What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Zach at Maize n Brew, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Michigan.
1) Obviously, replacing a player as good as Trey Burke was always going to be difficult -- replacements for National Players of the Year don't grow on trees. How has Michigan done replacing him so far? It seems like Nik Stauskas has really stepped up his play and Caris LeVert has taken on a fairly big role within the offense. Is that accurate? What happened to the hero of the first half of last year's national championship game, Spike Albrecht?
You don't really replace Trey Burke as much as you find ways to adjust the offense and spread all the different things he was able to do to other players. Burke was a high-usage point guard that was equally capable of running a terrifying fast break, setting up the offense in the half-court, scoring in isolation, and being The Guy when the clock is winding down and Michigan needed a bucket. Past that there are all the leadership-y things that he did such as steady the team when the wheels begin to come off and the other team generates a run (something Michigan decidedly couldn't do in the non-conference against better teams).
Luckily, Michigan has used the last couple months to figure something out on offense. At first it was Mitch McGary providing the difference in terms of hustle plays and getting Michigan good looks in transition. Since his injury Michigan has leaned heavily on its wings to spark the offense, and it has worked out very well. Nik Stauskas has been Michigan's best scorer all season long, but in the last few games he has taken another step forward as one of Michigan's primary offensive catalysts. His combination of size, shooting ability and passing acumen has made him deadly on high ball screens and helped Michigan get its bigs and wings open looks by attacking the paint and forcing rotation. While up and down at times, fellow sophomore Caris LeVert has supplied a lot of the same characteristics as Stauskas, and his 20 point, seven rebound, four assist, four steal game against Wisconsin was his best at Michigan and a good example of just how versatile and dangerous he can be.
The beauty of this is that by having those two take the bulk of the offensive load in terms of shot creation, it frees Michigan's other players to play within themselves. Glenn Robinson III is a talented scorer but lacks the ability to be the focal point of the offense and a creator in and of himself. Freshman point guard Derrick Walton is able to take a backseat, focus on defense, and provide off-ball offense when needed - i.e. Michigan isn't looking at him to be Trey Burke. While Spike Albrecht is still there (and good for at least one big shot per game), his size has always made him too much of a defensive liability. So while he is arguably a better distributor than Walton on offense, Walton brings so many other skills that make Michigan more dangerous. By shifting the focus of the offense to Michigan's talented wings, John Beilein has kept unit's efficiency high and even made it more versatile
2) Replacing Burke was something that you knew Michigan would have to do entering this season; replacing Mitch McGary was an unpleasant in-season development. Has Michigan been able to replace his production so far?
Losing McGary seemed at the time to be a death-knell to this team's conference title hopes. However, Michigan had the advantage of having two experienced big men still on the roster who had given up a lot of playing time in McGary's explosion onto the scene last year. Jordan Morgan had started consistently at the five since his redshirt freshman year and is really good in the two-man game (something that is paying dividends given the way the offense has shifted with Stauskas/LeVert taking on more of the load). Jon Horford has been an off and on contributor at the five and has a little more athleticism and a bit of a post game. Neither got much chance to play with McGary in the lineup, but since his exit they have been remarkable.
In Michigan's primarily high-screen offense, the two have combined to shoot 77% from the floor, score 16 points per game, and pull down 11 rebounds per game during the first five games of Big Ten play, and both have ORtgs higher than 120 with low turnover rates. The two are doing just about everything Michigan needs and doing it with very little waste or mistakes. The things that they don't provide are the chaos plays that McGary was able to generate with steals at the high post, blocks, and the combination of outlet passes or McGary just saying "eff it" and running the point in transition himself (something he was remarkably good at this year). Still, given Michigan's blossoming offense elsewhere, those types of plays are more of a luxury than they were earlier in the year when they were the things Michigan counted on to be the difference.
3) Michigan had a slightly rocky non-conference season, going 8-4, although aside from the loss to UNC-Charlotte, all of the losses were to very credible opponents: Iowa State, Duke, and Arizona. Was there an overriding theme in those losses? Were they just a matter of a team figuring things out on the fly without Burke (and Hardaway, Jr. and McGary, for that matter)?
The funny thing is that Michigan had McGary for all of its four losses and only missed Glenn Robinson III in the Charlotte upset in Puerto Rico. Really, what it came down to was a young team devoid of its binky in big time games. Watching the way Burke was able to control the pace and flow of a game was a thing of beauty, and Tim Hardaway Jr. could heat up in an instant and prove to be the difference in close games. In all those losses Michigan was missing those offensive sparks.
Against Iowa State Michigan played well early in both halves but stalled late and gave up leads in both, which eventually was the difference in the game. Against Duke Michigan didn't have any offense whatsoever with Nik Stauskas banged up following an ankle injury the previous game. Finally, Michigan couldn't hold off a late run by Arizona after playing the Cats about as well as anyone had all year over the first 35 minutes. All of these were a sign of a young team still trying to find identity without its offensive leaders from last year. The positive thing is that Michigan got better with each game and has found an offensive identity as well as an end-of-game player to depend on (Stauskas).
4) In B1G play, Michigan is 5-0, tied for the best mark in the league with Michigan State. Some of that a function of scheduling -- you've already played Northwestern, Nebraska, and Penn State, arguably the three worst teams in the league -- but it also seems like Michigan is steadily improving, too. That win over Wisconsin in the Kohl Center was certainly eye-opening. What's changed for Michigan in conference play?
Michigan so far in conference play has just been clicking offensively. Even against Nebraska and Penn State when the defense was an issue, Michigan was simply able to outscore its opponents in a big way. The schedule has set up well for Michigan, but three of those were road wins, and those wins against Nebraska and Minnesota are looking pretty solid (although the paper tiger that is OSU could be an issue there).
I think the Wisconsin win was a good indication of just what this team is capable of at its best. Michigan's offense was lights out for almost the entire game and even the slow stretch late where Wisconsin made a run featured a lot of good looks that Michigan just didn't convert. Of course, this points to the other issue: Michigan has some defensive liabilities that can crop up from game to game. Transition defense, slashing perimeter players, and big power forwards that can work the offensive glass have all given Michigan trouble at times. That's why the Iowa game scares me.
5) What are the expectations for this Michigan team? Last year's team made it to the national championship game, but repeating that feat without Burke (and McGary) seems like a pretty tall order. This team is also absolutely loaded with freshmen and sophomores -- is there a sense that its best days are ahead of it?
I think any reasonable fan expects this team to be somewhere around the top of the conference race, compete for a first round bye in the Big Ten tournament and make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. When McGary went down I dialed things back a little, but given Michigan's offensive performance the last few weeks it seems that this team can compete for a Big Ten title and win 12 or 13 games in conference. Unless Michigan goes .500 or worse in conference and is a bubble team I think this season can be considered a success. Of course, I'd like to see the Wolverines make a similar run to last year, but without McGary to bolster the defense that seems unlikely.
6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
I think this has the makings of a high scoring back-and-forth game, but I like Michigan to eek it out. First, Big Ten road wins are never easy to come by, so Michigan should have a good advantage there. Second, if Michigan's offense continues to play the way it has, it should limit Iowa's ability to do what it wants. Michigan is very good at avoiding turnovers, and if the shots are falling it takes away opportunities for Iowa to get out and run on rebounds. Another aspect of the game that should fall into Michigan's favor is that the Wolverines are really really good at keeping opponents off the FT line, where Iowa thrives off FT attempts. Michigan needs to tighten up its defense, but with the team playing so well right now I'm confident that the Wolverines can keep the game tight throughout thanks to a strong offensive effort and set up a chance to close out for the win at the end. My totally unscientific prediction is Michigan 88 - Iowa 84.
Thanks for being a good sport, although I still hope your team loses by 50 today. You can check out Zach and the rest of the MnB crew at Maize n Brew. You can also follow Zach on Twitter at @zach_travis and MnB at @MaizenBrew. The Iowa-Michigan game is in Ann Arbor, MI on Wednesday, January 22, and is scheduled to start at 6:00 pm CT, with television coverage from BTN.