The Bruins have spent the past two games, against Idaho State and Western Illinois, sleepwalking their way to victory. On one hand it's nice to see a team that is as talented and well-coached as the Bruins be able to take a night off against inferior competition. Hey, just think back to the previous coach's "issues" when facing low-level competition. What is disconcerting, though, is the fact that the Bruins are not necessarily playing better basketball and they are continuing some bad habits that are not catching up to them…yet.
The game against WIU was actually a step in the right direction. While some believe that the game was pretty poor, I don't actually agree. It was the first time in a while that the Bruins came out and actually buried a team they were supposed to from the get-go. The 42-19 halftime lead had me thinking that my score prediction was going to be pretty close. But the Bruins coasted in the second half knowing the game was well in hand. Good teams do this all the time; get up big early and then avoid injuries and fatigue as the game is closed out. Before the WIU game, the Bruins were playing poorly in the first half and finding themselves having to step up in the second half to win games. True, the Idaho State game was over at halftime, but it was still a close game with 10 minutes to go in the first half. UCLA hammered WIU early and often.
So, what does that mean for the Michigan game?
Beilein is in his first year at Michigan after spending five years at West Virginia. It was in Morgantown that Beilein perfected both his 4-out-1-in offense and his 1-3-1 match-up zone defense. UCLA and Coach Ben Howland can attest to the efficiency of both as they were defeated by WVU the past two seasons, two seasons which saw the Bruins get to the Final Four. Beilein's offense relies on quick passing and good three-point shooting. As much as anything, Beilein needs a point guard who knows exactly what is expected of the offense. The 1-3-1 match-up zone relies on forcing the opponent to the perimeter where they will be forced into taking quick shots form the outside or forced into turnovers. West Virginia thrived on easy baskets forced by turnovers. But at West Virginia, Beilein had his kids. He's trying to introduce two systems that are vastly different than that of his predecessor at Michigan, Tommy Amaker. He's also trying to do it with kids that Amaker recruited, kids who have thus far yet to show that they are suited to Beilein's system.
Michigan has a traditional starting five -- two guards, a wing and two post players. The guard position is clearly where the talent lies on this team but it is very young talent. Freshman Manny Harris (6'5" 170 lbs.) has been a bright spot in what has been a pretty dismal 4-7 start by the Wolverines. He is Michigan's leading scorer at 16.1 PPG and he is second on the team in assists with 33. He is an explosive athlete who likes to get to the basket but who can also shoot from long range. He is even tied for the team lead in rebounding at 4.9 RPG. In short, he can be fun to watch and is going to be a legitimate All-Big 10 player in the future. The trouble is that Harris is playing in the present. He is only shooting 38% from the field, including a miserable 31% from behind the arc. He leads the team with 40 turnovers and is generally good for several boneheaded plays per game. While his play has been erratic, it wouldn't be bad if he came into a program on solid footing where he wasn't expected to be the team's best player. But he is Michigan's best player and he's trying to play in a system he hasn't seen before this season. Now he gets to face Russell Westbrook, who has proven that he is among the best on-ball defenders in the country. Westbrook also has the size and the quickness to completely neutralize Harris' game. Westbrook has to understand that Harris likes to get to the line, where he's been 74 times, hitting 80%. Harris has more free throw attempts than the rest of the Michigan team combined.
Harris' backcourt mate is fellow freshman Kelvin Grady (5'11" 170 lbs.). Grady is very quick but, like Harris, he is still learning the system. Grady has proven to be a much steadier hand than Harris, but he is also incapable of taking over a game, as Harris can do. Grady averages only 7.1 PPG, but he is shooting 51% from the field and 50% from behind the arc. He is a perfect 10-10 on free throws. Most importantly, he leads the team with 34 assists against only 11 turnovers. Grady has some nice stats, but he has attempted fewer shots than any starter. He also tends to get lost on the defensive end, where Beilein is still trying to figure out where to play Grady in the 1-3-1. His size makes him a bad fit for the top and makes him easy to shoot over on the wings. Now Grady will be facing Darren Collison. If Beilein does decide to go to a man defense at times then the Collison/Grady match-up will be a significant mismatch. Grady showed in the Duke and Boston College games that he still isn't strong enough to keep lead guards out of the paint. Grady will be good, but that's still at least a year away.
The rest of the backcourt players are serviceable guys who spell the two freshmen. Junior C.J. Lee (6' 180 lbs.) is more of a pure point guard, while junior Jerret Smith (6'3" 195 lbs.) will do spot work as a point and at the ‘2' guard spot. Neither will play more than 15 minutes, and even then it will only be because of foul trouble or an emergency. Smith was expected to play a larger role for Beilein this season but he has missed six games.
Up front the Wolverines have much more experience than they do in the backcourt, but that may not necessarily be a good thing considering how badly the Wolverines got chewed up inside last season.
Big things were expected on senior Ron Coleman (6'6" 210 lbs.) after a better than average freshman year. But he has failed to improve in the past two seasons. He still makes the same mistakes he did as a freshman. He still settles for outside shots when he has the ability to do so much more. There is no more indictment of Amaker as a coach than to look at the career of Ron Coleman. He is averaging 7.6 PPG but is only shooting 40% from the floor, with half of his shots coming from beyond the arc. I'll give Coleman this -- he has become a better rebounder, being tied with Harris for the team lead at 4.9 RPG. Coleman will presumably match up at one or both ends with Josh Shipp. Here is a great chance to see Howland's coaching in action. Shipp and Coleman are similar players with similar athleticism and similar propensities to shoot from outside. If you watch a singular match-up, watch this one and see how much better Shipp is at being a complete basketball player and realize that he and Coleman were about the same three years ago.
The power forward will be sophomore DeShawn Sims (6'8" 225 lbs.). Sims may be the most complete player on the Wolverine roster right now (although Harris has more upside), and is the one player who would undoubtedly see minutes if he played on the Bruins. He is the 2nd-leading scorer at 13.6 PPG and is a 48% shooter. He is decent from beyond the arc, enough to keep Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, et al, honest. He is much more under control compared to last year and it appears that he is becoming the emotional leader of the team. He is struggling a bit with Beilein's defensive scheme, but that's more because he's trying to cover for teammates who simply are out of position.
The center spot was supposed to go to sophomore Ekpe Udoh (6'10" 240 lbs.), but he has since lost that spot to redshirt sophomore Zack Gibson (6'10" 220 lbs.). They essentially split the spot now, with Gibson scoring a bit more and Udoh taking down a few more boards. The one demonstrable difference between the two is that Gibson shoots 73% from the charity stripe and Udoh makes Lorenzo Mata-Real look like Rick Barry. The two combine for a respectable 12.7 PPG and 7.4 RPG. But they are not "basketball savvy" and they should find it tough sledding against Kevin Love, Mata-Real and Alfred Aboya.
The final player who sees significant minutes is redshirt freshman Anthony Wright (6'6" 235 lbs.). He is a carbon copy of Coleman, only he shoots much worse that the Michigan senior.
This will be a good chance, and probably the last chance, that the Bruins get to really prep for the Pac-10 season. Their next game, against UC Davis, should provide little room for growth for the Bruin players.
Michigan is in a state of flux. Most fans expected a tough season, but nothing like this. They lost to Harvard…enough said. Beilein is a very good coach and he will build a consistent winner and NCAA Tournament team in Ann Arbor, but he has to be able to recruit his own players and get the current ones familiar with the system, which, if you've seen Michigan play this year, you know they clearly aren't.
Duke and Georgetown steamrolled Michigan and the Bruins should be at least as good as those teams. The Bruins will be seen by a national audience and they should want to make an impression. Finally, this is the last opportunity for the Bruins to get a "good" non-conference road victory. While Michigan's RPI may be low, the Big 10 Conference's isn't, and that will help the Bruins. Look for the Bruins to come out on a mission and then coast in the second half…like good teams can do. Only the fact that it's in Ann Arbor will keep it from being truly embarrassing to the Wolverines.