It's been a month now since I critiqued the AP preseason poll more or less the moment it was released, and on the whole I'm fairly happy with the unsolicited advice I offered to pollsters way back then. For instance I said I thought North Carolina State (ranked No. 6 by the AP in the preseason) was being overrated, and so far that looks pretty good. I also said I thought Duke (No. 8 a month ago) was being underrated -- that too looks like a reasonable assessment, though of course what seems "reasonable" in late November is hardly the final word on any college hoops subject.
But of all the comments I offered in that piece, the one that triggered the largest response from readers -- by far -- was my classification of Michigan (preseason No. 5) as overrated. Hardly a day goes by without at least one fan of the Maize and Blue asking me whether I "still" think the Wolverines are being over-hyped.
It's a fair question. After all, John Beilein's team is 5-0, and last week at Madison Square Garden Michigan defeated Pittsburgh and Kansas State on their way to capturing the championship of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Is it possible I spoke too soon?
Here's what I said about this team a month ago:
I guess what I'm having trouble getting past is my own uncertainty regarding exactly how the Wolverines will excel. I'm second to none in my fandom of Trey Burke, and Beilein sure needed him last season, because even with the freshman exploding, this was still merely the Big Ten's No. 6 offense.
What a difference a month makes. I take it all back. I'm now fairly certain as to exactly how Michigan will excel: Tim Hardaway Jr.
The breakout junior season was pioneered by Florida's Kenny Boynton in 2011-12, and is now being taken to new heights by Hardaway. If there's one thing Boynton and Hardaway have taught me, it's that somewhere in Division I right now there's a sophomore having a miserable season from beyond the arc who's going to be absolutely unstoppable in 2013-14.
A month ago when I looked at Hardaway, what I saw was a 29 percent three-point shooter who, incredibly, was still able to make 54 percent of his twos even though opposing defenses had no earthly reason to respect his outside shot. That level of success inside the arc spoke to Hardaway's resilience and potential, to be sure, but resilience and potential don't get the ball in the basket.
That was then. Now when I look at Hardaway I see a star capable of carrying his team all the way to Atlanta in April. In a November where Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas has come perilously close to recording The Perfect Month on offense, the Big Ten Player of the Year race is not yet what you'd call wide open. But in any normal conference in any normal season, the performance that Hardaway has exhibited thus far is going to be automatic POY material.
That performance has been equally impressive on paper and on the court. On paper Hardaway has hit 71 percent of his twos and 48 percent of his threes while carrying a load of possessions on offense second only to Burke's. I'm going to go way out on a limb here and predict that Beilein's junior won't continue to carry that kind of two-point percentage all season long. But what's encouraging for Michigan fans and frightening for opponents is that Hardaway is now fully operational as a scorer. Opponents now have to pick their poison, because Hardaway has proven he can score from anywhere on the court. And, as no less a hoops analyst than Burke has pointed out, that " opens everything up, basically" for the Wolverines as a team.
In 122 possessions at the Garden last week against (never mind the pollsters) two top-25-quality opponents, Michigan scored 138 points, good for 1.13 points per trip. This is how Beilein's team will excel, with an offense where Burke alternates between calling his own number (always a good play call) and dishing assists not only to Hardaway but also to Glenn Robinson and Nik Stauskas. Both freshmen seem to have arrived in Ann Arbor fully formed as supporting scorers capable of lacerating defenses preoccupied with Burke and Hardaway.
Part of the reason I was wary of Michigan in the preseason was that they appeared to me to be a perimeter-oriented team that had lost its best perimeter shooters: Zack Novak graduated, and Evan Smotrycz transferred to Maryland. But if Beilein had merely had the courtesy to take me aside in October and tell me that, for the first time in a decade, he would have a team that would shoot a "normal" number of threes, I might have been somewhat less skeptical of this offense's potential. At the Garden, for example, just 27 percent of the Wolverines' shot attempts came from outside the arc. Beilein's team is attacking opponents in the paint, and it's working beautifully.
The two stats I'll be tracking as I watch Michigan this season are turnover percentages -- the Wolverines' and that of their opponents. Can Beilein maintain his customarily low turnover percentage even if the offense is much less perimeter-oriented? We're about to find out. I looked at the 10 best performances by Big Ten teams over the past four conference seasons in terms of minimizing turnovers, and among teams that gave the ball away on 16 percent of their possessions or fewer, the tendency toward a perimeter orientation was striking. On average those 10 teams devoted 41 percent of their shots to attempts from beyond the arc. There's no law that says you have to shoot a lot of threes if you want to cut down on turnovers, but it is true those two qualities, for better or worse, often coincide.
I'll also be keeping an eye on how often UM's opponents give the ball away. I don't expect Michigan to lead the league in that category, but I did notice that Pitt and K-State turned the ball over even less often (on 13 percent of their possessions) than did the Wolverines (15 percent). We've seen what it looks like when a defense is pretty good in all categories except opponent turnovers, and it's called Creighton last season. In the present, however, UM has offset a lack of takeaways with very good field goal defense. Beilein's team has been impressive on both sides of the ball.
Coming into this season I already thought the Big Ten would be the toughest league in the nation, and that was when I had Michigan penciled in as overrated. Now, with Hardaway playing like a first-team All-American and the Wolverines beating all comers, Jim Delany's conference has officially made the leap from "best" to "scary" in my book. With heavyweights like Indiana, Ohio State, and new-look interior-focused Michigan all grasping for the same prize, this could be one special conference race.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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