Daniel Wasserman: What if I told you Smotrycz and Hardaway Jr.'s poor play was timely?

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Sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 15 points against Illinois. Buy this photo

By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 12, 2012

Let’s play a game of what if, sticking strictly to hypothetical scenarios. Let’s say it’s Dec. 31, 2011 and the Michigan basketball team has an imaginary schedule with just 12 games on it.

What if Tim Hardaway Jr. suddenly couldn’t shoot? Just for the sake of it, let’s say he shoots just 23.1 percent from 3-point land in that 12-game stretch, and not much better, 33.2 percent, from the field.

What if Evan Smotrycz had Stephen M. Ross-like money, but even that wasn’t enough to buy a 3-pointer? We can pretend he’ll shoot 30 3-pointers and only make six of them, amounting to an abominable 20 percent.

And what if, on top of all that, the mythical 12 games included 11 teams from the nation’s toughest conference, seven games on the road — including contests in Columbus, East Lansing and Bloomington — and six games against ranked foes.

What if I told you that’s what the Wolverines and their freshman point guard with no Big Ten experience were up against in the first 39 days of 2012?

If you told me that Michigan would go 4-8 in that stretch, I’d say the team might’ve been lucky to win that many.

But when I tell you that the Wolverines inexplicably went 7-5, luck doesn’t even cross my mind. Michigan found itself sitting just one game out of first place in the Big Ten heading into Sunday’s matchup with Illinois. And that’s with the team’s best scorer, Hardaway Jr. shooting — and subsequently missing — at exponential rates, and its X-factor, Smotrycz — who shot over 65 percent from 3-point range in December — turning into a disappearing act.

But this story isn’t about the Trey Burkes, Zack Novaks or Jordan Morgans — the ones who carried the Wolverines through the most grueling stretch of conference play — because the story of this year’s Michigan squad won’t be written in January or early February.

For the last three years, the Wolverines’ measuring stick was just making the NCAA Tournament, which came via wins in the heart of winter. This year’s benchmark is different. This team will be remembered for what it does in March during tournament play.

So what does a mid-February game against the middling Fighting Illini have to do with March?

“I don’t know that I’m a scientist at it, but we really try to understand the season,” Michigan coach John Beilein quipped. “(We) try to figure out what is the best way for your team to be good in February, because usually if they’re good in February, they’re going to be good in March.”

Enter Smotrycz and Hardaway Jr. Illinois opened up an early 8-7 lead at the 14:25 mark. But seconds later, Hardaway Jr. converted on the ever-important first 3-point attempt of his afternoon. And in the next three minutes, Smotrycz — forced into action because of Morgan’s foul trouble just minutes into the game — netted five straight points, including a 3-pointer that also came on his first attempt. It’s amazing how high confidence one’s can soar when the first shot goes down.

Suddenly, the two sophomores — roommates, nonetheless — couldn’t miss. The two combined to shoot 7-of-10 from the field in the first half and hit each of their four 3-pointers. Smotrycz had 12 first-half points, the most of any player on the court, while Hardaway Jr. added 10. Their 22 combined points in the half exceeded the 17 points the two had totaled, together, in the previous two games.

And for the first time since Dec. 29 — when Smotrycz had a double-double and Hardaway tallied 26 points — the sophomore tandem led Michigan to a win.

Hardaway joked that his slump this year was a case of finally hitting the freshman wall that he never encountered last year. With Burke possibly hitting a freshman wall of his own — granted, the wall may only be knee-high — Michigan needs Hardaway and Smotrycz more than ever.

There’s never a good time to slump, but there is a good time to break out of one. Sitting a half game out of first place with March right around the corner, Hardaway and Smotrycz have seemingly broken out at just the right time.

— Daniel Wasserman’s confidence hasn’t waned since connecting on the first two jump shots of his JV basketball career four years ago. He can be reached at dwass@umich.edu or on Twitter @d_wasserman