Minh Doan: Recreating the two-headed monster

Thursday, November 10, 2016 - 6:59pm

Michigan coach John Beilein’s team has the talent and experience to take a big step forward and return to prominence on campus.

Michigan coach John Beilein’s team has the talent and experience to take a big step forward and return to prominence on campus. Buy this photo
Amanda Allen/Daily

 

The 1991-92 season was a good year for Michigan athletics.

In the fall, the football team, led by eventual Heisman Award-winning wide receiver Desmond Howard, marched through the regular season, losing just once to No. 1 Florida State. The 10-1 regular season earned the Wolverines a bid to the Rose Bowl, where they lost to eventual national champion Washington.

As the football team was wrapping up a successful season under Gary Moeller, five freshmen were getting ready to change the landscape of college basketball.

The Fab Five arrived in 1991 and electrified college basketball with their high-flying dunks, baggy shorts and trash talk. Their rough style of play startled the rest of the sport’s realm and led them to a National Championship game appearance, where they lost to Duke, 71-51.

That was the last time both the football and basketball teams had an insurmountable amount of hype around their respective programs at the same time, creating a two-headed monster of Michigan athletics. Since then, the two teams have teetered back and forth in their successes.

And that has been especially true for myself as a near-sighted observer.

As an out-of-state student from California, Michigan sports haven’t always piqued my interest. While I watched the occasional Michigan football game, I can’t say I ever put time aside to invest in Michigan athletics.

But I really started to pay attention around October of 2012 — my senior year of high school — when I decided that I would apply to the University.

I vividly remember following the Michigan men’s basketball team that year. From watching the top-ranked Wolverines narrowly lose to No. 3 Indiana in Bloomington, to watching Wisconsin’s Ben Brust drain a near-half-court shot to force overtime in Madison on SportsCenter and, of course, to watching Michigan make it to the NCAA Championship game, which culminated in an 82-76 loss to Louisville in Atlanta.

On the flip side, while the football team had gone to the Sugar Bowl the year prior, the squad had just wrapped up an average 8-5 season in Brady Hoke’s second year.

And the trend followed me to Ann Arbor. The basketball team won the regular-season Big Ten title my freshman year and was an Aaron Harrison 3-pointer away from another Final Four appearance, while the football team slugged its way to a 7-6 season.

But situations change — and pretty quickly.

Just two years later, all the talk around campus is about Jim Harbaugh and the football team — and for good measure, the team has executed a perfect season thus far — while the basketball team, albeit having some success, has taken a back seat.

That can change, though. While the basketball team might not be able to overtake the football team in Ann Arbor, where the gridiron has always been king, it might be able to at least reach the same level.

Though it’s never a guarantee how a team might perform, the Michigan basketball team has some of the ingredients necessary for a great season. This is what will factor most into this season’s hype:

After finishing the 2015-16 season ranked a putrid No. 322 in the NCAA in average rebounds per game, Michigan will need to assert more authority in the paint on both ends of the court. Last season, senior guard Derrick Walton Jr., standing at just 6-foot-1, led the Wolverines in rebounds. That stat won’t fly this season, and Michigan will need to see more paint presence from its bigs in sophomore forward Moritz Wagner and redshirt junior Mark Donnal.

Speaking of Walton, he and senior guard Zak Irvin have been key contributors throughout their three years of college so far.

This year, however, is a little different. Not only will Walton and Irvin be looked upon to perform well on the court, the two are also now the oldest members on the team and the last players remaining from the last time Michigan won the Big Ten regular-season title in 2014. How well the two handle high-pressure situations on the court could indicate the outcome of the season.

While the Wolverines fared a bit better in team defense, ending the season at No. 67 in the NCAA, there’s still room to improve. Last season, there was a clear gap in defensive prowess between Walton and Irvin and the rest of the team. And even then, the duo’s defense was not up to par.

But after the departures of assistant coaches LaVall Jordan and Bacari Alexander, who both left Michigan to pursue head coaching careers at Milwaukee and Detroit-Mercy, respectively, Beilein brought in assistant coach Billy Donlon.

Donlon last coached at Wright State and is known for his defensive tactics, which at one point put the Rowdy Raiders in the top 20 in the NCAA in scoring defense. Beilein has repeated multiple times already that he is giving Donlon a great deal of responsibility with the defense, a strategy that should pay off almost immediately.

And last, while the starting lineup seems to be set, team depth is still a big question mark after the departure of five players over the summer.

Beilein has said that, ideally, he would run an eight-man rotation. This means that players like Donnal, freshman guards Xavier Simpson and Ibi Watson and redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson will be relied on heavily to give the starters a breather. If they can spot the starters for 12 to 15 minutes a night, it could prove vital down the stretch come NCAA Tournament time.

And to not only reach the NCAA Tournament, but also do well in it, would go a long way to recreating the scene from 1991. While it may be a stretch, the fact of the matter is that the Wolverines have the pieces in place to make it possible.

Now Michigan just has to go and do it. 

Doan can be reached at minhdoan@umich.edu or on Twitter @_minhdoan.