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May 3, 2013

The Week That Was: U-M hoops a preseason favorite

Now that the NBA early-entry deadline has come and gone, Michigan fans can breathe easier knowing Mitch McGary and Glen Robinson III will be back, and with their return, the Wolverines will once again be a contender, the experts opined this week.

Michigan again a Big Ten title favorite

Both CBSSports.com and ESPN.com released early 2014 Top 25 polls following the April 28 NBA Draft deadline, and the two ranked Michigan in the top 10. ESPN's Andy Katz listed the Wolverines ninth overall while CBS' Jeff Goodman and Gary Parrish ranked the Maize and Blue fourth.

What They're Saying

Neither site did a write-up on Michigan, but you can see ESPN's poll here and you can see CBS' Top 25 here.

Yahoo Sports' Jeff Eisenberg included the Wolverines among the draft-deadline winners, >noting: "For a team that lost national player of the year Trey Burke and backcourt mate Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan still has to be thrilled with the team it has coming back next season. Since freshman forwards Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III decided to spend at least one more year in school, the Wolverines will likely begin the season in the top 10 in the polls and as co-Big Ten favorites along with Michigan State.

"The return of McGary and Robinson was no guarantee since both have first-round potential. McGary, in particular, had a chance to capitalize on the buzz from a brilliant NCAA tournament in which he averaged 14.3 points and 10.6 rebounds per game."

The McGary hype is reaching deafening levels after his postseason effort with both ESPN and USA Today naming him a preseason All-American for next season.

Former Michigan Daily writer Nicole Auerbach had this to say: "McGary was a late bloomer if a freshman can be considered such, hampered by an early-season foot injury and poor eating habits. He went from role player to opponents' focal point in a matter of six games during the NCAA tournament, leading the Wolverines to the title game. McGary passed up a chance to be a first-round pick this summer, but the 6-10 forward won't regret it when he spends a full season dominating the Big Ten in the paint."

My Take: Before the deadline, USA Today had ranked Michigan No. 24 in the 2014 preseason (assuming Robinson III would go pro also) and The Sporting News didn't even include the Maize and Blue in their top 25, likely assuming McGary and Robinson III would leave. Instead, the Wolverines remain in the conversation for the Big Ten's best and certainly at least a fringe contender for the national title.

Meanwhile, Michigan State is the league favorite, and Ohio State and Indiana will battle also, but Michigan isn't going anywhere anytime soon. U-M needs a lot of players to step up, most notably Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and a combination of Derrick Walton and Spike Albrecht at point guard, while the player McGary was in the Tournament needs to show up every night, but every team in the country is having a similar discussion. That the Maize and Blue are in the conversation speaks to how far this program has come and what its promising future looks like.

The Big Ten formally announces divisions

The Big Ten took to the airwaves of its network show to formally introduce the East and West divisions beginning in 2014. Michigan will play in the East alongside Eastern Time Zone members Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers.

What They're Saying

SI.com's Stewart Mandel was asked about the seemingly incredible competitive divide between the East and West in his mailbag this week, and he summarized a view the Big Ten better prays come true: "The new divisions are certainly not balanced, currently or historically, but I'm OK with that. In an ideal world, you'd want things to play out the way they have in the SEC over time. There are years when the West is decidedly stronger than the East and vice versa, but circumstances never stay the same for long.

"If you look at the Big Ten's new lineups over five-year cycles (which is an inexact science since three of the schools played in other leagues), the disparity is fairly consistent, but not entirely alarming. From 2003-07, the East had a combined winning percentage of .592 and the West had a mark of .547. From 2008-12, the East checked in at .578, the West at .552. However, Wisconsin, from the West, has won the past three conference titles. And Nebraska, also from the West, reached last year's league title game.

"Of course, many think that Ohio State and Michigan, under their current coaches, could soon exert the kind of one-sided dominance Oklahoma and Texas did in the Big 12 from 2000-09. If that's the case, the biggest winners to me are teams like Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota that benefit simply from being in the opposite division. While those teams still have to compete with Nebraska and Wisconsin, they have a better chance of occasionally getting to Indianapolis than Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers. I have a feeling that trio could be perpetually stuck in fourth place or lower in the East."

Amid his interviews this week to promote the new divisions, Commissioner Jim Delany revealed that the top-tiered teams from the East (Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State) would more often play the top teams from the West (Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa) in the two games each year (and three beginning in 2016) each program must play against the other division.

Kyle Meinke of MLive.com wrote that this decision could put U-M and OSU at a disadvantage compared to the rest of its divisional foes: "That kind of tier-based scheduling makes for good TV, which makes for good money. And that's always a bargaining chip in these matters.

"There's something in it for the Wolverines, too, as their schedule could be strengthened in time for the launch of the new College Football Playoff -- whereupon schedule strength is expected to play a greater role in postseason selections.

"The drawback, of course, is playing Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa more frequently -- thereby missing Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern more frequently -- toughens the road to the title game for the Wolverines.

"On the flip side, a mid-tier East program such as Michigan State is expected to get mid-tier West teams Northwestern and Minnesota more often. That could be a major benefit for the Spartans over Michigan in their hunt for a Big Ten championship."

My Take: I'm in favor of competitive balance, but that included putting Michigan and Ohio State in opposite divisions and in that regard, my opinion was largely in the minority. There is no perfect answer for the rivals. Under this current format, they will never play for the Big Ten title (though they will play to represent the East in the Big Ten Championship) but at least The Game takes on added importance. It had been neutered in 2011 when it became possible the two teams could meet in back-to-back weeks (admittedly, however, I wanted to see it just once).

As for the East and West, the Big Ten could end up looking a lot like the Big 12 did during its initial 15-year run from 1996-2010.

The Big 12 also chose the geographical divide, splitting its conference into North and South sections. Texas and Oklahoma (the Michigan and Ohio State of the Big 12) went to the South, with Nebraska the only true formidable opponent in a North that also included Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Colorado and Missouri.

In the 15 Big 12 Championships played from 1996-2010 before the Cornhuskers left for the Big Ten, the South went 11-4, and it's not inconceivable to expect history to repeat itself, especially with both Michigan and Ohio State procuring far more talent than everyone else in the conference.

As for the news that Michigan State, Maryland, Rutgers and Indiana will face an easier slate of West teams, that seems silly, but history will impact this decision fairly quickly. If, for instance, MSU represents the East more often than Michigan and Ohio State do within the first five years of such scheduling, the Big Ten will quickly adjust, knowing it needs the Wolverines and Buckeyes in the title game for ratings and for national title aspirations.

Essentially, don't sweat that decision. Just enjoy the marquee matchups, for as long as they last.

Devin Gardner already gaining respect

Athlon Sports' Steve Lassan has ranked Gardner the No. 3 quarterback in the Big Ten heading into the 2013 season despite the fact that Gardner had started only five games in his career.

What They're Saying

Lassan writes: "The former top recruit waited his turn behind Robinson and saw some snaps at receiver early in the year. However, Gardner showed no rust when he moved back under center on a full-time basis, throwing for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns over the final five games.

"In the Outback Bowl against South Carolina, Gardner completed 18 of 36 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns. His best performance came against Iowa, throwing for 314 yards and three scores, while adding 37 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Michigan needs to give Gardner more help at receiver and from its rushing attack, but the junior is poised to have an All-Big Ten year in his first as Michigan's No. 1 quarterback."

Meinke says that finishing as the third-best QB this season would be the floor for Gardner: "Gardner could be the league's second-best quarterback, although Taylor Martinez is more experienced. He's had his ups and downs, to be sure, and his passing has never been a strength. But he continues to put up big numbers as well, leading the league in total offense last year and pacing Nebraska's No. 1-ranked offense.

"Kain Colter has done some nice things at Northwestern -- as Michigan knows well, after needing a prayer to beat the Wildcats last season at the Big House -- and NU has enough talent back from a 10-win outfit to compete in the Legends Division.

"All told, the ceiling is high for Gardner. He wowed last year with his ability to jump in, after playing receiver for months, and put up gaudy numbers in his five games at quarterback. He twice was named the league's offensive player of the week, and accounted for 18 touchdowns overall."

My Take: I caught some heat this week when I said that in my preseason Top 25 Big Ten Players, I listed Martinez (No. 5) ahead of Gardner (No. 16), and while I agree that by season's end, Gardner should outrank Martinez, he just can't be listed ahead of him at this point, based on what they've proven.

Martinez is a known commodity and ridicule his throwing motion all you want, but he's led the Cornhuskers to a lot of wins. Gardner is still a bit of an unknown. He dazzled in five games, but he also came up short against both Ohio State and South Carolina.

Still, if he makes good on the promise he showed in 2012, Gardner will pass Martinez and could even challenge Ohio State's Braxton Miller as the Big Ten's top signal-caller.


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