Posts Tagged ‘basketball’

Trey Burke, a candidate for Big Ten freshman of the year, has a been a big reason why Michigan has a chance to win its first Big Ten title in 26 years. The freshman is averaging a team-leading 15.3 points during Big Ten play for Michigan, which is a game behind league leader MSU with four to play. (AP)

Two weeks remain in the regular season and the Michigan basketball team is firmly in the hunt for its first Big Ten title since 1986.

With four games remaining, three of them which are on the road including an 8 p.m. game against Northwestern tonight, the No. 11-ranked Wolverines are a game behind rival Michigan State and tied with Ohio State for second.

Saturday’s home win over the Buckeyes set the stage for the furious finish to the Big Ten season. With the most favorable of schedules of the Big Ten contenders, Michigan will likely need to win out to end a 26-year league title drought.

The fact that Michigan is in the mix for a title has been impressive. Despite the fact that key players Tim Hardaway Jr. and Evan Smotrycz have been in shooting slumps the vast majority of the Big Ten season, the Wolverines have found ways to pull out games and have protected their home court this season. They grinded out one-point wins at home against MSU and on the road against Purdue and outlasted Northwestern in overtime last month.

Freshman Trey Burke has also been a big boost, making up for the loss of Darius Morris to the NBA. The point guard has been the Big Ten’s freshman of the week five times and has been clutch in helping Michigan having a chance to play for a title. Burke is U-M’s leading scorer in Big Ten play at 15.3 points per game and also averaging 4.5 assists.

Over the past two games, Tim Hardaway Jr. has made 9 of 14 shots for the Wolverines.

With their only conference road wins coming at Purdue and at Nebraska, U-M will have to find a way to win away from the Crisler Center in order to capture the title. The margin for error is small and they likely will need to win out to have any chance at a possible crown. While the closing schedule is favorable, it features teams still playing for postseason position. Northwestern still has a chance at a NCAA bid as does Purdue, who the Wolverines host on Saturday. Michigan closes the season with road games at Illinois and Penn State.

What could be the most encouraging sign for Michigan’s chances is that Hardaway Jr. is starting to heat up. The sophomore, who is shooting 38.4 percent in conference play, was 4 of 5 from the field and 2 of 2 from 3-point range in Saturday’s win over Ohio State. In his last two games, he’s averaging 14 points and shooting 64 percent from the field (9 of 14) and 80 percent on 3s (4 of 5). The Wolverines have often gone as Hardaway goes and a strong close to the season by their star could vault Michigan to its first championship in nearly three decades.

Two years ago, the Michigan basketball program was precisely in the same position it finds itself today.

Then the Wolverines were coming off a season where they had ended a long NCAA Tournament drought and reached the round of 32 were they ultimately fell to No. 2 seed Oklahoma. Their key players – Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims – were each returning and Michigan entered the 2009-10 season with lofty expectations.The Wolverines stumbled under those expectations, finishing below .500 and not reaching the postseason.

Darius Morris, who missed the potential game-tying shot in Sunday's season-ending loss to Duke, is a part of a Michigan team that has its entire squad returning next season. Morris led the Wolverines in points and assists this year. (Associated Press)

Fast forward to now where Michigan fought hard before losing to top-seeded Duke 73-71 in the NCAA Tournament round of 32. With all the success the young team experienced this season, it is likely that preseason expectations will be high for the Wolverines. It will be just a matter of building on the success and taking that next step to become a relevant college basketball program.

This time around, the Wolverines seem better equipped and prepared to continue their upward progression.

Michigan, the youngest team in the Big Ten this year, isn’t expected to lose anyone from this year’s 21-14 team. That is an advantage next season’s team will have over that 2009-10 squad, which had to break in a new point guard.

It helps that Michigan will return its point guard and floor leader in Darius Morris and several freshmen – Tim Hardaway Jr., Evan Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan – that showed flashes of what the future of the program could be like.

Hardaway emerged as the team’s second leading scorer and was no doubt a  big key to Michigan’s run in the second half of the season. Smotrycz was big in the first half of the Duke game and also played well against Tennessee. Redshirt freshman Morgan had a few big games throughout the season and proved to be a force when he avoided foul trouble.

Others underclassmen also showed improvement. Sophomore reserve Matt Vogrich showed a knack for being a good rebounding guard, the ability to knock down a big 3 and had a big first half in the NCAA Tournament win over Tennessee.

With Morris, the team’s leading scorer and the Big Ten leader in assists, also back in the mix there it is no question the future looks bright in Ann Arbor.

It will all be a matter of taking the next step and meeting the expectations that will certainly be placed on the program heading into next season. If the team stays hungry and plays with the chemistry it displayed on the court this season, Michigan basketball can be a Top 25 program.

All season, Michigan has come close.

The Wolverines have nearly pulled off a few upset wins over ranked teams this season but has been unable to make the big plays down the stretch.

They fell short against a then top-10 ranked Syracuse squad in a neutral setting, were tight with then No. 2-ranked Ohio State before falling and took then No. 4 Kansas to overtime before losing. And there was even a close game last Saturday when they fell to a ranked Minnesota team.

Sophomore guard Darius Morris played all 40 minutes and had 17 points for Michigan in its 61-57 victory over No. 25 Michigan State at Breslin Center on Thursday night. (AP photo)

On the contrary, Michigan State has constantly seemed to pull out wins in those situations despite not playing at its best. In one week earlier this month, the Spartans overcame bad performances to earn home overtime wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern. MSU even survived scares from Oakland and Chaminade in neutral settings this season by coming away with wins.

Finally luck changed for both teams Thursday at Breslin Center in East Lansing.

Michigan finally was able to get over the hump and made the necessary plays to beat Michigan State at the Breslin Center for the first time since 1997. It also was the first time in 1,181 days that Michigan football or men’s basketball team beat the Spartans.

Michigan State was unable to overcome a deficit it put itself into and suffered a rare loss to its in-state rival. While the Spartans have taken their share of losses, this one has to hurt the most considering it was to a Michigan squad that is in the cellar of the Big Ten. All but one of MSU’s other losses have all been to currently Top 25 teams – Connecticut, Duke, Syracuse, Texas, Purdue and Illinois. Penn State is the other unranked team to beat MSU (12-8, 4-4 Big Ten).

This victory for the Wolverines (12-9, 2-6) is one of the biggest in 11 years and was badly needed since the team entered Thursday’s game on a six-game skid that included the close losses to Kansas, Ohio State and Minnesota and getting blown out on the road by Indiana and Northwestern. Granted it was a win against a MSU team that hasn’t lived up to the billings of being a preseason No. 2 ranked squad and one that has experienced turmoil this season, the win is still huge for Michigan.

It could be just the thing needed for a team without seniors to build off of for the rest of the season as it tries to earn an invite to some type of postseason tournament. With the Wolverines starting three freshmen and having all but two of its regulars being underclassmen, road wins over Top 25 teams are important. And it was fitting that the two upperclassmen made huge plays to aid Michigan to the win. Junior Zack Novak (19 points) nailed six 3-pointers and Stu Douglass hit the 3 that all but sealed the win.

Now that Michigan finally got over the hump and pulled out a close win against a good team, it can’t have a letdown at home against Iowa on Sunday. The victory provides proof that Michigan can not only compete but can knock off an elite level team and should serve as a confidence booster the remainder of the year.

The Pistons are nearing the official halfway point of a season that has been filled with plenty of disappointments.

From their third quarter struggles, to blowing big leads to still not having any consistent starting group or rotation through 38 games, its clear second-year coach John Kuester doesn’t have a clue.

Wednesday’s 107-99 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies further illustrated the mess that the Pistons have become. The team used yet a different starting lineup, was unable to sustain and build upon an early lead in yet another setback. In addition, one of the franchise’s all-time leading scorers in Rip Hamilton failed to play based on Kuester’s decision.

Rip Hamilton (left) and Pistons coach John Kuester talk on the phone during a game last season. Kuester didn't play Hamilton in Detroit's 107-99 loss to the Grizzlies on Wednesday.

While the different starting lineups and blowing leads have been the norm this season for the Pistons, Kuester deciding not to even play Hamilton without an explanation at all when he was healthy and ready to go is ridiculous and disrespectful. He and Tayshaun Prince were very adamant about their thoughts on the situation.

“I think that’s the first time in my career that I’ve put on my jersey and didn’t play,” Hamilton told reporters following the game. “No one warned me about it. I was completely surprised. Do I think it was a level of disrespect or unfair or anything like that? I’ll leave that to y’all.”

Prince, who along with Hamilton and Ben Wallace were members of the Pistons’ 2004 NBA championship team, added his thoughts.

“Buffoonery,” Prince said about the Hamilton situation. “Do you all know what that means?”

Hamilton has been the subject of trade rumors for some time now and those have heated up over the past week with him rumored to be headed to New Jersey in a deal centering around Carmelo Anthony. Its customary for teams to usually rest a player when a trade could potentially get done that night, but this was not the case at all as noted by Kuester following the game.

Kuester acknowledged about wanting to shorten the rotation, but he should have definitely found some playing time for Hamilton, especially after the team was unable to sustain a fast start. Hamilton could have gotten time in the guard spot in place of Ben Gordon, who has struggled from the floor for a good portion of the season. Gordon struggled most of Wednesday night until heating up at the end of the third quarter.

While its clear Hamilton isn’t the player he was a few years ago and that time has caught up to him, he is still among the better options on this steam and should play if available. There was no reason to sit him and treating a veteran player like that and not providing an explanation is no good way to go about business.

It’s clear Hamilton’s marriage with the Pistons could be ending soon, but Kuester should a least continue playing him until he is no longer on the roster.