I'm talking, of course, of the 2008-09 season. Remember that one, where they went 21-14, beat Clemson in the first round of the tournament and played a competitive game against Oklahoma before bowing out? Michigan started out that next season ranked 15 in both polls. Manny Harris was back. DeShawn Sims was back. Much less exciting, but still there, were Zach Novak and Stu Douglas. You even had a plucky young freshman guard on the scene named Darius Morris. John Beilein's kooky 3 point-fest and chess board antics were finally getting into a grove. Yes, the Maize and Blue Kool Aid was in vintage form that preseason. Harris even started out recording the second ever triple double in school history. That season concluded with a 15-17 fizzle of a record.
Here we are fresh off another 21-14 Michigan season and an even closer and more competitive loss to the Duke Blue Devils in last year's tournament. The din is rising. Why, if only Morris had returned we'd be looking at a Final Four contender. But surely, even without, this is a team that can push Ohio State at the top of the Big Ten. If you believe the hype. For those of us in the skeptics' column, why is this season different? I'm not convinced it is.
For starters, the 2009-10 class lost far less production from the previous year's success story than the current version of the Wolverines is losing. They gave up a role playing guard and forward in David Merritt and Jevohn Shepherd. They were both good for about 10 minutes a game, bare minimum production and were hardly missed. Undoubtedly, if any team was ready to build on the previous year's momentum, it was this team.
So why the backslide? There were rumors that Harris wasn't happy in the system and it didn't take a master of detection to figure out that the Wolverines never really gelled on the court that season. Since I was never in the locker room and can only speculate on chemistry issues, we'll call that a wash.
What is telling, however, is the Ken Pomroy ranking from 2008 through 2010. In their 21-14 season, their tempo free rating was good for 50th in the nation. Other than an early season upset of Duke, two wins against Minnesota were their only Ws with a pulse. A competitive bout with Oklahoma and the return of all their major players built the buzz for the next year. But for a team that finished 50th, what was the realistic ceiling? Finishing 63rd in the kenpom rankings and a 15 and 17 record was disappointing by any measure, but not completely shocking.
Last year U of M finished 25th in the tempo free rankings. Even if Morris were coming back, is it really realistic to think Michigan would be competing for a Final Four? We can make those arguments in theoreto-land, where they belong, but either side you come down on Morris is a part of a locked out crackpot of a league right now. And he was their point guard. A position that's kind of important in this game we call basketball. A guy who led the team in assists, points and steals last year. I think they just might miss him.
You may cry that Tim Hardaway Jr. is back and you'd be right. But who do you think was one of the main beneficiaries of Morris's 6 plus assists a game? Morris made everyone on that team better, including Stu Douglas and Zach Novak—a feat in itself. The next highest assist per game total after the 6.7 from Morris was Stu Douglas at 1.7 per game. This year it’s up to either Stu Douglas or Trey Burke, the freshman point guard, to fill the Morris shoes. If I’m a Michigan fan, I’m praying Burke is a fast learner.
Still, people will talk of the improvement Michigan made in the second half of last season, after a 6 game losing streak made them appear dead in the water...but it was a bit of a mirage. Their best win during that span was against Illinois. The average kenpom ranking of the teams they beat in that stretch comes out to 50. That first win in the tournament was against a hapless Tennessee team who had lost 7 of their past 11 games in the regular season.
A close loss to the blue blood of college basketball in last year's tourney aside, 18th in the nation really? I realize preseason polls are a patchwork guessing game. I realize it's hard to fill out that top 25 ballot at this juncture in time. But for me, I've read this script before and it doesn’t end 18th in the nation.