Surprising Wolverines take aim at Big Ten title
Had anyone mentioned the Wolverines as serious Big Ten title contenders back in November, the notion likely would have been brushed off as the musings of an over-zealous fan and not those of a rational, thinking basketball mind.
Michigan was coming into 2011-12 minus gifted point guard Darius Morris, who had jumped to the NBA following a superior sophomore season. That left a huge void, especially since none of the players in residence seemed prepared to take the controls out front.
The Wolverines were also undersized and apparently lacked enough muscle and balance on their roster to get mentioned in the championship conversation. Three and a half months into the season, however, Michigan is still flirting with the Big Ten's top spot.
Freshman point guard Trey Burke has been outstanding taking over for Morris, while the rest of the Wolverines' top rotation has meshed well and produced under intense scrutiny.
When the Wolverines hosted Big Ten preseason favorite and defending champion Ohio State on Feb. 18, they were one of just four teams in the conference still holding onto a chance to win the league title. The Buckeyes, Michigan State and Wisconsin joined Michigan in a cluster of four teams separated in the standings by just one game.
The Wolverines entered the evening trailing Big Ten co-leaders Ohio State and Michigan State by one game in the standings, but following their 56-51 win over the Buckeyes, the picture changed and things got even tighter.
Now, Michigan, which has not won a Big Ten regular season championship since the 1985-86 season, likely has the easiest path to a title since it will not face one of the other contenders in its final four games. If the Wolverines can win on the road against the Big Ten's middle and lower tier, the championship could land in Ann Arbor.
"Every game is more important as you get to this time of the season," Michigan coach John Beilein said, while refusing to put too much weight on any one outing.
"There's a lot of basketball to be played before you say this is a must-win. At this time of the year, it's important, but you'll probably never get me to say the words 'must win' ever, unless it was the NCAA Tournament where you must win this game or we don't get to play tomorrow."
Burke the frontrunner for freshman of the year
--PG Trey Burke is threatening to run away with the Big Ten freshman of the year honors. Burke has played in all 27 Michigan games to date, averaging more than 35 minutes per game. He is averaging 14 points, 3.5 rebounds and nearly five assists per game.
--Michigan was just 3-for-13 on in its shots outside the arc against rival Ohio State, marking its fewest made 3s and the fewest attempts this season, but the Wolverines still prevailed 56-51 over the Buckeyes.
--The five-point win over Ohio State on Feb. 18 pushed Michigan's record at home in the Crisler Center to 15-0 this season.
--In their recent Big Ten win over Illinois, the Wolverines got the kind of balance they need to be successful over the long haul in the Big Ten. Michigan had four players score in double-figures in the 70-61 win -- G Tim Hardaway Jr. (15), G Zack Novak (12), F Evan Smotrycz (13) and PG Trey Burke (14).
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- Five of Michigan's seven losses this season have come against teams ranked in the Top 25 in the country
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Rivalries in basketball are certainly big, but they're not like they are in football where you add to the rivalry that every game determines who the champion is going to be. Michigan State and Ohio State, those are rivalry games that really mean the championship in football. They're all important, but any one game doesn't determine as much as it does in football, where it takes a
year to get back at them." -- Michigan coach John Beilein on the importance of not over-emphasizing any one game on the schedule
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--at Northwestern, Feb. 21
KEY MATCHUPS: The Wolverines are well aware that the critical element in slowing the Wildcats is how you defend the combination of G/F Drew Crawford and F John Shurna. With his strong outside shooting touch, the 6-foot-9 Shurna creates matchup problems, so F Evan Smotrycz will have to skip the double-teams and lock in on chasing down Shurna anywhere on the court. Crawford likely becomes the issue for either G Tim Hardaway Jr. or G Zack Novak. Northwestern will try and trap Michigan PG Trey Burke at every opportunity and prevent him from putting the offense in motion.
vs. Purdue, Feb. 25
KEY MATCHUPS: Michigan will meet a Purdue team beset with turmoil over the recent actions of a couple Boilermakers. Talented G Kelsey Barlow was kicked off the team and 3-point shooting specialist D.J. Byrd was suspended for a game for their involvement in an early morning incident at a bar near the Purdue campus. With Barlow gone and Byrd in the doghouse, the Wolverines will be able to focus more of their defensive efforts on senior F Robbie Hummel, one of the top players in the conference. With Byrd's playing time in question, Purdue senior G Ryne Smith becomes the top outside threat, and someone Michigan will shadow around the arc.
FUTURES MARKET: With a second Big Ten meeting with Purdue on the schedule for Feb. 25, the name of former Purdue All-American and NBA All Star Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson comes up. It gives Michigan a chance to gloat a little over landing the son of Robinson in its 2012 recruiting class. The 6-foot-6 forward Glenn "Tre" Robinson III from Indiana turned down the offers from his father's school and signed with Michigan. The younger Robinson is a versatile swing man with an obviously dynamite pedigree who is destined to star for Michigan in the coming years.
--PG Trey Burke is just 10 assists away from breaking the freshman assist record of 140 at Michigan set by G Gary Grant in the 1984-85 season.
--G Matt Vogrich appears to have resolved the shooting funk he had been in when he dipped to 21.2 percent from long range. In recent games against Nebraska and Illinois, Vogrich came off the bench and went 5-for-6 from long range (83.3 percent). He had nine points at Nebraska and eight against Illinois.
--F Jon Horford, out since Dec. 10 with a stress fracture in his foot, missed his 18th straight game when the Wolverines faced Ohio State on Feb. 18. He is a likely candidate for a medical redshirt.
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