Monday, March 21, 2011

Duke 73, Michigan 71

Darius Morris reacts after missing the final shot (image via

Congratulations to the Michigan basketball team, which finally provided Wolverines fans with some hope after years of flailing.  I admittedly didn't pay a great deal of attention to Michigan basketball for the first couple months of the season, because football is my #1 interest and where I live, Michigan basketball isn't on television very much.  But the last couple months have been a great deal of fun.  Maybe I'm good luck, because the first game I watched this year was the four-point loss to Ohio State on January 12th and I didn't watch again until the January 27th victory against MSU, which is about when Michigan started to make its end-of-season run.  The Wolverines finished the season with a 10-5 run after losing six in a row, and three of those five losses were by two points or less.

These kids have nothing to be embarrassed about, and they represented the university well.  I don't think anybody wanted to play Michigan toward the end of the season.  And for anyone who didn't think they belonged (*cough* Doug Gottlieb *cough*), take a look at Michigan's 30-point victory over Tennessee and its near-victory against the defending national champions.  This rag-tag crew of undersized, floppy-haired, barely-able-to-vote ballers had Dookies everywhere holding their breath in fear that a floater in the lane would send the game to overtime.  And in a game that ended on a 28-15 run by Michigan, I'm not so sure the Blue Devils would have been favored to win in that situation.

I'm looking forward to next year.  Go Blue!


  1. Yes, yes, the basketball season was brilliant fun and the entire roster is likable, hard-working, and mentally tough. They overachieved and you have to love what you saw.

    That said - lets not overstate the 'undersized, floppy-haired" and 'rag-tag' bit.

    The floppy hair comment is a stretch since Vogrich is the only guy with floppy hair and he plays about 15 mpg. If you want to include Novak and McLimans, fine, but they still make up a lot less of the team than Morris, Hardaway, Morgan, etc. Even Smotrycz has curly hair and Douglass keeps his cut close.

    The size thing is overstated as well because it's a matter of choice by Beilein. It's like calling Rodriguez's offense 'undersized' because he deploys an extra WR instead of a FB. Novak at the 4 and Smotrycz at the 5 give Michigan a major matchup advantage in this system - part of the reason for their success, despite the disadvantage when attempting to get offensive rebounds. Beilien could have played Horford and McLimans 30+ minutes a game and not had an undersized lineup at all, but Novak is more effective as a 4 than as a 3 (he can't dribble around 3s, pulling them away from the basket doesn't open up the floor as much for Morris, cutting under them for charges is more difficult, and boxing them out doesn't matter nearly as much). Smotrycz, too, won't find himself wide-open on the perimeter nearly as often if he's a 4. Yes, the fact is they are smaller than average in the front-court, but unlike age, that is by choice. Sure, you'd always rather have a taller guy than a shorter guy all things being equal - I'm sure Bielien would rather Jordan Morgan was 6'11 with long arms - but here in reality shorter guys have skills that big guys usually don't. Morgan makes up for not blocking shots by by running the floor and playing with great toughness and heart. The people who want to send Douglass to the bench in favor of a big man weren't paying attention to all the things he brought to the table (especially his perimeter defense).

    Finally, the size advantage at 1 more than makes up for the disadvantage at 4. That's why Michigan was an above average defensive rebounding team despite having a 6'3 'Power' Forward.

    Rag-tag? The teams two best players and the guys that carried the offense are Morris and Hardaway, who were fairly highly regarded recruits. Not elite like Duke's, but top 100-150 type guys. So is Smotrycz. Novak, Douglass, Morgan, Vogrich are unheralded recruits but have specific skills that make them excellent role players. I think calling them rag-tag undermines what Bielien has done here. The parts fit.

    They are young (unable to vote) though and that should make them better next year...though I'm not sure people will be as happy with the team given that expectations will skyrocket.



  2. floppy hair = Vogrich, Novak, Smotrycz, McLimans

    It's not a matter of choice for Beilein to put undersized guys out there. I mean, it is a choice because obviously he could put walk-ons and such out there. But he puts his best five players on the floor, which happens to include a 6'8" center and a 6'4" (including shoes and hair) power forward. I don't care if Darius Morris is tall for a point guard, when your top two centers are a thick 6'8" and a slight 6'9", you're undersized. So whether it's "choice" or not, the guys Beilein puts on the floor are smaller, on average, than their opponents.

    On average, Duke's starting player was 1.6" taller than Michigan's. Tennessee's difference was 1.2" across the board. Ohio State's was 1.8". Illinois' was 2.6".

    You're right that Morris was an elite guy, but not Novak, Douglass, Vogrich, Morgan, Horford, etc. They're largely misfits. Even Hardaway wasn't THAT highly regarded, and his recruiting profile shows offers only from Michigan and Minnesota.'re allowed to vote at the age of 18. Just an FYI.

  3. The 11 guys you didn't name don't have floppy hair. I could debate the Smotrycz's hair further, but instead I'll just point out that McLimans and Vogrich combined to play less than 10% of available minutes.

    I will say this - the team is probably floppier than most - and it's not just the hair.

    Horford and McLimans and Smotrycz are 6'8 or taller. These guys aren't walk-ons. They're thin, but tall - not undersized for college. These are your options at PF, but Bielien chooses to play the floppy-haired and undersized duo of Novak and Vogrich instead.

    Horford is the best rebounder on the team by far. He is the best shot-blocker. He had the highest rate of drawing fouls. These are all team weaknesses and Horford's offensive rating is statistically superior to Douglass and Smotrycz. But he turns the ball over, isn't a great passer, and doesn't shoot a great percentage of 3.

    This is a strategy, not a handicap.

    Furthermore, Novak and Smotrycz are more effective playing small than at the positions they are 'supposed' to play; just as Denard is more effectively used by Rich Rod as a QB than he would be as a slot WR. You could even argue the same for Morgan's effectiveness as a PF vs a C...

    Regardless of recruiting rankings theres at least 2 NBA players (Morris and Hardaway) and maybe 3 on the roster (with Smotrycz and Horford's potential as a shooter and rebounder, respectively). Outside of the elite programs not many schools have that. It's not rag-tag. This is talent Michigan hasn't had since the post-Fab5 era.

    Yes, I meant 'barely able' not 'unable' but thanks for 'informing' me.


  4. BTW and FWIW, ESPN ranked both Hardaway and Smotrycz were higher than Morris as recruits. None of them was elite but they're on the bottom end of the top 100 recruits nationally.

  5. @ Lankownia 1:17 p.m.

    Are we really sitting here arguing about the term "floppy-haired" and "rag-tag"? You must be extremely bored today.

    Look, Lank, whether it's a strategy or not, Michigan's team is usually smaller than its opponent. You could put Allen Iverson, Spud Webb, Nate Washington, Rajon Rondo, and Chris Paul - all very good players - out there on the floor as a strategy, and they would be undersized. You might win games because that would be a hell of a lot of talent, but your team would be lacking in the size department.

    This is honestly such a stupid argument we're having. Nobody expected anything out of this team because of their lack of size, lack of experience, and yes, lack of talent in the post-Sims and post-Harris era...

    ...and here you're trying to argue that Michigan is an extremely talented team, taking offense to the terms "rag-tag" and "floppy-haired."

    It's really just not a discussion that I think is worth pursuing further.

  6. Maybe if we called Rich Rodriguez's teams rag-tag, undersized, and floppy-haired (dreads!) things would have been different. Its a shame Sheridan, Threet, Vinopal and Kovacs see their barbers so often.

    The basketball team was not an unathletic pack of midgets thrown together from rural Utah high schools to fend for themselves. Its fun to pretend this team is a massive underdog fighting against all odds with grit and heart. That makes for a nice story, but it's an exaggeration.

    Its a young team - this is true, and they overachieved and improved dramatically over the season and they DID play with great effort. Its even true that they have a lot of goofy looking white guys for a major conference team. But...

    I like watching Novak and Morgan as much battle as the next guy, but this Michigan team has an excellent coach, two NBA-caliber talents that carry the offense, and a nice mix of role-players around them. Bielien didn't just stumble on this roster on accident. Its basically the '09 team except the 2 studs are younger and more coachable and the supporting cast was actually recruited by this coach.

    The difference from this team from the beginning of the season and the end was that Hardaway JR became a scorer that had to be respected. Without that development, this Michigan team is as bad as everyone expected.

    Again with size, Michigan has a PG and PF that are 6'4 and 6'3. Redistribute that height to a 6'0 PG and a 6'7 PF and no one would comment about this team being undersized.

    It was a great team to watch, but the hindsight narrative is a little much for me.


  7. Even if you "redistribute that height" elsewhere, Michigan is still smaller than its opponents. Math. It's a wonderful thing.

  8. Math, bitches:


  9. @ Lankownia 9:35 a.m.

    What's your point? Michigan is the 6th tallest team in the Big Ten, and -1.1 in Eff Hgt.

  10. This is an incredibly stupid argument. No matter how you slice it, Michigan is not that tall of a team. Also, Michigan does not have a surplus of extraordinary talented bigs that don't get their fair share of playing time due to Beilein's system. McLimans is tall, yes. McLimans is also not very good at basketball. McLimans will also probably not get a 5th year due to this. Saying that Beilein "chooses" a small lineup is like saying that Beilein "chooses" to play good players over average players... duh.

  11. Michigan is 67th (out of 345) in height. That means its not an undersized team.

    Effective height is below average. Yet, even if you ignore this is a function of team strategy, the effective height is still better than nearly a third of all teams.

    Michigan is average or above at every position except PF. No one would be calling this team undersized if their PG was small instead of their nominal PF. But because he is 'floppy haired', some people want to make that out to be more than it is.

    Michigan isn't that small, unless you're comparing to the tallest teams in the country like Illinois and Duke. The degree to which they are small exists because they prefer to play a 4 guard lineup, not because the team is undersized.

    David's comment is interesting. Thanks for posting it. A few weeks ago I commented that this blog has really taken a step forward in terms of professionalism and quality. I stand corrected.


  12. No, it's not. Rodriguez had plenty of TEs, tall WR, and big running backs available to him, but he preferred to use small guys. Yet no one went around calling his team undersized, because it was a conscious decision to strategically value speed and skill over size and strength.

    McLimans isn't good at basketball, but Smotrycz and Horford are. Bielien chose to play Vogrich and Douglass instead (Novak probably plays either way.)


  13. @ Lankownia 11:21 a.m.

    Yes, but when you're comparing Michigan (which plays in the Big Ten) to teams like St. Peters and Wofford and UC-Santa Barbara and other no-name schools, the comparison doesn't really ring true. We don't play in their conferences, so a lot of those small schools with small players are irrelevant.

    The size of McLimans is pretty irrelevant, too. Sure, he's big. I guess that means he needs a taller chair to sit in on the sideline. You're talking about the team. We're talking about the people who actually play. The starting five and the first couple guys off the bench are smaller, on average, than their opponents.

  14. @ Lankownia 11:26 a.m.

    Where have you been with regard to Rodriguez? TONS of people were calling the team undersized. Vincent Smith, the offensive line (in 2008-09), the defensive line, Cissoko, Avery, Vinopal, Craig Roh, etc. People called the entire 3-3-5 "undersized." There's no truth to your argument.

  15. Yes, because of Novak, the starting lineup is smaller, on average, in most games they played. That's not what I'm disputing.

    I'm disagreeing with how the narrative is framed. 'Undersized' has a lot of connotations and the implication here (and elsewhere) is that Michigan was forced into playing with small guys. Especially when you pair it with
    floppy-haired, and rag-tag. That they simply gutted it out despite an imposed handicap - look David Eckstein dunked it! Save for one guy -- this is ridiculous.

    Bielien's rotations are a matter of choice. Not sure why you're bringing up McLimans when the issue here is that Vogrich is playing over Horford (despite inferior statistics) and that Douglass and Novak are playing more than 80% of the time while Smotrycz plays less than a half.

    The stats say Horford pretty much fits every void you have (shot-blocking, rebounding, size) yet Bielien isn't playing him (or even Smotrycz) and instead goes with 4 guards. This is not a criticism anymore than noting that Rodriguez's use of fullbacks.

    Michigan basketball is small by choice, just like a million of other college basketball teams that have gone with one true big man over the years. It's not something they overcame, it's something they chose.

    The difference between Rodriguez and Bielien is in perception. There are (obviously) a million contextual differences but both teams improved from the previous season and finished around the top 30 or so (depending on your view of the bowl) while intentionally playing with smaller personnel to gain a strategic advantage. When Bielien does its viewed as a necessity and a massive over-achievement, but RR is considered a guy who doesn't get the Big10.


  16. @ Lankownia 12:38 p.m.

    I think we're arguing two different things, which is part of the reason why we're not getting anywhere. We all understand it's a choice to play certain guys. But if Beilein put out a lineup of McLimans, Morgan, Smotrycz, Christian, and Novak, would we not say that the team lacks athleticism and ballhandling skills? I don't think people would say, "Well, we have good ballhandlers, but they ride the pine, so we're a good ballhandling team." Nobody looked at Michigan's backfield during the Mike Hart years and said, "Our running backs are fast" just because Carlos Brown was standing there on the sideline and happened to have "RB" next to his name on the roster.

    You're taking the Beilein/Rodriguez thing on a divergent path. If you're upset that Rodriguez was criticized for "not getting the Big Ten", then that's a whole different argument, but I'm sure you don't need to be reminded of his Big Ten or overall winning percentage. And while OSU may be Michigan's biggest rival in both sports, Michigan did sweep MSU this season, whereas Rodriguez was 0-3 against the Spartans. Getting to the third round of the NCAA Tourney and barely losing to Duke is a bigger accomplishment, in my opinion, than getting blown out by Mississippi State in a third-tier bowl game on the way to a 7-6 record.

    Meanwhile, consider that Beilein took his program from EllerbeAmakerville to two NCAA Tourney victories in the past three seasons; whereas Rodriguez took over a consistently solid team and made them 15-22 over three seasons. I do not want to turn this conversation about basketball into a referendum on Rodriguez, and I realize that the situations are/were different. The point is that the perceptions of Rodriguez and Beilein are based on very dissimilar things, and going any further down the road on that analogy is teetering on the edge of relevance.

    Furthermore, I don't know where Michigan's basketball recruiting classes ranked over the past few seasons; however, my guess is that they have been well below the football rankings, which were anywhere between 10-21 in Rodriguez's time. Being #30-ish with a top 20 recruiting class is probably less of an accomplishment than being #30-ish with a recruiting class ranked...wherever Michigan's b-ball classes were ranked.

  17. This was a very fun year to watch, no doubt, but Beilein has to capitalize on this, which he failed miserably to do after the '09 season. We have proven that we can be overacheivers who go 9-9 in the Big Ten and make the round of 32 in the tournament every other year. In other words, it's basketball's version of the Northwestern football team. Short term, that's great news. Long term, I want more.

  18. In your hypothetical, Bielien would be parking Hardaway and Morris on the bench. In that case, I find it extremely hard to imagine comparable praise for overcoming an athleticism disadvantage if it produced equivalent success. 'Going big' would be viewed as a wise strategic move by Bielien - not the team overcoming it's limitations.

    I'm arguing we should view 'going small' the same way. This is not mutually exclusive of praising the floppy-haired, undersized, PF who plays a big role in making it work.

    As for the ball-handling part of the analogy - no one is disputing that we aren't a good shot-blocking or offensive rebounding team. It's just that Bielien chooses perimeter defense, shooting, and passing over those attributes. Not because he's forced to, but because it works.

    Obviously the RR and Bielien differences are obvious, which is why I called them obvious earlier. I'm just pointing out how the 'undersized' or 'small ball' strategy, a specific commonality between the two, is framed very differently. Part of it is just the nature of the sport (height is viewed not as a skill but as a god-given gift in a way that bulk or speed are usually not), but part of it is fan mentality. David Eckstein gets you more love than Allen Iverson, even if the results are the same.

    I'm not sure Vinopal, Kovacs or Smith are any less worthy of being glorified for grit and size than Novak, but we'll never know because football expectations were and are so different.

    The bball team hasn't had a top 25 class in many years I believe. Certainly not with Bielien. While we're on the topic - Look at the incoming recruiting class: a PG, an undersize combo guard, and (potentially) a tweener F. Does this look like a class for a team that feels it is undersized? No, it's a class that addresses the real needs of the roster - a PG behind Morris and another scoring generator beyond Morris/Hardaway.

    Maybe its just a silly semantic argument. I guess the bone I'm picking can be summarized like this:

    Zack Novak overcomes his limitations by playing out of position, but FOR THE TEAM, its not a matter of limitations but of strategy.

    Theres nothing undersized or rag-tag about the two most important players (Morris and Hardaway) so focusing on that element of Grit McNovak seems disingenuous to me.

    And with that I'm done. I didn't intend to get into such a long discussion about perceptions and semantic connotations.