Posts Tagged ‘Tim Hardaway Jr.’

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.

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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.