March 29, 2012

Mailbag: On Burke, spring ball

Michigan basketball has ended for 2011-12, but the hoops talk hasn't quieted around Ann Arbor. Plenty are wondering if Trey Burke has played his last basketball for the Wolverines, and they're asking about it in the Mailbag.

They say when a jury makes up its mind immediately, that is very bad news, and I'm holding out hope that the longer Trey Burke mulls over his future, he'll realize he's not going to be the first-round pick he thinks he is and will return to Michigan for his sophomore season. What are your thoughts on this matter? Will Burke be back? And if he were to leave, does that set U-M's progress as a program back at least two years?

Let's take the second question first. No, even if Burke bolts, it doesn't set Michigan back "at least two years," depending on how John Beilein and the rest of the coaching staff responds through recruiting. First off, four-star point guard Derrick Walton out of Detroit is going to be here a year from this coming fall, either backing up a junior Burke or finding himself in the position Burke was in this year.

For the coming season, if Burke left, the U-M staff obviously wouldn't sit on the hand they've got, especially with scholarships to give now. They're already recruiting combo guards, and would put someone in place that can distribute the basketball to the wealth of talent that will be on hand.

The distributor could certainly still be Burke. On the one hand, it's not a great sign that he's thinking so strongly about the NBA already, because that can lead to an unbalanced interpretation of the information being given him.

At the same time, he's not showing up in the mock first rounds of anyone doing that sort of thing, and he'll have plenty of feedback cautioning him about taking too early of a leap. The best advice for him right now involves staying off Twitter and focusing on the input of those that don't have a vested interest in him leaving or staying.

It seems there was a bit of a twitter flub this week when Michigan State athletics director Mark Hollis tweeted advice to Trey Burke. Michigan AD David Brandon then responded with his own tweet that said it would never happen again.

Was there any sort of violation in Hollis tweeting at a student-athlete not at his school? If there's not, do you have a problem with what he did? And what did you think of Brandon's response?

NCAA Bylaw states the following: "An athletics staff member or other representative of the institution's athletics interests shall not make contact with the student-athlete of another NCAA or NAIA four-year collegiate institution, directly or indirectly, without first obtaining the written permission of the first institution's athletics director (or an athletics administrator designated by the athletics director) to do so, regardless of who makes the initial contact."

That certainly seems to apply in this case, but it's not something anyone should make too big a case out of. It's a mistake … sort of like too much stretching before football practice.

Brandon's response sounded precisely the right tone. It was a mistake, it won't happen again (indicating the matter has been discussed), and let's move on.

It's been a week and I still don't understand why Evan Smotrycz is transferring. He was John Beilein's first big-time recruit so we can't write this one off as a coaching change departure. Thoughts?

Also, Smotrycz is now the third high-profile player to leave U-M early, joining Manny Harris and Darius Morris, and in each case there was talk of butting heads. Do you chalk this up as a trend that we should be concerned about as fans or as isolated incidents? Even more importantly, how do we stop this from continually occurring?

If you want to avoid seeing transfers or imperfect player-coach relations, stop watching college basketball. It comes with the territory. In the cases of Manny Harris and Darius Morris, both had their eyes on the NBA and were determined to stop going to school and begin getting paid for playing the game.

As far as interactions with coaches, Lloyd Carr said it best, noting the player-coach relationship is always a difficult and challenging one. You've got one group giving orders, with emphasis, and another - with different personalities, goals and quirks - having to absorb and follow them.

As far as Smotrcyz's case in particular, he's indicated he is looking for a different "fit." That can mean all sorts of things, but one of them certainly could be fitting back into a program's starting lineup. He was pulled from Michigan's partway through the Big Ten season, playing behind a 6-4 power forward. There's a 6-10 top-25 power forward coming into Michigan's program next fall.

Again, it's a sign that your program is getting better when some talented players are being asked to come off the bench. Some will adjust to roles, coaching styles, etc. Some won't.

Are you surprised the reports about the defensive line, which lost three senior starters to graduation, have been so positive early in this spring? And do you think there is potential that by November we might actually be happier with the starting four Michigan has in 2012 compared to what it had in 2011?

No, we're not all that surprised, and for a good reason. The people in charge of making the defensive line good enough to facilitate winning (and there seem to be more of them in this program than most) have been assuring the cupboard isn't bare for some months now.

Sometimes, that talk can be easily written off as Coachspeak. But this crew has every reason to downplay the potential there, coach through the media, talk about how far the Wolverines have to go up front, etc. There will be some of that, but there's also a lot of confidence in the raw materials on hand, even before some talented freshmen roll into town.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison likes a bigger Craig Roh working the strong side defensive end, where he doesn't have to operate in as great a space as at rush end. Mattison appreciates the quickness shown by a Jibreel Black as a three-technique defensive tackle, as opposed to a relatively slower performer coming off the edge.

Mattison saw Frank Clark make a game-changing interception at the rush in the Sugar Bowl, and likes what second-year player Brennen Beyer brings at that same position. Then there's Will Campbell, the big man in the middle with final go-around motivation.

This group has plenty to prove before anyone can say it's better than the Mike Martin-led crew of 2011. But there's no reason to think it can't be very good, and by the time the Big Ten season rolls around, there won't be a defensive line in the country more thoroughly tested.

OK, say this Devin Gardner experiment at wide receiver works out better than maybe we were expecting. What is a reasonable expectation for the impact he makes out there? Also, what happens if Denard Robinson needs to sit out a few plays due to injury? What about if it's an entire game?

Gardner is big and athletic. We've seen him go up and catch balls with amazing dexterity. How that translates into first-year production as a part-time wideout (if it happens), against top competition, is anybody's guess.

The guess here falls on the conservative side. He could make some catches to supplement the passing game, perhaps be a threat in the red zone. But they won't put him out there unless he can prove to be a consistently effective blocker.

Gardner is still a quarterback, so it's no different if Robinson goes out, be it for a play or a game. Michigan has the luxury of slipping someone behind center who has been on the field and can move the team.

I'm looking forward to the day that Michigan actually holds a spring game, but I know with the dearth of scholarship linemen on both sides of the ball it can't happen this year. Anyway, hypothetical: they put Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner on opposite teams and allow the two quarterbacks to select their rosters. Who is the first pick for both captains?

That's an amazingly tough question, given the personnel losses on this team and the players adjusting to new positions. But here goes…

Robinson grabs left offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, assuming this is a full-contact spring game. Lewan's presence not only gives Robinson more time to throw, it helps assure No. 16 makes it to the fall healthy.

Gardner, meanwhile, goes off the board and takes sophomore kicker Matt Wile. That gives him someone who can kick off, punt, and boot the game-winning field goal if the split squads happen to struggle putting the ball in the end zone.

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