Are the Michigan Wolverines a national title contender in 2012-13? Star sophomore-to-be point guard Trey Burke certainly thinks so, and he wasn't afraid to say as much to the Detroit Free Press's Mark Snyder:
"I'm really happy," Burke said Thursday as he and Tim Hardaway Jr. talked about the team's summer progress and their individual experiences in All-Star camps. "We have a lot of experience coming back. ... Everyone looks good up there. Everyone has that chemistry coming in with the freshmen from last year, so I really think we're national championship contenders."
Far be it from me to disagree.
Why? There are two factors at work here. The first is Michigan's own talent level, which is arguably as high as any team in the Big Ten. Besides Burke -- the co-Big Ten freshman of the year in 2012 -- there's shooting guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., who serves as a fantastic off-ball complement to Burke's playmaking skills. And then there are those freshmen: Small forward Glenn Robinson III and power forward Mitch McGary both rank No. 5 in the class of 2012 at their respective positions, and McGary might even be underrated. (Just last summer, before a just-OK senior season, he was considered 2012's second or third best overall prospect.) Small forward Nik Stauskus is the prototypical John Beilein player, a lanky wingman whose strength is shooting. There is a lot of talent here, both returning and incoming, more than any Michigan team in the past decade. Maybe more.
The other factor is the wide-open nature of the 2012-13 landscape. Outside of Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky and UCLA (however you want to order them) there simply isn't a high number of clear national title contenders this season. The huge talent exodus in this season's draft put a handful of typically programs in quasi-rebuilding mode. Duke, UNC and Kansas will all be good, but hardly vintage, at least as far as we can tell in July. Ohio State will still be Ohio State, but will need a big season from DeShaun Thomas and Amir Williams to make up for the loss of the now-suddenly-underrated Jared Sullinger along the front line. There are maybe 20 teams that could eventually round into deep tournament run form, teams like NC State, UNLV, Baylor, Michigan State, Syracuse, San Diego State, Arizona -- the list goes on and on, but at this point, you can't draw too many distinctions between any of them.
In short, the 2012-13 title chase is wide open. So when we ask why Michigan could win the title, perhaps a better question is, why not?
To that end, the Wolverines will have to improve on the defensive end. Michigan finished at No. 60 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings last season, and as we saw throughout the tournament -- and as your high school coach tried to tell you a thousand times during those brutal slide drills -- defense wins in the postseason. Michigan has all the offensive characteristics of a title contender. The talent is there. Now Burke & Co. just have to defend. If they do, by January, his claim may seem downright reasonable.