Aside from a seemingly random trip to Arkansas coming in the middle of January, the Michigan basketball team concluded the nonconference portion of its schedule last week with its 77-66 win over Bradley.
The 18th-ranked Wolverines will welcome Penn State to Crisler Arena on Thursday to open up what could be an exceptionally tough Big Ten schedule, as the conference appears to be the strongest in all of college basketball.
Michigan (10-2) enters league play with the same record as it had last season, but expectations are even higher now.
Here’s Daily basketball beat writer Ben Estes’s look at how nonconference play went:
MVP: Trey Burke
If, going into the season, someone told you that Michigan’s nonconference MVP would be its starting point guard, you’d have thought that Darius Morris left his spot on the bench for the Los Angeles Lakers, somehow regained his NCAA eligibility and managed to suit up once more for the Wolverines.
But the loss of Morris has been minimized by the emergence of his replacement, freshman point guard Trey Burke, who has emerged as the one of the top rookies in the country and sets the pace every time Michigan is out on the hardwood.
The Columbus, Ohio native had a bit of an inauspicious start to his career. Michigan coach John Beilein said before the season that he was in a battle with senior combo guard Stu Douglass for the starting point guard position. Burke won it, but watched the season opener against Ferris State from the bench after he was late to a practice.
Then Burke took off at the Maui Invitational, pouring in 31 combined points against Memphis and Duke. He’s made plenty of rookie mistakes, but Burke has looked like a veteran most of the time, knocking down jump shots, finishing in the lane and finding teammates for open looks.
“He’s come a really long way,” said senior guard Zack Novak. “He’s getting better and better everyday. The kid’s tough. He’s going to be a good one.”
Burke currently averages 13 points and five assists per game, with a solid 1.8:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. It’s likely that the freshman’s performance will decline as he adjusts to Big Ten basketball — the team will look to sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. to step up and be Michigan’s MVP in conference play — but that doesn’t take away from Burke’s great performance so far this season.
Best Win: Nov. 21 victory over then-No. 8 Memphis, 73-61
The Tigers have fallen off since they squared off with the Wolverines in the opening game of the Maui Invitational, dropping to 6-5 on the season. But at the time, Michigan was the clear underdog.
That didn’t faze Beilein’s team, though, as the Wolverines opened each half with big runs to capture the momentum. Memphis tried to claw back each time, but in the second half the Michigan defense clamped down, refusing to allow the Tigers a comeback. The Wolverines cruised to a comfortable win.
“We’re really pleased we could come away with a win today,” Beilein said after the victory. “Memphis presents some very big challenges. They’re a very good defense. We haven’t seen anything like that.”
Though Memphis doesn’t appear to be as good as expected, the game proved that Michigan could go toe-to-toe with a faster, more athletic team, and even match its up-and-down style. Plus, the Tigers should cruise through Conference USA, so by the time the season is over the victory in Maui will still look like a quality win.
Biggest Disappointment: Nov. 29 loss at Virginia, 70-58
Coming off a solid showing in Maui, the Wolverines had an opportunity to carry their momentum through to the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. But it was not meant to be, as Michigan had its worst performance of the season and lost to the Cavaliers.
The Wolverines couldn’t muster much offense against Virginia’s suffocating pack-line defense, posting a season-low in points. But the bigger disappointment was on defense, as Beilein’s team had no answer for the one-two punch of Mike Scott and Joe Harris, who both scored 18 points.
Virginia certainly is no slouch — the Cavaliers entered the top-25 and will likely emerge from a weak ACC and seal a spot in the NCAA Tournament. But that just makes the loss more frustrating, as the matchup presented a great opportunity for a résumé-boosting road win.
Best Game: Nov. 22 loss to then-No. 6 Duke, 82-75
This could’ve also gone to the Dec. 10 win over Oakland, but the respective quality of opponents means we’re giving the nod to the game against the Blue Devils.
There were plenty of storylines going into this one. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had just become college basketball’s all-time winningest coach. It was a chance for Michigan to avenge its loss to the Blue Devils in the NCAA Tournament last spring, with the classic rivalry between the two teams heating up in the wake of the Fab 5 documentary.
Early on, it appeared Duke would run away with the game, opening on a 9-0 run and leading by 12 at halftime. But the Wolverines refused to bow down and fought their way back. The game turned into a duel of backcourts, with the tandems of Seth Curry and Austin Rivers and Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. hitting big shot after big shot.
The Blue Devils finally pulled it out on the free-throw line to get the narrow victory. It was the Maui Invitational’s most entertaining game until the championship game between Duke and Kansas topped it the next day.
Biggest Surprise: Evan Smotrycz
Everyone expected the sophomore forward make improvements since last season — after all, every college basketball player expects to make significant improvements between his first and second years. Expectations for Smotrycz were even higher after he announced he put on 36 pounds in the offseason to better handle the rigors of big-man play in the Big Ten.
A glance at the statistics will show that Smotrycz has made across-the-board improvement. At 11.6 points per game, he’s up more than five points from last season. And he’s shooting at remarkable clips both overall (57.1 percent) and from 3-point range (57.9 percent). Smotrycz has shown even more dramatic results on the boards, pulling down almost five more rebounds a game compared to last year.
But it’s his last four games that give Smotrycz the nod for this category. The Reading, Mass. native has averaged 18.3 points and 9.5 rebounds in that stretch, which are all-conference caliber numbers. Nobody expected that kind of production from the sophomore, but if he can sustain his current level of play, he’ll make believers out of the Big Ten.