Despite the 73-71 loss to Duke that ended the NCAA Tournament run after two games, the Wolverines move into the offseason riding a tide of positive momentum. The program made a dramatic turn about mid-season, and things started trending in the right direction.
After a dreadful 1-6 start in Big Ten play, Head Coach John Beilein took the youngest team in the Big Ten and turned it into a contender by season's end. It made for a wonderful ride down the stretch in the conference, through the conference tournament and into the semifinal round, and then with a NCAA bid that was barely even a long shot in mid-January.
"That's like the story of our season. We came in, preseason projections weren't in our favor, had us at the bottom of the Big Ten," said sophomore PG Darius Morris, who missed a jump shot with five seconds to play that would have sent the Duke game to overtime.
"I think individually everybody, kind of throughout their basketball career, has been an underdog. We've all embraced that chip, you know, that we play with on our shoulder. The reason why we fight so hard is just to prove everybody wrong."
The proof came in February, and was reinforced in March. The Wolverines won eight of their last 11 games to close the season, beat Illinois in the conference tournament before falling to No. 1 ranked Ohio State, and then routed Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA. The narrow loss to Duke in the NCAA Tournament left Michigan at 21-14.
Michigan junior forward Zack Novak, the elder statesman on a team with no seniors, said the Wolverines were aware they were held in very low regard, picked to finish near the bottom by most pre-season polls. It was never personal, but never accepted, either. The lack of respect remains a motivation as Michigan moves into the off-season, anxious to see what 2011-12 might hold.
"I think it was warranted that people really didn't have high expectations for us, because no one knew what to think," Novak said. "I use to it fuel you a little bit, but, at the same time, you don't pay attention to it because you just believe in yourself, and if you believe in yourself good things can happen."
--Michigan entered the season with the 19th youngest roster in America, no seniors, and the dire predictions from every major pre-season publication that the Wolverines would finish near the bottom of the Big Ten. The Wolverines then bit off considerably more than they appeared able to chew and played the 16th toughest schedule in the county, with 22 games against teams in the top 100 of the RPI. The resulting 21-14 record is a testament to how much this team out-played the expectations.
--Faced with the daunting task of replacing nearly 70 percent of its scoring from last season, Michigan frequently had a lineup with two or three freshmen on the floor at the same time, a sophomore running the show at the point, and two juniors as part of the primary playing rotation. The Wolverines used that combination to finish tied for fourth in the Big Ten, shoot 46 percent from the field in conference play, post 14 games with 10 or fewer turnovers, and reach the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years.
FINAL RECORD: 21-14, 9-9, tied for fourth in the Big Ten
2010-11 SEASON RECAP: The struggles were predicable and frequent through the first half of the season as the Wolverines' youth was clearly evident. There were times when it looked like coach John Beilein could lose this group, especially after a 1-6 start in Big Ten play. But the ultimate regroup took place, and Michigan reeled off eight wins in 11 games coming down the stretch. A first-round Big Ten Tournament win over Illinois punched the Michigan ticket to the NCAA Tournament, and the Wolverines sent a strong message for the future with their 30-point rout of Tennessee in their opening NCAA game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're just trying to build a program. We just want to build this Michigan program so that it is back where we all want it to be and it's a lasting and consistent program like you see in the Dukes and the Michigan States and Wisconsin, Ohio State -- they're all back here every year. That's where we want to be, and that's why I came to Michigan." -Michigan coach John Beilein
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THE GOOD NEWS: Not many teams that made the second round of the NCAA this season can step back from the fray and say they will have everyone back in the following year. Michigan can puff out its chest and say that with conviction.
Its frighteningly young and freshman-laden lineup produced stunning results in the recently concluded season, and its performance should make Michigan a clear-cut upper echelon team in 2011-12. The only thing this team lacks to make it a potential contender in the Big Ten is a force in the middle. Freshman C/F Jordan Morgan is athletic and effective, but the soft spot on this team remains inside, until help arrives.
THE BAD NEWS: There is not a wealth of depth on the Michigan roster, at least not until freshman F Jon Horford and freshman F Jordan Dumars demonstrate that they are healthy and ready to assume those roles. There is also vulnerability in the middle, where freshman C/F Jordan Morgan was overmatched on a number of occasions by more physical players, such as Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. The Wolverines need to develop overall depth, and more muscle in the middle, to take the next step in 2011-12.
KEY RETURNEES: Darius Morris had seven games this past season with 10 or more assists, and passed Michigan legend Gary Grant as the program's all-time leader in that category. He had a triple-double against Iowa in late January, and by mid-season became the lion-hearted personality this team had lacked. Freshman G Tim Hardaway Jr. was second in the Big Ten in freshman scoring with 13.9 ppg. and had a 31-point game at Purdue in mid-February. Hardaway grew into his role, and by season's end was a very difficult match-up for the opposition. Junior F Zack Novak was a consistent three-point shooter who led this team in rebounding with about six per game despite his 6-4 height. When the Wolverines needed a big basket, Novak often took the shot. Freshman C/F Jordan Morgan was the Big Ten leader in field goal percentage with his 66.1 percent accuracy in conference games.
--F Jordan Dumars, who transferred to Michigan after starting his career at South Florida, had surgery on his right knee and missed the season. He will apply for a medical redshirt year.
--F Jon Horford appeared in 27 games this season coming off the bench despite being slowed by injuries. He should be a regular contributor next season.
--PG Darius Morris had 12 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds against Iowa this past season, recording the third triple-double in Michigan history.
--Freshman G Tim Hardaway Jr. started every game this season for Michigan and was second in the Big Ten among freshmen with his 13.9 points per game.