Michigan basketball players dissect what went wrong in a season of struggles
Michigan coaches and players were confident in October, coming off a 2008-09 season that included a 21-14 record and a second-round appearance in the NCAA tournament. Junior guard Manny Harris was a preseason second-team All-American. Senior forward DeShawn Sims was back.
In many ways, the players felt this might be the year Michigan returned to the status it enjoyed during the days of coaches Bill Frieder and Steve Fisher as a regular member of the Top 10.
They didn’t expect to be done before Selection Sunday.
Yet that’s what happened to Michigan this year, and Evan Turner’s game-winning, 37-foot 3-pointer on Friday in the Big Ten Conference tournament merely put an end to a season’s worth of mistakes and struggles.
“Anticipating a great season, getting off to a good start, going down and going undefeated and to the tournament,” Sims said in January, describing his preseason expectations. “I had a lot of high hopes.”
Michigan finished 15-17 and struggled, at times, with everything, including shooting, team chemistry and decision-making.
The struggles started immediately.
“The first exhibition game,” Sims said about when he realized expectations might need to change. “When I realized we weren’t as good as I thought we were.”
What, exactly, did Sims see wrong?
“We hadn’t really developed a chemistry, hadn’t really played a lot with each other coming into the season,” Sims said. “It was basically a chemistry thing.”
Even when Michigan played well, it wasn’t for long. The Wolverines didn’t win more than two games in a row against Division I opponents the entire season.
“Last year, we kind of snuck up on some people. People didn’t really expect us to do too much, and we just weren’t ready for that role of becoming the hunted,” freshman guard Darius Morris said. “A lot of people - we came out No. 15 ranked - and a lot of people came out and gave us their best shots. And we weren’t ready for that.
“A lot of it has to do with off-season workouts and leadership, which I’ll be able to provide now after this year of experience, just really consistently and the upperclassmen have to get that, too.”
On the court, Michigan missed the leadership of graduated point guards C.J. Lee and David Merritt, more for their ability to calm and lead than any points scored or assists made. Harris, the on-court leader, was suspended for one game in January by Michigan coach John Beilein for unsportsmanlike conduct in practice.
And for much of the season, Michigan rushed shots. And when the Wolverines didn’t, they were often too unselfish, giving up open looks in the lane that could have resulted in getting to the free-throw line or 3-pointers.
“I wouldn’t want to point fingers at anybody,” Beilein said. “But collectively as a team, you see Stu hit the five three’s (against Ohio State) and, yeah, there’s a lot of times that - there’s just - we have one or two guys have a good game and the third guy just didn’t have an average game, had just a very poor game.
“Having that third and fourth scorer is very, very important. We’ve never been able to establish that now, either because of youth, or who knows. Who knows why people can’t make open shots sometimes, but we haven’t been able to do that.”
Whatever reservations Michigan’s players and coaches had, they were magnified in the Old Spice Classic in November. During that three-game stretch over Thanksgiving weekend, the Wolverines went 1-2, including a last-second loss to Alabama.
The team Michigan beat, Creighton, ended up a middle-of-the-road team in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“It kind of let us know we had a lot to work on,” Sims said. “We didn’t really get exposed in the beginning of the season, but we did get exposed in that tournament.”
Michigan never fully recovered. It lost to mediocre teams at home (Boston College, Northwestern) and on the road (Utah, Northwestern, Indiana).
“I just think that we haven’t played as smart as we need to at times and being a team that prides ourselves on that is just that something that we needed to do to be a good team,” sophomore guard Zack Novak said. “Other teams are more athletic, they are going to be a little bit more talented individually, but that’s kind of been a trademark of Coach’s teams, to be smarter.
“That hasn’t necessarily been us in the Big Ten.”
For one game - well, the majority of it, anyway - Michigan was all of those things. Its confidence returned. Its players shared smartly and were selfish when they needed to be.
And with the season on the line Friday, Michigan had top-seeded Ohio State ready to drop in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.
Then Michigan let Turner get the ball with a running start and 2.2 seconds left on the clock. Turner pulled up, fairly open, 37 feet from the basket, shot the ball and ended the Wolverines’ season with a jump shot at the buzzer.
“Disappointing,” Harris said. “Not only this loss, but in general how the season went for us. You could tell we were a whole different team, playing one of the top teams in the nation and lose by a half-court shot.
“ Michigan basketball isn’t 15-17 or whatever we (are), but we just got to learn from this and get better.“
Download the final statistics for the Michigan basketball team: bkm-statistics-2010-03-12.pdf