BY DAILY MEN'S BASKETBALL WRITERS
Published January 13, 2009
Offense: In Beilein's first season, his team struggled with the ball, to say the least. But this year’s squad is the second-best scoring offense in the Big Ten, pouring in 10 more points per game than last year. But an offense that lives and dies on 3-pointers will have its problems. Michigan is eighth in 3-point percentage and 10th in total field-goal percentage in the Big Ten. To improve, sophomore Manny Harris must continue to drive and kick out to open shooters when defenses collapse on him in the lane. But overall, Beilein's offense is finally starting to click Grade: B
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Defense: This is probably the Wolverines’ most glaring weakness. They are 10th in the Big Ten in rebounding defense, eighth in field-goal percentage defense and ninth in scoring defense. If Michigan plans on making a run in March, it’ll have to shore up some of its shortcomings to stay competitive in the hard-nosed Big Ten. But there is a bright spot. When the aggressive 1-3-1 zone ‘D’ is in top form, the Wolverines can force tons of turnovers and convert them into easy transition baskets, which is something Beilein’s defense has always emphasized.
Manny Harris: It's hard to be critical of "Manny Fresh." He has lived up to his Preseason All-Big Ten Team selection. Harris is the Big Ten's second-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder, but even more impressive is his ability to dish the ball. Playing more small forward this season, Harris is fifth in the conference in assists (the top four are point guards). It's clear he has adapted to the position well. Sure, he's had a couple poor shooting performances and still struggles with turnovers, but his play so far has him in the running for Big Ten Player of the Year.
Conference: The Wolverines' 3-1 Big Ten record is a little deceptive. Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, Michigan’s three wins, are a combined 3-7 in conference play. And the Wolverines have benefited from playing three games at Crisler Arena. They have rebounded nicely since Dec. 31’s loss to Wisconsin, ripping off the three straight wins. But Michigan's only dominant performance of the conference season was last Sunday, when the team flexed its defensive muscles and held Iowa to 49 points. The Wolverines earn a passing grade simply because they've won the games they were supposed to win but haven't upset a conference contender.
Nonconference: You can't say nonconference without UCLA and Duke. These two upset victories, both against then-No. 4 teams, resuscitated the Wolverines' program and invigorated a fan base desperate for success. And have you been to Crisler Arena lately? Attendance numbers are higher than in past seasons. But aside from the two wins in the national spotlight, the Wolverines played a cupcake schedule. Eastern Michigan, Florida Gulf Coast and then-winless North Carolina Central brought down Michigan's RPI. But all lowly no-name teams aside, when Selection Sunday rolls around, those early statement wins will highlight an impressive résumé.
NCAA Tournament hopes: At this point in the season, the Wolverines are sitting pretty. Michigan has three wins against teams with RPIs in the top 40, and its “worst” loss was on the road against Maryland. Also, no team in college basketball has a pair of bigger wins than against UCLA and Duke. If Michigan can go .500 or above in conference play and grab a win in the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines should be a lock for the Big Dance.
Big Ten Title hopes: Michigan State is good — like, really good. The Spartans are still favorites to win the conference crown, but right now, spots two through nine are toss-ups. For the first time in a while, the Big Ten is actually competitive. It's still early, and you'll have to wait a couple weeks to see legitimate top contenders emerge. But with a 3-1 conference record already, the Wolverines are right in the mix to finish near the top. They'll need to steal some wins on the road and protect their home floor, but at this point, more losses than wins in the conference would be a disappointment.
Overall: If one tells you he or she predicted Michigan would be where it is right now, he or she is a bold-faced liar. Michigan matched last year's win total before the conference season even started, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Michigan’s may not be an elite national-title contender, or even a conference-title contender, but there’s no denying that Beilein’s squad has improved by leaps and bounds. For a program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1998, fans can’t ask for more than a 13-3 record and a reason to get excited about Michigan basketball again.