April 13, 2012

Mailbag: Hoops on the hot stove

Michigan's spring football game is only one day away, but there's still a buzz about basketball going around Ann Arbor. The Mailbag stays with the hard court questions, as well as getting into ever-present football talk.

Reading some of the comments from Tim Hardaway Jr., Matt Vogrich and Jordan Morgan earlier this week after Trey Burke declared his intentions to return to Michigan, they made it clear they held no ill will against their teammate. But at times, the relationship between Burke and the rest of the Wolverines, especially Hardaway, seemed frosty, and by season's end, it seemed Burke was playing 1 on 5.

Do you believe all has been forgiven, or do you think work must still be done to create a harmonious locker room capable of reaching its full potential next season?

First off, I disagree with the premise. I think "frosty" significantly overstates any relationship adjustments Michigan players may have experienced over the course of the season. Hardaway was seen at Michigan's basketball banquet to be enthusiastically backing Burke, like he did after Burke's announcement that he's coming back.

Those two have to work well together for Michigan to achieve its greatest success. No doubt there was a period when they were still getting used to each other, but it wasn't a matter of not getting along. It's more about the on-court mesh of games.

It's the same with Morgan. The big man was used to getting the ball in certain ways from Darius Morris, and it's not the same with Burke, just because of the physical (read: height) differences between the two.

But here's what Morgan had to say at the end of the year: "We did a good job of pushing each other, trying to find new ways to help our team, trying to find new ways to expose defenses. As the year went along, we got better and better at it. It can only improve with everyone - not just me, but our whole team."

And that's what happens with a freshman point guard. Morris noted at one point that he felt, as a freshman, like he was standing in a corner watching Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims operate. Obviously, Burke achieved a better mesh with his teammates as a first-year point guard than that.

It's not to say there isn't still work to be done. Burke's biggest step in the coming season will be to become more well rounded as a playmaker, and develop a rapport with the incoming freshmen as well as continuing to work better with those already on hand.

This was a question asked on The Fort this week, with some surprising answers, but who in the Big Ten, if anyone, would you trade Michigan's roster for now that Burke is back and the freshmen are set to arrive? Also, with his return, is U-M the legitimate favorite for the conference title next season?

None, and the reasons are simple. Those players who will be in Michigan uniforms this year chose to be here and want to be here. John Beilein selected them to operate the best in his offensive and defensive systems.

Obviously, that doesn't mean he wouldn't take anyone from another roster. He doesn't get everybody he wants. But certainly Michigan's mix of players will be at its highest talent level in a long time.

If the question is purely one of greatest experienced talent, then maybe you go with Indiana. The Hoosiers have their entire starting five back, along with a great group of freshmen. Michigan State also has an extremely talented roster, but I wouldn't put it above Michigan's for next season.

In my mind, the Wolverines are right there with the Hoosiers and Spartans in the top three of the Big Ten. Others will make some noise as well, including Ohio State and Minnesota, but the Hoosiers will be identified by most as the favorite.

Most teams don't go 10-12 players deep, but are more in that eight-, maybe nine-man rotation. It's a long way off, but what does Michigan's potential eight-man rotation look like next year?

Let's start (in descending order, from the five spot to the one) with Morgan, Mitch McGary, Hardaway, Vogrich and Burke, and Jon Horford, Glenn Robinson III, Nick Stauskas and Spike Albrecht coming off the bench. Now let's be clear, here - I don't expect that to be the starting lineup by the end of the season, but it's a reasonable assumption in the early going.

That said, Robinson may be too good to keep off the court from game one, just like Burke was. If Hardaway can improve his ballhandling enough this summer to see time at shooting guard, Robinson could slip seamlessly into the lineup at the three, or potentially play some power forward. The son of the Big Dog should make an immediate impact, and so ought McGary, given his size.

Stauskas will be competing hard with Vogrich at that shooting guard spot as well, with another freshman, Albrecht, able to give Burke a breather at the point. John Beilein can also go with three-guard combos, experiment with multiple big men in the game, etc. He'll have more flexibility than at any time in his half-decade in Ann Arbor.

Another year, another spring without a "spring game." Do you ever think we'll see the return of an actual game?

Next year U-M will have 14 defensive linemen (barring attrition) and eight offensive linemen in the spring - do we have to wait until the spring of 2014 (11 O-Linemen and 13 D-Linemen)?

I wouldn't hold your breath, honestly. There are always injuries that crop up, and other factors that could limit the numbers in the spring. As much as some fans want to see an all-out spring game, coaches are looking to wrap up their practice efforts and get through without any serious injuries.

The days of 120-scholarship rosters are long gone. So, I believe, are the days featuring Michigan knocking heads in an official spring game, at least one that looks like one you'd see in the fall.

Even though his production fell by more than 500 yards from a 2010 mark of 1,702 yards, quarterback Denard Robinson still led this team in rushing. How many Wolverines in program history have led U-M in rushing at least three different seasons and do you think Robinson will do so again? Or will Fitzgerald Toussaint be the No. 1 ball carrier this fall?

Actually, there have been a few that pulled off the trifecta, in terms of leading Michigan in rushing for at least three seasons. Mike Hart did so four years in a row, with 1,445 yards as a freshman, 662 as a sophomore, 1,562 in his junior year and 1,361 as a senior.

Others in modern Michigan football history to pace the pack at least three times are Anthony Thomas (1998-2000), Tyrone Wheatley (1992-94), Jamie Morris (four, 1984-98), Butch Woolfolk (1979-1981), Billy Taylor (1969-1971) and Tom Harmon (1938-1940).

Toussaint should experience a very strong season, perhaps another 1,000-yard year. But it says here Robinson leads the way in rushing once again. He has the speed to go the distance on any given play, and with the threat of Toussaint running the ball, Robinson gains a bit more of a crack here and there.

If No. 16 stays healthy, he makes it three years in a row.

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