- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that "Three Big Things." (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Michigan.
1. Is this the best backcourt in the country? Maybe other squads will compete for sheer depth, and maybe other teams will have a bit more flash, but you’ll have a tough time finding another surefire one-two guard punch like this one.
I’m speaking, of course, about Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., the twosome at the heart of Michigan’s 2011-12 rebirth. Both were excellent -- and absolutely crucial -- last season, and the numbers plainly back it up. Burke and Hardaway played 89.2 percent and 84.5 percent of their team’s available minutes, respectively. Burke posted a usage rate of 26.8 percent and a shot percentage of 25.8; Hardaway’s usage was 25.6, his shot rate 26.6. No other Michigan player broke the 21.0 percent usage barrier. Hardaway was slightly less efficient overall, and he made just 28.3 percent from beyond the arc, but he and his backcourt mate were easily the most dynamic part of Michigan’s attack.
And Burke was merely a freshman, the co-Big Ten freshman of the year. After a mostly unheralded recruitment, he burst onto the scene early in 2011-12, and he never really slowed down throughout the season. He was smart, composed, consistent and timely. Much of his best stuff -- particularly late in shot clocks, or down the stretch -- isn’t the kind of thing that jumps off the statistical page. He was great when it counted, and he can still smooth off some of the rough edges.
Which is why it’s perfectly fair to expect Burke to make the customary sophomore improvement. In the offseason, Burke made it clear that he sees his team as a national title contender. After his freshman season, I’m loathe to question him.
2. Whether or not Michigan really is that good will hinge in large part on its new personnel, and the impact that personnel will have on both the offensive and defensive inputs and outputs in John Beilein’s system.
OK, deep breath. I’ll explain.
Let’s take offense first: Michigan finished the 2012 season ranked No. 22 in the country in offensive efficiency. Among its four factors -- the specific stats tempo-free guru Dean Oliver long ago established as having the strongest correlation to success -- the Wolverines finished ranked No. 22 in the country in shooting and No. 37 in turnover rate. They also finished ranked No. 276 in offensive rebounding rate and No. 331 in free throw rate.
That is the portrait of a perimeter-oriented team, one that rarely ventured into the low post to get its offense, and which preferred to launch from the perimeter whenever possible. The Wolverines' percentage of 3-point field goals to overall shots was 44.2, the eighth-highest mark in the country. According to Synergy scouting, 26.3 percent of Michigan’s offensive possessions were dedicated to spot-up shooting. (The next-highest play type was the pick-and-roll.) This is what Beilein teams do, and last season’s team was well-built for that purpose.
Now, three of the players who excelled in that perimeter-oriented offense -- Stu Douglass, Zack Novak and Evan Smotrycz -- have transferred or graduated. That’s the bad news. The good news? Replacing them is a highly ranked recruiting class, which includes top-25-level players Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. Efficient forward Jordan Morgan is also back, as is the previously injured Jon Horford.
Both Robinson (a small forward) and McGary (a power forward) could be revelatory forces for this team. Beilein hasn’t had overall talent like this in his tenure at Michigan. But he also hasn’t really had a team that might be better served with a more interior offensive focus, from McGary to Morgan to Horford. How will that work, exactly? Will a perimeter-dominant team suddenly be able to turn itself inward? And if it does, can it maintain -- or even improve -- on last season’s efficient performance?
I don’t know. It could go either way. We’ll just have to see.
3. Which brings us to the second half of the above breakdown, an area where I’m just slightly more optimistic: defense. The Wolverines were a slightly above-average defensive team in 2012-13, and nothing more. They did a nice job not fouling their opponents -- they were decidedly above average in that regard -- but in every other regard, they were mostly just OK.
This is where Michigan could show the most improvement. McGary and Robinson are bigger, stronger and more athletic than Novak (who admirably matched up against opposing power forwards more often in his career than he ever should have) and Smotrycz could ever hope to be. They may not be fully polished on the offensive end right away, McGary in particular. But if they can come in and guard people -- force them to shoot over extended hands, keep them off the offensive glass, and maybe even force a few turnovers here and there -- Michigan could be a much trickier matchup for the rest of the Big Ten.
Is this team good enough to win the Big Ten title? Sure. And I tend to agree with Burke: If everything goes well, this is a national title contender. But so much hinges on how Beilein incorporates an unusual influx of talent and size into what, until this season, was a team that generally thrived on outshooting opponents. That transition is the new story of this program, and it, more than any other factor, will determine whether Burke’s bold offseason analysis proves true.
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology.