- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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On Friday, the first Associated Press poll of the season was released. Michigan was ranked No. 5 overall.
It is not hard to see exactly why the voters who comprise the AP hive mind are so high on the Wolverines. Michigan returns co-Big Ten Freshman of the Year Trey Burke at point guard, rangy shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr., and a pair of solid big men (Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford, who is returning from a season-ending foot injury) from a team that won a share of the 2012 regular-season Big Ten title.
Then there is the much-ballyhooed addition of top–100 talents in the incoming recruiting class. Forward Mitch McGary is the No. 5-ranked power forward, Glenn Robinson III the No. 5-ranked small forward, and Nik Stauskas the No. 21-ranked small forward.
Guards are disproportionately important in college basketball, it is widely and casually said. Michigan won a Big Ten title. There are young talents in the mix. These are a few -- sing it with me -- of your average AP voter’s favorite things. And by and large, these things make sense.
But, I’m sorry. At No. 5, the Michigan Wolverines are almost certainly overrated.
I hedge with “almost” not just because I am a wimp who lacks the courage of my convictions, or because I want to lessen the scorn thousands of angry Michigan hoops fans will visit upon my doorstep, but because I really do like Michigan’s team. I also think, generally speaking, that once you get outside the near-certainties presented by Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky, that the landscape is as wide-open at the top as it has been in years. Over the summer, Burke said the Wolverines could compete for a national title. As I wrote at the time: Well, maybe he’s right! Far crazier things happen in college hoops, like, every year.
Even so, there are some major questions that give me pause about Michigan in 2012–13. The first is that, on Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted per-possesion basis, Michigan finished last season ranked No. 29 overall. Their offense ranked No. 22 in the country; their defense No. 60. No other current top-five team ranked outside the top 15. (Louisville, that 15th-ranked team, rode the No. 1 defense in the country to the Final Four. No. 11 Indiana had the nation’s fourth-best offense.)
The counterpoint to such a crude year-over-year comparison is obvious: Michigan is hardly the same team as last season. Very true. The next question is whether that’s a good thing.
In the offseason, Michigan lost Zack Novak (graduation), Stu Douglass (graduation), and Evan Smotrycz (transfer to Maryland). All three were outside shooting specialists, and a big reason why the Wolverines ranked No. 8 in the country in their rate of 3-pointers to overall field goal attempts. They were also three most efficient offensive players on the team.
When Michigan coach John Beilein has been the most successful, it has been when his personnel fits his offensive system best. That system thrives off an open floor spread by a multitude of shooters. It frequently features one forward and four guards/wings, and eschews offensive rebounding in favor of spacing, cutting, and efficient scoring.
With the possible exception of Stauskas, Michigan lacks that kind of wing personnel this season. Instead, to keep his most talented players on the floor as much as possible, Beilein will have to give big minutes to McGary, Robinson, Morgan and even Horford, often in overlapping bursts. This could require a drastic offensive reboot on Beilein’s part. Will Michigan become a banging, low-post oriented team? Will it go from being one of the power six’s worst offensive rebounding units (2012 offensive rebounding rate rank: No. 276!) to a totally opposite force? If the offense suffers hiccups, will Beilein -- who has never coached a defense ranked among the top 25 in the country -- be able to make up for it with more athleticism and versatility on the other end of the floor?
The man is an incredibly capable and malleable coach -- I wouldn’t bet against him -- but how it will all work, exactly, remains a big-time guess.
These concerns have been floating around my head for the better part of the offseason. Today, they were amplified. On Monday, Basketball Prospectus writer Dan Hanner released his 1-to–345 team projections for the upcoming season (which will feature prominently in both the forthcoming College Basketball Prospectus and ESPN the Magazine’s college hoops preview issue; you should buy both. Read about Hanner’s new methodology here). So, where did his system rank the Wolverines?
You read that right. Not No. 10, or No. 25. No. 44.
There are caveats, of course. As Hanner writes:
Michigan is almost certainly too low in my prediction, but I haven’t been able to use historic data to generate a higher ranking for the Wolverines. John Beilein has never had a top–25 defense, and a team of newcomers is not the situation where a coach typically has his best defensive season. Then again this is the most athletic team Beilein has ever had in Ann Arbor, and it feels like Michigan’s defense will be better than what is projected here.
As Dan admits, his model struggles to project freshmen ranked outside the top 20 in their class (because those results can be wildly disparate, any college hoops fan knows), and weighs a coach’s historical defensive rankings heavily. Robinson and McGary are both outside the top 20 in the class, but until a so-so senior season McGary was once considered the best forward in the country. If he outplays his current projection -- and he most certainly could – well, there you go.
So let’s be clear: No. 44 is way too low. And even the most methodical projection system is riddled with holes that can only truly be filled in by our eyes. If you threatened me with violence (please don’t, I bruise easily) and forced me to tell you whether I think Michigan is closer to the fifth-best team in the country or the 44th, I’d say the former. But I wouldn’t be all that confident.
This is all guesswork, of course. Fortunately, we’ll have basketball soon, and Michigan fans won’t have to stress the impression that their team is not as good as they and the AP think it is, because the basketball will do the talking. Thank goodness.
Until then, though, a downward revision of expectations is not unreasonable. Frankly, it’s hard to refute.