lost confidence in his shot, hesitating on shooting 3-pointers and missing a few open ones he normally knocks down. For Michigan to have success, Albrecht will need to play at least 20 minutes a night and be a big time performer.
Another key area for Michigan is the center position. I've written about this all season, but there are still some kinks that need to be sorted out. Ricky Doyle has seemed to be the best option, and played very well Monday night. He ran the floor well, seemed to be in position for passes around the basket, and threw down a ferocious slam-dunk. His confidence is clearly there, but he needs to sustain this throughout the season. While Doyle is more comfortable starting, Mark Donnal seems to be thriving off the bench. He had a career game against SMU, totaling 13 points, and is better suited watching the first few minutes of the game and spelling Doyle around the 15 minute mark. I think Beilein will continue to play the center that is having the more effective game, even if it is Donnal off the bench.
Lastly, Michigan needs to find their confidence as a whole. Some players are starting to regain that, such as Zak Irvin. Irvin is having fun playing basketball again, something that was not the case during his slump the previous few games. My favorite play of the Coppin State game was watching LeVert lob the ball to Irvin, as Irvin thunderously caught the pass and slammed the alley-oop. He let out a big smile, and it's clear that Irvin will need to maintain a very high level of play (and have fun while doing so).
While Irvin seems to be finding his confidence, Michigan's best player has not. Caris LeVert has lost his way the last few games, and Michigan is going to need the star junior to pick up his play. LeVert runs the offense along with Walton, often guards the opponent's best player, and will take the big shot down the stretch. He has the ability to be a 20 point-per-game player in the Big Ten, and I expect him to regain his lost form sooner rather than later.
Overall, Michigan had more than a few bumps and bruises in the non-conference. However, they lost at Duke and Iowa State last season which helped mightily in preparing for difficult conference road games (wins at Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin). This is a young team that has more than a few players who have never played in these environments, and I think the Arizona game was more than enough of a wakeup call.
When this team has the offense clicking, they can be one of the most prolific offenses in the country led by LeVert. When its not, they force bad shots, play lazy defense, and have the ability to get blown out by great teams or lose games against teams they have no business losing to. I think Beilein gets them to 12-6 in conference and puts them squarely on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. Do they have what it takes to win tough games in conference and play for the pride of their school? They certainly didn't through December 20th. Michigan fans are hoping they will when it really counts.