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Scouting Michigan

In many ways, the teams at Michigan and Maryland have a lot in common. Neither squad was expected to do much this season. Then both squads went out and provided a shocking upset over a ranked team. And then both squads laid eggs in the aftermath of their respective momentous victories.

So really, this seems like it should be a pretty even matchup. The Wolverines are 5-1 and led by second-year coach John Beilein, formerly in charge of the program at West Virginia. In his first season in Ann Arbor last year, Beilein struggled to mesh his complex system with the players he inherited from his predecessor, Tommy Amaker. Beilein likes an up-tempo pace with lots of three-point gunners on offense. And on defense, he likes to mix man-to-man with a 1-3-1 zone.

The only problem was that the players he had with which to work were not naturally comfortable in any of those schemes. The end result? A 10-22 season that had the Wolverines finished tied for ninth in the 11-team Big Ten conference.

I spent some time in Ann Arbor in late October and got a chance to speak with Beilein and a few of his players (who, by the way, assured me they were all much more familiar and, thus, comfortable with their coach's complex system now than at any point last season).

The Wolverines finished dead last in the Big Ten in three-point shooting last year and, as a result, Beilein, who previously had always had rosters full of sharpshooters said, "I think you undervalue, when you have things going in the right direction like when we were at Richmond or West Virginia, you have a skill level of players, you recruit the players and the shooting that make so many of the things you do so much easier to do. I think you undervalue them when you do not have, especially the shooting. I will never undervalue people that can shoot again. So it has a high priority in our recruiting now. It always has, but it was one of those things that you preach, but then all of the sudden when you live it, you realize how important it was."

So far this season the shooting hasn't gotten much better. Though Michigan is hitting 44.7 percent of its shots from the field, the Wolverines are sinking just 28.7 percent of its three-point attempts.

But as Michigan has proven, its defense has improved and often is capable of compensating for anemic spells on the offensive end. Against UCLA, then the No. 4 team in the country, the Wolverines forced the Bruins into poor shots and numerous turnovers, specifically down the stretch. Michigan won, 55-52, which raised the expectation bar at least one notch for Beilein and his squad.

The Wolverines have not earned an NCAA tournament bid since 1998, back when Brian Ellerbe was the coach. In fact, part of the reason Amaker was fired after six season was his inabiliy to lead Michigan back to the Big Dance. With that in mind, Beilein is trying to take a more long-term approach to his team's season.

"With how we're trying to build this program, we're not looking to make noise early in the year," Beilein said. "We're looking to sustain, get better and better. It's so much when you're trying to build a program. You can't put too much on one game early. You've got to just sustain yourself and what you're doing. We're trying to improve every day. Losses, if you treat them correctly, they're going to help you improve. Wins are going to do the same thing. But you don't want your highlights of the season to be in December. You want your highlights of the season to be in February and March. There are some highlights early in the season but they shouldn't be the highlights."

Two players whom the Wolverines will count on this season to provide a large portion of their highlights are sophomore guard Manny Harris and junior forward DeShawn Sims. Harris (6-foot-5, 185-lb.) was asked to shoulder a heavy load for Michigan last season. He averaged 33.0 minutes per game, led the team in scoring and steals and was second in assists.

"He was our go-to guy on some many games and whether he made or missed the shot, or made or missed the play at the end of the game, we were putting so much on him late that he probably had to take on more responsibility than most freshmen were," Beilein said. "But we didn't worry about it at all. He wants to learn and he's a great learner. He's got a strong spirit to learn. He's working on staying, because he's such a competitor, when things don't go his way sometimes, he has to learn to deal with that. He wants to win so badly that sometimes it's a strength and it can be a weakness. And he's starting to understand that being persistent is better than taking things so hard."

Harris again is leading the team in scoring (22.3 points per game), but his offensive burden has been lightened somewhat by the emergence of Sims. The 6-foot-8, 235-lb. forward is averaging 15.2 points per game. Both players are averaging eight rebounds per game.

Sims "had to learn to play on the perimeter a great deal" last year, Beilein said. "Now we're trying to give him more of a balance between inside and outside play this season."

In that regard, Sims is in much the same position as Landon Milbourne, though Sims has considerably more muscle and comes off the bench. Both players have made the switch this season from being more perimeter-oriented to being asked to assume responsibilities in the post. So far, it appears Sims is adapting more quickly.

In Michigan's most recent game, an overtime win over Savannah State, Sims hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer. It was a good moment for Sims, but it only signaled a sense of relief for Beilein and the rest of the team. Defensively, the team might have taken several steps forward since last season, but there is still much work to be done on the offensive end.

"We're not there yet, but I think in time, throughout this season, even if it's toward the end, I think we will pick it up and we will be the team that will be eventually in the future," sophomore guard Kelvin Grady said in October. "I can't really call it right now, but I know we're working towards it. The offense will come later, and that's what will tie it all together to be the team (Beilein) wants us to be."

By Steve Yanda  |  December 2, 2008; 11:06 AM ET
Categories:  Men's basketball  
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