1. Two years removed from a national title game and a year removed from an outright B1G title, the Wolverines sit at 13-10 and 6-5 in the conference. How are fans staying positive this season, despite the injuries and the losses?
This will not make much sense on the surface, but the mood of Michigan fans actually shifted for the better after it was announced that Caris LeVert would miss the remainder of the season with a fractured left foot. No, I'm not writing that Michigan fans were excited or pleased that LeVert injured himself. Such a thought would be despicable and deplorable. So allow me to explain this mood shift in further detail.
Notwithstanding Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, and Glenn Robinson III's defections to the NBA, Jordan Morgan's graduation, and Jon Horford's transfer to Florida, there were still high expectations for this Michigan team. With All-Big Ten second-team selection LeVert and rising sophomore stars Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin returning, the belief not only among Michigan fans but also much of the college basketball media was that the Wolverines would still be a top-25 team and possibly challenge for a third straight Sweet 16 appearance. Maybe this was putting too much faith in John Beilein, but, given what Michigan had accomplished under Beilein the previous four seasons, he deserved every benefit of the doubt. So fans gave him that benefit and expected there would be few, if any, hiccups this season.
Oh, boy, were we wrong about that. After a smooth first seven games during which Michigan was 6-1 with quality wins over Oregon and Syracuse and a down-to-the-wire loss to a top-10 Villanova team on a neutral floor, the season suddenly derailed in December with a four-game losing streak that included two mind-blowing home upset losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan. In just two weeks, Michigan plummeted from top-25 status into the college basketball abyss. Ideas that maybe Michigan should contend for second in the Big Ten were instantly replaced by questions wondering how in the world Michigan could rally from this and earn an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
Not only were Michigan fans frustrated with this development, they were shell-shocked.
Fans' hopes waned and their optimism drained as the Big Ten season began. Though the Wolverines were earning wins, they still weren't playing like an NCAA Tournament team, barely eking out home wins against the bottom of the Big Ten thanks to inconsistent offense, which is something supporters were not accustomed to after witnessing Michigan own the nation's best offense back-to-back seasons. It was hard to watch, and it reminded many of the disappointing 2010 team that finished with a losing record despite a preseason top-15 ranking.
Then LeVert fractured his foot, and Michigan fans' entire outlook on the season changed. In an instant, there were no more expectations for this team. How can one have high expectations for a team that was already struggling and out of the NCAA Tournament picture, now injured and depleted, and about to embark on the most difficult stretch of its schedule? One doesn't! And, when one doesn't have expectations against which to measure, it's impossible to be disappointed in the results.
Accordingly, since LeVert's foot fracture, Michigan fans have been more positive because the disappointment has washed away. While wins are always nice, this has become a wasted season, and the results don't matter much anymore. Instead, what matters most to Michigan fans is to see the freshmen that weren't supposed to earn much playing time this season -- like Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins -- develop and mature while they start and receive extended minutes for the rest of the season. And, for the past few games with them in the starting lineup, fans have seen flashes from both, indicating that Beilein may have unearthed two more diamonds in the rough. This is what keeps supporters positive, knowing that these young Wolverines will be ready and experienced next season when healthy.
And that concludes my thesis...
2. Losing Caris LeVert was a huge blow, but now Derrick Walton Jr. is out for the time being as well. Who is left to man the Wolverines' backcourt now?
John Beilein had no choice but to replace Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. with two freshmen that were in consideration for redshirts in the preseason: Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. Neither received recruiting interest from high-major programs until Beilein swooped in at the 23rd hour, but both have already demonstrated that they will be quality Big Ten players in future seasons.
Dawkins is a 6-foot-6 wing with natural athleticism that Michigan desperately needs now that Glenn Robinson III is in the NBA. It is with this athleticism that Dawkins is able to finish at the rim gracefully in transition, but he is still learning how to do this in traffic in the half court because his ball-handling skills are so-so. Nonetheless, Dawkins can be an offensive threat in the half court because he has proven to be an excellent spot-up shooter. In Big Ten play, Dawkins has made 18-of-35 threes (51.4 pct.) and knocked down mid-range jumpers off curl cuts. Accordingly, Dawkins is the third-most efficient offensive player in conference play (134.8 rating), albeit with a low usage rate (14.7 pct.).
On the other hand, Abdur-Rahkman has a much different style. The 6-foot-4 guard is not fast, is not quick, and does not exhibit much finesse. But he has power to his game and is the only healthy Wolverine that can penetrate into the paint, draw contact in midair, and still convert at the rim. He did this repeatedly on the road against Michigan State, when he went off for 18 points and even bullied Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year front runner Branden Dawson on the block at times. And, because Abdur-Rahkman is the only one that can get to the rim, Michigan's offense flows best when the ball goes through him -- a thought that would have seemed ludicrous back in November. However, this may not be the case against a 2-3 zone, which seems to stifle his ability to dribble into the paint and finish at the cylinder.
Other than these two, there are Spike Albrecht, who's had more of a down year than up because he has lacked confidence in his shot, and two walk-ons in Andrew Dakich and Sean Lonergan. Seriously. That's how poor Michigan's guard depth is with LeVert and Walton out.
3. During last night's Iowa game, the Hawkeyes crushed Michigan with their size and ability to score in the paint. Since we know that a frontcourt presence is not IU's strong point, should we expect a more even game on Sunday? And who in the frontcourt should the Hoosiers watch out for?
This is the matchup I find most interesting. Everyone knows that Indiana has the worst defense in the Big Ten, particularly in the interior with Hanner Mosquera-Perea sidelined with an injury and no starter taller than 6-foot-7. One would think that every single opponent would exploit this weakness of the Hoosiers. But, if there is one team that may not be able to do so, it is Michigan. The Wolverines have had problems all season both finding open looks at the rim and then, on the rare occasion an open look at the rim is found, finishing it. And it's not like Michigan has quality bruisers that will be able to overpower Indiana inside. Ricky Doyle has the size and the touch, but he's really been out of sync for the past month. Mark Donnal has been under the weather and is a stretch big anyway. And there's Max Bielfeldt, the undersized center that's been Michigan's only inside presence in recent weeks. But he's 6-foot-7, which Indiana should be able to manage.
Though I'm not optimistic that Michigan's centers will be able to inflict much damage against Indiana, the one Wolverine I do think will explode is Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. As I mentioned above, Abdur-Rahkman is at his best when he's able to penetrate into the paint and finish through contact. Though the Hoosiers may run some 2-3 zone after seeing how effective Iowa's was against Michigan, Indiana usually plays man defense. And, with no rim protector in sight for the Hoosiers, I can see Abdur-Rahkman getting close look after close look.
4. Obviously, IU won't gather as much hatred as OSU or Michigan State will from the average Michigan fan, but do you think there's been a bit a rivalry that's developed in college hoops between the two teams recently?
Absolutely. I would argue that Indiana is Michigan's third-biggest rival on the hardwood behind Michigan State and Ohio State right now. It's evident that there is animosity between these two coaching staffs. Everyone points to the incident immediately after the 2013 regular-season finale when Tom Crean made a point to run over to former Indiana assistant and current Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer and yell, "You helped wreck the program." Those within the Michigan program were not pleased with Crean whatsoever. But what many may not realize is that Beilein and Crean have battled head-to-head for many prospects, especially those that reside in the state of Indiana. I believe that the resentment that has been built from these intense recruiting battles has trickled down to the players and the fan bases as well. And I know for a fact the Wolverines were ecstatic to be able to celebrate last season's Big Ten title after beating Indiana on their home floor.
It's become one of those rare rivalries where the coaches and players are more passionate about it than the fans.
5. Zak Irvin was Indiana Mr. Basketball two years ago, so some Hoosiers are likely interested to see how his career is going. How has Irvin progressed in Ann Arbor thus far?
After a freshman season during which Zak Irvin excelled as a three-point specialist off the bench and did nothing else, he is in the midst of a sophomore slump. With Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III gone, Michigan was counting on Irvin to develop from "just a shooter" into a well-rounded player that could generate dribble penetration and create offense for others. Unfortunately, he has regressed from "just a shooter" to "a shooter who can't shoot." He didn't start the season this way, though. In his first seven games this season, Irvin made 23-of-53 threes (43.4 pct.) and seemed ready to transform into an All-Big Ten player. But, since then, he has drained only 31-of-103 threes (30.1 pct.) while often missing wide-open looks, particularly when shooting from the corners. I don't know if there is a hidden injury about which the public doesn't know that is hindering his shooting ability, but his shooting motion looks funky and he seems to lack the quick-fire confidence he had last season. Right now, he's broken to the point where, even with Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton out, he's not the No. 1 option.
It's been tough to watch him struggle like he has, but I do think he'll bounce back strong next year as a junior when Michigan hopefully isn't enduring such a strange, adversity-filled season.
6. You do a great power rankings for MnB each week. What's the most interesting fact you've discovered about IU thus far while doing these rankings?
First off, thank you very much for the kind words! Glad to hear you enjoy my power rankings.
As for your question, the most interesting fact I've discovered about Indiana while compiling these rankings has to be just how poor the Hoosiers' interior defense has been without Hanner Mosquera-Perea. It's like Crean just said, "Screw it. I'm going with balls-out offense, spreading the floor with snipers galore, and forcing you to cover all of this space, and I bet you can't keep up even if we cannot protect the rim." While I admire his boldness (even if he didn't have much choice) and enjoy knowing I'll get to see ALL OF THE POINTS when I watch Indiana, it must be frustrating for Hoosiers fans to watch opponents run layup lines against their team.
The stat that'll make you cringe: In the seven games since Mosquera-Perea injured himself, Indiana has allowed opponents to score 118.5 points per 100 possessions and record and eFG% of 58.9 percent and a 2P% of 60.3 percent.
Like I said: layup lines.
Before this, though, my favorite Indiana stat was the Hoosiers' incredible free throw defense, which I believe was in the top 10 in the nation at one point. But that rank has slipped to No. 34 now, which means the Hoosiers obviously aren't waving their arms hard enough when standing at the hash marks alongside the paint as the opponent shoots from the charity stripe. Talk about pure laziness...
7. Football talk: HARBAUGHHHHHHHHHHH. A month into Harbaugh's homecoming, is the honeymoon still alive and well for the native son of Ann Arbor? And how are fans feeling about this year's recruiting class after National Signing Day?
The prodigal son has returned home to be the savior of Michigan football, and he can do no wrong -- well, he can, but we're all blinded by love at the moment. Five weeks in, everything is going smoothly for Jim Harbaugh. He put together what seems to be a fantastic staff given that it is packed with NFL experience and has two coaches that coordinated top-15 defenses last season in D.J. Durkin and Greg Mattison. Then, in about three week's time, he added eight commits, six of which were committed to other schools with the other two being pursued by the likes of Alabama and Florida State, to what was only a six-man class before he arrived in Ann Arbor. Though Michigan's 2015 class was never going to be considered a top-20 class in the team rankings because Michigan had limited scholarships available, Harbaugh still did a commendable job salvaging the class and bringing in some quality recruits at positions of need -- landing two quarterbacks in Zach Gentry and Alex Malzone was huge given the giant question mark Michigan currently has there. While Michigan fans would have been happier if Harbaugh could have brought former Wolverine commits Chris Clark and Mike Weber back into the fold, they will be pleased knowing that Michigan earned a commitment from the best, most sought-after recruit in the nation this offseason: Harbaugh himself.
8. Prediction: Who wins in Assembly Hall Sunday and by how much?
Michigan is cursed whenever it plays at Assembly Hall. Since 1995, the Wolverines are 1-16 against Indiana in Assembly Hall, and the lone win was an overtime squeaker in 2009 -- the year after Indiana was hit with NCAA sanctions related to Kelvin Sampson's impermissible phone calls and finished with a 6-25 record. Taking this into account and the fact that Michigan doesn't have the size or the personnel other than Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to attack Indiana's defensive vulnerability down low, I don't think the Wolverines will be able to keep pace with the Hoosiers' explosive offense. Accordingly, I predict that Indiana will be able to celebrate a double-digit win tomorrow afternoon.
Indiana 74, Michigan 58
Thanks, Drew! The Hoosiers tip off against the Wolverines from Assembly Hall at 1pm tomorrow on CBS.