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Friday, April 01, 2005

A note: PPWS is Points Per Weighted Shot. See this post for a more detailed discussion.

I did this backwards, looking at next season before I looked back at this one. I was planning on correcting that, but... well, do you really want to read about last season? Do I want to write about it? Can we all agree that last season didn't actually happen? Ok! Super. The 2004-2005 basketball season was mysteriously cancelled, the rest of the nation had a mass delusion that it is still occurring and that I'm second in my NCAA basketball pool, and only fans of Michigan were mysteriously exempt from this bizarre paranormal phenomenon.

Okay, that's settled. I feel better. Now. Next year. Next year is The Year for Michigan and Amaker. Another bad season and recruiting class will sentence UM to more purgatory. A breakthrough and a class with DeShawn Sims, Tory Jackson, Tom Herzog, Klen Morris, and Someone Else and we're rolling. Next year is The Year. It's make or break time, kids.

On with the show.

Depth at last, depth at last. Sweet God Almighty, depth at last. Michigan will go from two scholarship players for the 1, 2, and 3 spots to seven. Lester Abram will return from a shoulder injury suffered at last year's NIT. Daniel Horton will return from suspension. Three freshmen will join them. Canadian Jevohn Shepherd is the most likely to receive extensive playing time.

The backcourt will be vastly improved. It would be hard not to be. Last year Michigan played Dion Harris almost 40 minutes a game and surrounded him with the kind of guys who make good human interest stories when they graduate with their degrees in astrophysics but look as out of place on the court as an Ohio State linebacker in class (zing!). This year, God willing, Michigan will start Horton, Harris, and Abram and keep them fresh with Jerret Smith, Jevohn Shepard, and Ron Coleman. Walk-ons petrified at the thought of shooting will no longer occupy the court at all times.

Junior SG Dion Harris gained a ton of valuable experience this year as the only offensive option on the floor and was forced to learn how to create his own shot while all five defenders were exclusively focused on him. He was erratically impressive towards the end of the year, breaking 20 points frequently despite Michigan's inability to take pressure off of him. In comparison, next year will feel Charmin-soft to Harris. His PPWS numbers and ATO ratio are bad, but if anyone gets a free pass for last year, it's Harris. He was often forced to jack up tough shots late in the shot clock simply because there was no one else who could possibly find a shot. Surrounded by scholarship players who can shoot, Harris should see his shots and turnovers plummet while his shooting percentage and assists rise.

Senior PG Daniel Horton regressed as a sophomore after a dynamic freshman campaign and had a star-crossed junior year where the focus was more on his injured knees and off-court behavior than on anything he did with the basketball in his hands. Assuming he returns with his head on straight next year, he should be an alternately acceptable and maddening next year. Horton is not the program savior he appeared to be when he was the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year in 2003. He is a streaky shooter who will take bad shots outside of the context of the offense. He is not much of a ball distributor and will turn the ball over more than a starting point guard should. He is not an all-Big Ten type player. He has never shot better than 39% from the field. He has never had an assist-to-turnover ratio above 1.2. This is unlikely to change.

Junior SF Lester Abram was desperately missed last year after leading Michigan in scoring in '04, despite taking 109 fewer shots than second place finisher Horton and 90 fewer shots than third place Bernard Robinson, Jr. Abram's shooting totals were flat ridiculous: 49% from the field, 41% percent from three, and 84% from the free-throw line. For a turnover- and rebounding-challenged team like Michigan, his offensive efficiency was the lifeblood of the team. And then it was gone. Abram is not a good distributor--in '04 his assist-to-turnover ratio was under one--and is only an adequate defender, but he takes good shots and makes efficient use of offensive possessions, unlike every other Wolverine not named Courtney Sims.

Sophomore SF Ron Coleman will benefit more than anyone else from the variety of weapons Michigan will have at its disposal next year. If Abram, Horton, or Harris manage to get dribble penetration, opponents will have to leave Coleman and his three-point stroke unguarded. Coleman has the chance to develop into a Lavell Blanchard-type small forward... if he develops. He'll never be the type of player to create his own shot, but he showed last year that he can be sporadically deadly given the opportunity to spot up and receive a kickout pass. If he can turn "sporadically" into "consistently" and drain 40% of his threes he'll be a very useful piece of the puzzle. He must improve his defense immensely if he's going to be anything other than a role-player, however.

The three freshmen arrive at Michigan sight unseen by mgoblog, unfortunately, but should contribute. Freshman PG Jerret Smith arrives as a "true point guard," which usually means that the player described as such can't shoot. This is true of Smith. It also usually means that the player described has a great assist-to-turnover ratio. This is not true of Smith, unfortunately, who is prone to bad decisions and bad turnovers. He'll fit in the Michigan backcourt perfectly. Snide comments aside, unless Smith undergoes a Barry Bonds pre-roids to Barry Bonds post-roids transformation it's unrealistic to expect much from Smith over the course of his career. If he can replace Horton for ten or so minutes a game, get his turnovers under control, and run what passes for an offense at Michigan, consider it a win.

Freshman SF Kendrick Price will face a difficult transition from high school to college. His height (6'8") dictates that he play inside at Buckingham Browne and Nichols, his high school, but his weight (approximately 6 pounds) and shooting touch appear to point to a college career at small forward. Price will have to adapt to an entirely new position and role on both offense and defense. The good news is that Price is a great athlete with a high ceiling who could develop into a poor man's Kevin Garnett who fills out the stat sheet with points, rebound, assists, and blocks. Sky is the limit here, but there's also strong bust potential.

Freshman SG Jevohn Shepherd will be the most immediate help to the Wolverine backcourt. Shepherd is Canadian and thus way off most guru's radar and way too into putting gravy on his fries. Vince Baldwin is a big fan, though, claiming that if Shepherd was American he would easily be a top 50 recruit. Shepherd is reputed to be an athletic slasher who can get to the hoop and finish, something that Michigan lacks at the moment. Another exciting athlete, Shepherd has a much more polished and college-ready game than the other two freshman and should immediately see playing time spelling Abram and Harris.

Unless '05 recruit Uche Echefu chooses Michigan over schools like Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest (uh, unlikely), Michigan will return the same frontcourt rotation it used this year minus turnover machine JC Mathis. Any improvements will have to come from within.

Senior PF Graham Brown is maxed out as a player. He'll scrap for you, dive for loose balls, rebound, take charges, and get his shot blocked with alarming consistency. He'd be a good 10-15 minutes a night role-player for any Big Ten team, but Michigan will probably be forced to use him more. The fact that he's not much of a scorer shouldn't be much of a problem as long as he's not on the floor with Smith, Coleman, and Petway at the same time, and he'll play with intelligence and toughness.

Junior PF Brent Petway can rap, poorly. He can also jump tall buildings in a single bound. He can't do much offensively other than throw down thunderous dunks, but he brings rebounding, shot blocking, and tremendous energy as a bench substitute. He should see about 20 minutes a game alternating with Brown, as they’re both non-scorers but bring a lot of intangibles to the table.

Senior PF Chris Hunter has turned out to be exactly the player recruiting gurus projected to him to be: a skilled offensive big man who shows little fire on the defensive end of the court and is a below-average rebounder. Hunter has a diverse offensive game that extends from the block all the way out to the three point line and was highly effective when healthy this year, but that was infrequent. Hunter sat out large sections of the season nursing various ankle sprains, bruises, and other Vince-Carter-ish “suck it up and get out there” injuries. Hunter, when healthy, should provide scoring punch off the bench next year but there will be many situations that he will be ill-suited for when he is matched up against a stronger, meaner post.

Junior C Courtney Sims is the key to next year's frontcourt. You know what you're going to get from Brown. Petway's offensive skill is unlikely to take a quantum leap forward. Chris Hunter is going to be injured and poor defensively. If there is going to be a frontcourt centerpiece, it will be Sims.

There's no questioning Sims' shot blocking and post ability, but he has shown little fire or competitiveness in his first two years at Michigan, often getting dominated by players with half his physical gifts but twice his determination. Sims got shoved out of position far too much for a player with his size and skill, failed to rebound effectively, and often disappeared for long stretches at a time, especially when matched up against high-quality opposition.

Sims' year was not the complete loss many made it out to be, however. He averaged a decent 9.8 points and had a very respectable PPWS of 1.26--up from 1.14 as a freshman--in about 23 minutes a game. He increased his shooting percentage, free throw percentage, and rebounding average. He made a step forward. It was not the giant leap many expected at the beginning of the season, but it was not a disaster, either.

The disturbing number for Sims was his shot attempts: 200, only eight more than his freshman year. Sims was healthy, unlike the rest of the roster, shot almost 60% from the field, and was unquestionably the second offensive option behind Dion Harris during the Big Ten tailspin, but could not get off any extra shots, partially because his passive play forced Amaker to bench him (thus the 23 minutes a game) when he has the skill to be All Big Ten.

Keys to Next Season

Get Horton under control.
Horton needs to understand that he is the third or fourth offensive option on the team, behind Sims, Abram, and possibly Harris. Amaker must not tolerate Horton taking rushed shots without even attempting to find an open man. Amaker, for the first time in his tenure at Michigan, will have the option of yanking players who displease him. He must use it early and often to reign in the often out-of-control Horton.

Get Sims more shots.
This is half on Sims and half on the guards. Sims is a deadly efficient post player when he gets position. Michigan must work the ball around to get good entry angles to pass into the post, and Sims must get better position on the block on a more consistent basis. If Sims averages 14 or 15 a game, Michigan will be in good shape. This is a huge test of Amaker’s ability to coach up kids. Sims has the tools. Amaker must install the attitude.

Penetrate and dish.
Michigan's "motion offense" largely consists of passing it around the perimeter between Graham Brown and Brent Petway before a rushed, off-balance three by a player guarded by two opponents and a Doberman pinscher. Michigan must find a player who can consistently break down opponents off the dribble, force help defense to respond, and find the open man. Harris is the likely candidate after his trial by fire last year, but watch out for Jevohn Shepherd.

Box out.
For Christ's sake. Just do it. There's absolutely no excuse for Michigan to get horribly out-rebounded with more legitimate Big Ten post players than any team in the conference.

Play smart.
Amaker's teams have often looked like five headless chickens running around wondering what all the fuss is about. This cannot continue. The offensive deficiencies this year can be excused, but the multiple and flagrant defensive breakdowns (dunkfest vs. MSU prominent amongst them) cannot. Amaker has not shown he can produce a disciplined team that gets the most of their talent.

The team will be better. Michigan loses no one except seldom-used JC Mathis and will have five players at its disposal that were not available during the tailspin at the end of last year: the three freshmen, Horton, and Abram. Abram's return is the key. If he can perform like he did as a sophomore he will be by far the team's best player and a strong candidate for next year's All-Wonk team. His PPWS as a sophomore was an excellent 1.28, higher than anyone on the team this year. It would have been good for a tie for seventh in the Big Ten this year.

The million dollar question: is this a tournament team? A lot of people think this should be a lead-pipe cinch or Amaker should be sent packing. I disagree. Amaker's put together a decent roster and rebuilt a program in utter shambles before his arrival, but there are serious issues with this team. Daniel Horton is simply not a high caliber point guard, as his numbers show. The frontcourt is inconsistent. The team can't rebound for beans. Expecting Michigan to explode next year is unrealistic.

That said... yes, this is a tournament team. Michigan will be deep and experienced and should have three of the conference's better players in Harris, Abram, and Sims. MSU and Illinois should be significantly weakened by graduation losses and NBA defections. If Michigan does not make the tournament, fans and media will start preparing the hangman's noose for Amaker, and it won't be without reason.

The Prediction
Abram returns and is rusty for a while. Harris gets a lot better surrounded by living, breathing players. Horton disappoints again. Shepherd makes a splash. Sims takes another step forward and becomes a little bit more consistent.

The offense is radically better but still turnover prone. The defense is mediocre at best and has several ridiculous breakdowns. Rebounding improves a little bit.

The scoring punch of the backcourt wins Michigan some games it shouldn't but the inconsistency of Horton and Sims costs Michigan some games it should win. Michigan finishes with around 22 wins, gets a 7 seed in the tournament, wins a game, and bows out in the second round.


Ryan said...

What, no more minutes for Dani Wohl? Heh.

I think you're right about Harris - he really needs some help on offense and could be dangerous when he has it next year. I just hope there's no repeat of the 6-three game he put up against Iowa when I came to visit Crisler.

Hawkeye Hoops

Anonymous said...

You forgot about Caron Butler -- the big man from Dtroit Renaissance who will be a force down low. He can score too.

Yes, he is on a football scholarship but the boy can hoop it up! Perhaps another Matt Trannon.

He will help address their rebounding woes since he will be stronger than most, if not all, of the other players on the bench.

Anonymous said...