WEST LAFAYETTE — It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth: Michigan coach John Beilein sealed the team’s fate in their game against Purdue on Saturday the minute he suspended Manny Harris from the game.
Without their go-to perimeter scorer and best player, the Wolverines suffered mightily on both ends of the court.
While the game was excruciating to watch for Michigan fans, I do think there’s a silver lining. Watching the game, it was obvious that Michigan relies a little too much on their star player. But looking at exactly how and where the Wolverines struggled without him could help us understand what has gone wrong this season and also prepare Michigan fans for what is almost certainly a Manny-less future.
The way I saw it, there were three major aspects of the game in which Michigan missed Manny, going a bit deeper than his obvious scoring ability:
Rebounding Specifically, long rebounds. Manny Harris is arguably the best rebounding guard in the Big Ten outside of Evan Turner, who’s pretty much a forward at 6-foot-7. There are a few reasons for this:
-Harris gives a crap every game. He has never mailed it in, and a lot of rebounding is just wanting the ball more than the other guy.
-He is also very, very athletically gifted. That’s pretty self-explanatory. How many times in Manny’s career have you seen him fly through the lane to grab a rebound over guys standing 6-foot-9 and over. If you answer wasn’t “innumerable,” you haven’t watched very many Michigan basketball games.
-He’s crafty. To grab rebounds as a guard, you have to be. He knows how to sit on bigger players’ legs so they can’t jump for a board, he knows how to hold players without drawing a foul, that kind of thing. There is a lot more science that goes into rebounding than many people realize, and Manny has a grasp on it.
-Harris has some of the best rebounding instincts I’ve ever seen for a guard. Ever since he was a freshman, Harris has had that knack for knowing where the ball is going to be the moment it leaves a shooter’s hands. You can’t teach that, and it might be his greatest asset.
Since Harris spends more of his time on the perimeter guarding smaller players than in the paint guarding big men, he is more ready to grab long rebounds than someone like DeShawn Sims, who’s stuck in the post. While the rebounding numbers against Purdue ended up being nearly identical (31-27, Purdue), there were definitely more than a few long rebounds in the second half that killed Michigan on the defensive glass. In fact, in the first half, Michigan allowed Purdue to grab seven offensive rebounds while the Wolverines couldn’t get one. One reason is that Sims couldn’t miss for most of the first half, but defensive rebounding killed Michigan, and I guarantee Manny grabs at least a few of them on the defensive glass.
Ballhandling This may sound a little weird, since Manny hasn’t handled significant point guard duties since last year, but the Wolverines really missed his ability to handle the ball against Purdue. They turned the ball over 15 times, nine times in the first half, thanks mostly to Purdue’s high-pressure man-to-man defense on the perimeter. That’s about four more than their average turnovers per game, and while that may seem like a small number, in yesterday’s game, the ballhandling struggles went beyond turnovers.
Bringing the ball up the court was either Stu Douglass or Darius Morris, a sophomore shooting guard and a freshman, respectively. They were hounded to such an extent by Purdue’s senior guards, Keaton Grant and Chris Kramer, the latter of whom is considered by many to the best defender in the Big Ten, that they became timid and focused mainly on protecting the ball instead of doing something with it.
The aim of Purdue’s defense was to get inside the heads of the Michigan guards on the perimeter, and that’s what happened. Thought to be fair, three of Morris’s four turnovers came in the first half. He started to get it and became more aggressive in the second half.
“That was unlike any pressure that we’ve seen all season,” Morris said after the game. “But at halftime, we made adjustments and we didn’t have as many turnovers as we did in the first half. I think we just learned a little too late, and by the time we learned it was the second half.”
While Manny Harris may not be the team’s premier ballhandler (he leads the team in turnovers with 50), he is never rattled by a defender in his face. He will continue to be aggressive no matter what, which is exactly what Michigan needed, especially in the first half while the rest of the team just watched Sims work in the post.
So I guess I’m not saying that Manny would have turned the ball over less (though I believe he would have), but that Manny has a psychological edge over almost every defender he faces, which is what Michigan needed the most, especially against such aggressive perimeter defense.
“Against that defense, you got to have really special, experienced guards to be able to do that,” Beilein said. “Our guys are growing every day, but it’s very important against that to have outstanding veteran leadership at the guard position. We’re trying to get towards that.”
Manny is experienced (check) and special (check). Is he a leader? Well, the suspension kind of throws that into doubt. But I do know he would not have been nearly as rattled as Michigan’s guards were against Purdue.
Playmaking I know what you’re thinking: Joe, this is a really obvious point, you must think we’re idiots. Of course the team missed Manny’s scoring and his playmaking ability! On the contrary, I don’t think you’re idiots. While it’s obvious that Manny is a playmaker, my point concerns when he’s a playmaker. Allow me to explain.
Several times during Saturday’s game, whoever had the ball for the Wolverines would look up and realize there were ten seconds left on the shot clock. Michigan had spent the whole possession moving the ball around the perimeter, trying to get the ball to Sims and failing, generally killing time. Every team has possessions like this — possessions that are just doomed from the start.
But the Wolverines usually have one thing very few other teams have: an extremely skilled and talented playmaker who they can give the ball to and count on taking his man one-on-one, with an extremely good chance at getting a quality shot.
Against Purdue on Saturday, they didn’t. As a result, nobody was quite sure what to do as the shot clock wound down, and Zack Novak or Douglass or somebody would end up taking a long 3-pointer. Not exactly high-percentage shots.
Manny, in a sense, is the team’s safety valve. When the rest of the team can’t score, they know they can rely on Manny to at least get a good shot. Without his security blanket-like presence near the end of the shot clock, the Wolverines looked lost at times.
So what does this game mean? It means Michigan, as it should, struggled without one of its stars. Does it mean Michigan relies on Manny a little too much? Probably, but that’s normal for a team with a player of Manny’s caliber.
Some may look at this game as a glimpse into a Manny-less future. Here’s why that’s not very smart: we’re not entirely sure when the team knew Manny would not be playing, but it couldn’t have been for very long and was probably near the end of their last practice. That’s woefully little time to prepare for an away game against one of the Big Ten’s best teams without your star player.
Next year, Beilein will have had an entire offseason to prepare his team for life without Manny or DeShawn. Yes, this is a bad year, but John Beilein is still one of the best coaches around and he will have next year’s team prepared to play without its two superstars from the year before.
The players, too, will have had an entire offseason to prepare not only physically but mentally for a season in which their roles will certainly be larger. I’m not a coach, so I don’t know exactly what the changes in the offense will entail, but my best guess is that Darius Morris will start, the scoring will be more evenly distributed, and the offense will move in an even more guard-oriented direction, as the Wolverines are unlikely to find a hugely effective post player in the offseason. The rest will depend on the recruits Beilein brings in and what he sees when school starts.
Predictions for next year are for another column. But I can tell you this much for certain: While the Wolverines struggled in a big way without Manny against Purdue, next year’s team will look nothing like the one fans saw on Saturday.
— Stapleton can be reached at email@example.com