Michigan basketball's new problem

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By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 26, 2013

March and April are odd months for top-tier college basketball programs.

In March, there are the ups-and-downs of the NCAA Tournament — elation followed by disappointment for all but one college program. For college basketball fans, it’s the best month of the year.

But then comes April, one of the worst months of the college basketball year, where a wash of talented players from powerhouse programs forego remaining years of eligibility to enter the NBA Draft.

This is a problem for elite programs, and until very recently, one that Michigan hadn’t grappled with.

But now, with an influx of freshman talent, along with under-the-radar players developed in Ann Arbor, the problem has become very real for the Wolverines.

“You don’t know — they are 18 years old,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “You get them, and you’re hoping they will be here and unpack their bags, or, that they are in a situation if their second or third year that is too good to pass up to leave. There’s the whole process everybody goes through, and that’s part of what all us coaches are dealing with right now.”

This year, Michigan is dealing with two kinds of potential departures — highly-recruited freshmen with enough talent to leave for the NBA early, and players who were overlooked as recruits that developed their talent in college.

Freshman forward Glenn Robinson III fills in the former category; based on physical attributes alone, he could be drafted in the first round. He struggled at times against Big Ten competition, but the NBA puts a lot of stock in potential, and Robinson has loads of it.

The two players in the latter category are sophomore point guard Trey Burke and junior forward Tim Hardaway Jr. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Burke — who almost left after his freshman year — will be gone after this season. His team has done well, getting to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994, and he’s established himself as the premier point guard in the country, winning Sport’s Illustrated’s Player of the Year award.

Hardaway is the bigger question. He has improved on the inconsistent streaks that plagued him last year, but still isn’t listed in the first round of many mock drafts.

In March, during the Big Dance, having this amount of talent is a beautiful thing. In April, when the slippers come off, it can be very dangerous.

“The only approach you can have is that you have to really build your relationships with players here and make it the best place they can be without going to the point where you aren’t teaching them to be a man,” Beilein said. “You just do what you do, but you can’t control it as much as you think you could control it. You just try to make that atmosphere which enriches their life and they appreciate it.”

The best example of figuring out how to best balance talent and longevity will be on the opposite bench during Michigan’s game against Kansas on Friday. Bill Self leads a Jayhawks team riding the line between talented and too talented; a team that has four seniors as its top five scorers, yet recently held a senior day ceremony for freshman Ben McLemore — the team’s leading scorer — in anticipation that he will leave early next year.

The Jayhawks have successfully balanced freshman talent with veteran talent this year, all with a top-five recruiting class waiting in the wings.

Self has been one of the best models for managing elite talent since the NBA passed the “one-and-done” rule, which forced high-school players to be at least 19 years old or be one year out of high school before entering the NBA Draft.

There are currently 13 former Kansas players on NBA rosters, a list that includes one-and-dones (Xavier Henry), four-year players (Nick Collison) and everything in between (Mario Chalmers, Thomas Robinson, etc.). The Jayhawks have sent more players to the NBA than most other college programs but have still made the Final Four twice since 2005, winning tournament in 2008.

As Beilein is finding, there is a fine line between recruiting talent and recruiting the elite type of talent that will leave a program after a year. As Michigan continues to elevate itself in the world of college basketball recruiting — all three signed recruits for next year are at least four-stars — it will continue to try and find the balance, just like Self and Kansas.

“Coaches have recruited too well, really well, and got themselves fired because they didn’t have a roster in a couple years because everybody is in the league,” Beilein said. “You recruit too low, and you are going to get yourself fired because you don’t have good enough players. That’s the thing you have to continue to work through. We have a couple guys coming out of high school that were not seen as pro prospects that are now pro prospects.

“It’s a good problem to have.”