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In review: Evaluating the Michigan basketball season

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 29, 2012

Tears have dried, and brackets have been sworn at, crumpled and thrown into bodies of water. It’s been more than two weeks since the Michigan men’s basketball team was stunned by Ohio in the second (really, the first) round of the NCAA Tournament, and now, with the tournament over, we can take a step back.

Norfolk State captured our hearts, broke them, un-broke them and re-broke them. So did Wisconsin. So did Gus Johnson, after it was determined that he wouldn’t be calling this year’s tournament.

Enough of the shock has worn off, and Michigan fans can take solace that the Wolverines beat the only team that beat the national champions in the regular season. We’ve regained our composure and are now able to get back on the podium and pass down judgment for the Wolverines’ 2011-12 campaign.

How did Michigan do this season? Tough question.

If you were told at the start of the season that Michigan would beat Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, win all but one home game and bring home its first Big Ten Championship in 26 years, it’d be an easy answer. The Wolverines met, exceeded and jumped giddily on top of their preseason expectations.

But what people cared about was whether Michigan would improve upon last season’s third-round NCAA Tournament appearance. That didn’t happen, so it’s easy to say the Wolverines fell short of their goals.

However, what the team did in one game against an unfamiliar opponent in an unfamiliar city shouldn’t negatively color perceptions of Michigan’s season as a whole. It was clear that the program made big strides in becoming a Big Ten powerhouse, earning a four-seed in the Big Dance on the way.

Grade: A-

Best Game: Feb. 18 wasn’t just a dreary Saturday a week before my half-birthday. It was a day-long Michigan basketball holiday. The festivities began at 5 a.m. with Michigan coach John Beilein passing out donuts to the Maize Rage, continued with College Gameday in Crisler Center in the morning and lasted deep into the night.

It didn’t hurt that the Wolverines also took down then-No. 6 Ohio State, 56-51, behind freshman point guard Trey Burke’s 17 points, vaulting Michigan into Big Ten title contention.

Michigan’s big men stood up to the Buckeyes’ dominant frontcourt, and the team proved that it could compete with and actually beat the top teams in the country.

Worst Game: A week after the win over the Buckeyes, Michigan took the court for senior night (on my half-birthday), and it couldn’t have gone any worse. No Wolverine topped 12 points, and Michigan put forth its worst defensive effort of the season, allowing Purdue to shoot 50 percent and dominate the second half in a 75-61 blowout loss.

Not only did the game send seniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass out of Crisler Center with a frownie face, but at the time, it appeared as though Michigan had squandered its chances at a conference title.

Best Moment: With Michigan huddled around the 84-inch television screen in the video room of the Player Development Center, Ohio State guard William Buford grabbed a handoff from Aaron Craft and took two dribbles toward the top of the key. As he drifted left and released a high-arcing jumper over Michigan State guard Keith Appling, the Wolverines’ hopes for a conference title were up in the air. A Buckeye victory would give the Spartans their fifth conference loss and there would be a three-way tie for the Big Ten Championship.

Buford’s shot found nothing but net, and Michigan celebrated its first conference title since 1986.

Worst Moment: In Michigan’s second-round game against 13-seed Ohio in the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines found themselves down three points with a few minutes to go. The fourth-seeded Wolverines had been down nearly the whole game, but in the past few minutes, Burke had scored 12 straight points and reduced a nine-point Michigan deficit to three.

Burke then missed three 3-point attempts in the final minutes, but it still wasn’t over. Michigan corralled an offensive rebound, and sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz wound up with the ball, ready to reset the offense with seven seconds left.

Smotrycz tried a left-to-right crossover and botched it. The Bobcats gained possession, made their free throws and sent Michigan home early. It would also be Smotrycz’s last — and lasting — play as a Wolverine. The Reading, Mass. native has left the program and is seeking a new school.

Biggest Surprise: No surprise here. Actually, big surprise. No surprise that Burke was the biggest surprise this season.

After Darius Morris left Ann Arbor early for the NBA, it wasn’t clear how Michigan would fill a void of 15 points, seven assists and four rebounds per game. Even in the week leading up to the season, Beilein was non-committal about his new floor leader. Burke, Douglass and freshman Carlton Brundidge were all offered as possibilities.

But after the first games, it was clear that Burke was the guy. He had better quickness than Morris, was a better shooter, possessed a more controlled dribble and was less goofy-looking.

Burke proved to be the Wolverines’ best player and became the go-to scoring option in the clutch. He scintillated fans all season long with crafty spins, acrobatic layups and assassin-like shots from deep.

He led the team in points (14.8 per game), assists, steals and even blocks, but questions linger about his future with the team. His father, Benji, said that Trey was considering declaring for the NBA draft, and Michigan fans will anxiously await Burke’s decision before the April 29 deadline.

Biggest Disappointment: After his breakout freshman season, Tim Hardaway Jr. looked to improve his sophomore year and establish his status as the team’s star.

But questionable shot selection, emotional outbursts on the court and an apparent lack of confidence hampered Hardaway Jr. for much of the season. Though his scoring average increased from 13.9 to 14.6, all of his shooting averages fell, his turnovers increased by nearly 50 percent and his steals fell by over 100 percent.

Hardaway Jr. did have a few games where he showed he can be the dominant swingman that many thought he could be — which included two double-doubles and two 25-plus-point outbursts — but frustration was the theme of the season for the sophomore.

One-sentence review/preview: Michigan made significant strides in re-establishing itself as a brand name in college basketball this season, but it remains to be seen whether Beilein can maintain success through consecutive recruiting classes.


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