Michigan looks like it's figured things out
In the first month of this college basketball season, the news in the Big Ten has centered around three things: Michigan State's triple-OT loss to Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational, Illinois' strong start and the play of Indiana's Marco Killingsworth.
Not so obvious, however, has been the early-season play of Michigan. Undefeated entering Saturday's game against UCLA, Michigan has shown early signs that this season might be different. Playing better together and showing some newfound maturity, the Wolverines have won away from Crisler Arena, they've come from behind and they've won games they're supposed to win -- three things this current group of Michigan upperclassmen had repeatedly failed to do in prior years.
For much of the past two seasons, Michigan has been a disappointment. There has been talent on the roster, but little in terms of intangibles. Michigan has been a team that repeatedly found ways to lose games it shouldn't. How else can you explain home losses in both 2003-04 and '04-05 to Boston University?
While Michigan did win the 2004 NIT, the Wolverines could have -- and probably should have -- reached the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines ended that regular season with an 18-11 record and ranked 55th in the RPI. And that was with a loss to a Minnesota team that finished 12-18 and two losses to an Indiana team that was 14-15. Take care of business and Michigan reaches the NCAAs for the first time since 1998.
To make things worse, Michigan didn't gain any momentum from that NIT run. A year older and supposedly a year wiser, the Wolverines weren't a year better last season.
Actually, Michigan was a disaster. Much of it was the result of injury, some the product of point guard Daniel Horton's being suspended from the team. But the Wolverines -- especially as the season went along -- rolled over. After winning its first four Big Ten games, Michigan ended the season by losing 13 of 14. Of those 13 losses, eight were by double digits and three were by 26 points or more. Playing at a Purdue team that would eventually finish 3-13 in the Big Ten and 7-21 overall, the Wolverines lost by 29.
It was the kind of stretch that might be understandable at a place like Penn State, but it seems unfathomable from a program awash with resources, a plentiful in-state recruiting base and a strong tradition.
That's why this season's start is so encouraging for the Wolverines. Michigan, at least through seven games, seems to have figured out what it takes to be good. For once, there has been no drama and no head-scratching losses.
It started with the second game of the season. That's when Michigan played at Boston U. While any Big Ten team with aspirations of playing into March should be able to handle the Terriers -- we're not talking about college pucks at Yost here -- it's quite clear that BU had become something of a mental hurdle.
The 51-46 victory wasn't easy and it wasn't a thing of beauty, but it was Michigan showing some toughness and grit. And it was a start.
"For us psychologically, I thought it was a huge test for us to win at Boston University, a team that had beaten us twice," coach Tommy Amaker said.
Since then, Michigan quietly has won games. There was a 19-point victory over Miami, there was a come-from-behind win at Notre Dame that looks even better after the Irish dropped Alabama, and then there was a 21-point road win at South Florida. And while the Bulls are picked to finish near or at the bottom of the Big East, it's never easy to win a road game by a lopsided margin.
That's especially the case for a team that won only two road games last season and was a combined 4-15 over the past two seasons away from Crisler.
"We're hopeful we can get some confidence [from the road wins]," Amaker said. "Any coach will probably tell you that's such a significant thing to do in college basketball, maybe in all of sports -- to win on the road. Any time you have road wins, you have the makings of a team that's enjoying some confidence. You probably have to have some veterans and you probably have to have a little luck, too."
How good is this Michigan team? We'll all have a better idea after Saturday's game against the No. 14 Bruins. Can a Michigan team that leads the Big Ten in both scoring defense and rebounding margin contain the UCLA backcourt of Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar and Cedric Bozeman? If so, it's quite possible that the Wolverines will be ranked for the first time since 1998 and be undefeated when Big Ten play begins Jan. 3 at Indiana.
So what's the difference this season? From a sheer statistical perspective, it has been the play of forward Courtney Sims. For the past two seasons, the 6-foot-11 Sims has been a guy who hadn't quite figured it out. That has changed this season. A difficult matchup because of his length, Sims has made almost everything he's shot this season. Shooting 68.6 percent from the floor, Sims leads Michigan with 16.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per game.
"He's more patient down there," Horton said of Sims. "He knows which moves are his go-to moves and he uses them. If teams double him, he's been unselfish and kicked the ball out and allowed us guards to make plays."
That's part of it, according to Amaker, but not all of it. Sims, maybe more than anybody on this Michigan team, has benefited from the Wolverines' being back at full strength.
"I like to think that one of the major differences for Courtney is having Lester Abram and Daniel Horton on the floor," Amaker said. "Sometimes you can overlook some of the impact other players can have. We were certainly fragmented and disjointed with a lot of players in and out [last season]. Not only those two, but even Graham Brown wasn't there a lot of the time for Courtney Sims, and Graham has been as solid as a rock for our frontline players. He allows the other guys to stay in natural comfort zones. I think having these other players around him has allowed him to just focus on a couple of things: To be a rebounder and a post presence scorer for us."
On the perimeter, Horton has calmed down a Michigan team that was sloppy with the ball a year ago. Last season, the Wolverines turned it over so often they made Joey Harrington, the embattled NFL quarterback down the road, look accurate. In league play last season, no team turned it over more often than the Wolverines and no team -- not even 1-15 Penn State -- had a worse assist-turnover ratio.
That has started to change with the return of Horton. After missing most of last season because of injury and an arrest on a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence, Horton has played well this season, scoring 15.1 points per game while more than doubling his assist-turnover ratio.
"I think we had the makings of being a pretty good team last year if everybody had stayed healthy and been able to play, but it didn't happen that way," said Horton, one of the key members of Amaker's first recruiting class at Michigan. "We feel this is a year when we have a chance to make up for that and overcome some things that we've had some problems with in the past.
"This is basically our last chance. We take a little more pride in being able to blend in together and having a balanced attack against teams."
And after a difficult year -- one that also included the death of his infant son -- Horton has a much greater appreciation of what he has.
"Going through hard times and experiencing the death of my son and being about as low as I've ever been in life," Horton said. "To be able to come back and feel good about myself is the thing I cherish most about this.
"I was probably at the lowest point of my life when my son died and being suspended from the team. It was really tough times for me and I just cherish having the opportunity to do this again."
So far, the Wolverines -- a team with six juniors and seniors in an eight-man rotation -- have played very much like a team that has figured things out.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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