Last year the Michigan Wolverines basketball team were coming off of one of the worst seasons in program history during one of their longest NCAA tournament droughts. The Wolverines had not made it to the big dance since 1998 and the closest they had ever been had been a season during which they were on probation. They had been consistent underachievers under Tommy Amaker and had a disastrous first season under John Beilein. On top of this they had a tough non conference schedule featuring Duke, Maryland, UCLA, and Connecticut.
Most people, including Beilein himself, thought the team's realistic best expectations were to make the NIT, then strange things began to happen. Michigan beat UCLA in the semi-finals of the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament in New York. They beat Duke at Crisler Arena in what would become one of the biggest upsets in the early part of the season. There were immediately whispers of dancing for Michigan, but nobody wanted to speak too soon because conference play had not begun.
The Wolverines struggled through their conference schedule as the Big Ten proved to be one of the top three conferences in the NCAA last season. With one game left in the regular season they were 7-8 in Big Ten play with a road game at Minnesota who had already won 20 games and were looking for revenge against a loss to Michigan in the previous week in Ann Arbor.
With the game on the line and the Wolverines down late, Redshirt Freshman Laval-Lucas Perry hit four three-pointers in the second half to help them to a late 67-64 comeback victory that clinched their NCAA tournament berth. When they got there they upset seventh seeded Clemson in the first round and gave Oklahoma and Blake Griffin everything they could handle in the second round before bowing out.
This season everything has changed, in spite of another tough schedule featuring two non-conference games against tournament teams from last season on the road, people are ranking the Wolverines to be at least a top 25 team. They only lose four players from last season and only one of them was a starter. They have also added some size that they were severely lacking in last season.
Junior Guard Manny Harris and Senior Forward DeShawn Sims will be expected to lead the team due to their star and upperclassmen status. If Harris can play up to his full potential consistently this season there is little doubt that he will be a first round draft pick in the NBA after this upcoming season.
The freshman duo from the Hoosier state of Zack Novack and Stu Douglass will be sophomores and will also be looking to improve upon their surprisingly successful seasons last year as three-point specialists. Laval-Lucas Perry will compete with true Freshman Darius Morris for the starting point guard position vacated by CJ Lee who graduated, and Kelvin Grady who is now playing slot receiver for the Wolverine football team.
Morris is the freshman that has gotten most of the preseason ink, a rivals four-star recruit from California, he has been advertised as potentially the best true point guard at Michigan since Jalen Rose. At 6'4" he will also be expected to do his fair share of driving to the basket in addition to bringing the ball up the court and getting the ball to the scorers Harris and Sims.
Another Freshman who has been greatly anticipated is Matt Vogrich, the Illinois High School player of the year last season. Another 6'4" player, is a highly touted jump shooter who can pull up from any part of the floor and has been compared to players as varied as Kyle Sigler and Richard Hamilton. But the biggest freshman contribution may be from the three new big men.
True Freshmen Blake McLimans and Jordan Morgan, along with Redshirt Freshman Ben Cronin will all be trying to make an impact to improve the Wolverines. Last year the weakest area of the team was their defense in the post, the 7' tall Cronin should help out in that regard. McLimans has been compared to Kevin Pittsnogle, a tall shooter Beilein had at West Virginia, and Morgan, who is currently recovering from an injury, is expected to compete for Sims position when he graduates.
More than any other factor, the Wolverines success may depend on how strong the Big Ten is, and how good their freshman class makes them. The two keys in the latter will be Ben Cronin and Darius Morris. If Morris can be the basketball equivilant of Tate Forcier, and if Cronin can be the defensive post presence Michigan lacked last year this team may challenge for the Big Ten title.