Michigan played its way out of the NCAA Tournament weeks ago, but the Wolverines have found a sliver of hope for the future in point guard Darius Morris.
A true freshman, Morris has played two solid games since returning to the starting lineup. He's not a great scorer yet, but his presence has stabilized a team that looked lost offensively for large portions of the year.
"During the practice time we've had the last couple of weeks, we've really worked at just seeing the floor better, not running plays but being a player," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "Sometimes we don't see anything and then we go around like robots. That's been a major emphasis the last couple of weeks."
Morris is averaging 8.0 points over Michigan's last three games and has dramatically cut down on his turnovers the last three weeks (he's had five straight games with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio).
He'll benefit from Michigan's weekend bye as much as anyone, and with winnable games upcoming at Iowa and home against Penn State, Morris has a chance to build on his surging confidence.
Good thing, too, as Morris will need it for the homestretch when his growth as a player will be tested against Illinois' Demetri McCamey and Michigan State's Kalin Lucas, the two best point guards in the Big Ten.
MICHIGAN 71, MINNESOTA 63: DeShawn Sims scored 21 of his game-high 27 points in the second half as Michigan snapped a three-game road losing streak.
Sims finished 12-for-18 from the field and led the Wolverines with seven rebounds despite missing a seven-minute stretch of the first half when he was benched for blowing a defensive assignment.
Manny Harris added 20 points and seven assists for Michigan, which had lost five of six entering play.
The worst 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten, Michigan was 7-for-14 from behind the arc and shot 68 percent from the field (17-for-25) in the second half.
---As maddening as Michigan can be offensively, the Wolverines continue to take good care of the ball. They average the second fewest turnovers in the Big Ten (10.8 per game) and have had nine or fewer the last three games. Those numbers should only get better, as Iowa and Penn State, two of the most passive defensive teams in the league, are next on the schedule.
---Keenly aware of his team's backcourt problems and perhaps with an eye toward the future, Michigan coach John Beilein put Darius Morris back in the starting lineup for last week's loss to Wisconsin.
"We just need someone that can get in the lane a little bit and has a point guard mentality," Beilein said. "He made a couple nice passes, still has a lot of areas that he needs to work on, but just throw him out there and let him play, let him see what he can do."
Morris started Michigan's first nine games but was benched for a mid-December loss to Kansas in order to get his bearings.
Stu Douglass replaced Morris in the starting lineup, but Douglass is not a true point guard and his shooting suffered while trying to play that role.
Laval Lucas-Perry, whose spot Morris took in the starting lineup, is another off guard with limited playmaking ability.
Morris, a true freshman from California, has played some of his best basketball of late. He tied a season high with 11 points off the bench in a loss to Northwestern, and he had eight points and three assists in 33 minutes against the Badgers.
"Three-fourths (of the way into) the season, I'm not really like a freshman no more," Morris said. "I've had an opportunity to get a lot of minutes. You can't just go out there and keep making freshman mistakes. The timing has to click and hopefully it keeps clicking and keep getting more and more comfortable."
---Guard Manny Harris told reporters after Michigan's loss at Northwestern that he plans to return for his senior year.
"A lot of these guys, like myself, got to come back and play next year," Harris told The Detroit Free Press, adding that he's confident in his decision. Harris leads the Wolverines in scoring, assists and steals and ranks second in rebounds.
ON THE SPOT: Putting Darius Morris back in the starting lineup was the right move for Michigan, but the Wolverines' bench is a black hole. Michigan plays nine men most nights, with inconsistent shooters Laval Lucas-Perry and Anthony Wright its top two subs. Freshman Matt Vogrich doesn't even make the scouting report -- he's scored 13 points in 12 Big Ten games -- and Zack Gibson gets bit minutes only because of his size. Coach John Beilein might consider trimming his rotation even more if Michigan is going to get on a run and make the NIT.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's not only just a matter of confidence. That's not the only issue here. We got to get longer and stronger and shoot it better and get more skilled. We got a lot of things we got to do. I don't think it's confidence as much as we got to get better." -- Michigan coach John Beilein, on what ails his team.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Michigan has firmly established itself among the four worst teams in the Big Ten. After starting the season ranked in the top 15, the Wolverines likely will miss out on the postseason altogether. Their shortcomings are considerate. No size, poor shooting, few players who can create their own shots and, most glaringly, a lack of leadership and chemistry.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- G Manny Harris, G Darius Morris, G Zach Novak, G Stu Douglas, F DeShawn Sims. Key Subs -- G Laval Lucas-Perry, F Anthony Wright, C Zack Gibson.
Michigan 60, Iowa 46
Northwestern 67, Michigan 52
Wisconsin 62, Michigan 44
Michigan 71, Minnesota 63
at Iowa, Tuesday, Feb. 16
vs. Penn State, Saturday, Feb. 20
vs. Illinois, Tuesday, Feb. 23
at Ohio State, Saturday or Sunday, Feb. 27-28
IN FOCUS: After playing five ranked teams in a seven-game span, Michigan finally gets some time to work on itself. The Wolverines have a weekend off for the first time since Christmas break. With less game-planning needed, Michigan can devote its practice time to skill development and shooting. The Wolverines ranked last in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage through Feb. 7.
--C Zack Gibson played nine efficient minutes against Minnesota's big front line, scoring eight points and grabbing two rebounds off the bench. He also made two 3-pointers, his first since a Dec. 2 win against Boston College.
--G Stu Douglass continues to struggle with his shot -- he's 10-for-35 from the floor (28.6 percent) since dropping 13 on UConn last month -- but the sophomore is contributing in other ways. Douglass had a career-high five steals against the Gophers, and he has seven assists and no turnovers in Michigan's last two games.
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