After a 5-year hiatus Michigan return to the Duke schedule with their trip to Cameron on Saturday afternoon. The Wolverines were a steady fixture on Duke's out-of-conference schedule until 2004 when the series was canceled with the assumed reasoning that Coach K found it too emotionally wrenching to coach against his former player and assistant Tommy Amaker.
Unfortunately for Amaker the other 80 coaches who handed him defeats over his 6-year stint in Ann Arbor weren't burdened with the same emotions and after failing to make the NCAA Tournament again last year the powers that be at Michigan gave Tommy the Lloyd Carr handshake. Hey, winning basketball games is sure a lot harder with Ed Martin dead.
Amaker's canning started the coaching carousel which took John Beilein from West Virginia to Michigan and Bob Huggins from Kansas State to West Virginia which is sort of the Mountaineers way of saying "we don't care what you think" to anyone who wants to talk about off-court reputations. Besides, only a school that counts Pacman Jones amongst its former athletes could hire Bob Huggins and consider it an improvement in reputation. Look for Marion Jones to join the woman's coaching staff there sometime soon.
Beilein became a hot coaching commodity largely on the strength of an improbable Elite 8 run in 2005 that included a double overtime upset of Chris Paul's second seeded Wake Forest team. Beilein's last year in Morganton was an up and down affair that included a couple of coal miners slaughters with 18-point losses to Marquette and Georgetown but also had the not-quite-great honor of being the 65th best team in America that comes with winning the NIT.
Michigan acted quickly after firing Amaker by signing Beilein before someone could point out to him that the team was losing two-thirds of their scoring from that year's 22-13 squad. What was left for him is a roster full of underclassmen who have struggled to a 3-5 record thus far this season. That includes a double-digit loss to Harvard that had to have left new Crimson Coach Tommy Amaker fighting to suppress a smile.
Beilein built his offensive success at West Virginia by relying on spacing, holding on to the ball, and strong shooting. So far this season the Wolverines seem to have gotten the spacing part of that down but are struggling with the rest when they face quality opponents. Against Georgetown they had more than twice as many turnovers to assists and shot just 37% from the field. No shame there because the Hoyas are going to do that to a lot of teams. But when you repeat the same kind of performance against Harvard it's officially time to panic.
Amaker did leave a nice parting gift for Michigan in signing a couple of talented freshman backcourt players. Manny Harris is a 6-4 shooting guard whose actual name is Corperryale. However, he prefers to go by Manny which shows that the kid can make solid decisions - or at least better decisions than whichever parent decided to saddle him with Corperryale. Harris isn't much of a threat from the outside but is a terrific athlete who can really get to the rim and finish. The negative side of things for Harris is that he's a guy who really needs to work off the dribble rather than the cut so he's not an ideal fit for Beilein's style of play. Still, he's likely the best player on the Michigan team and his forays into the lane will often open up things for his teammates.
Joining him in the backcourt is fellow freshman Kelvin Grady. He's a traditional point guard who will look to distribute the ball first but he will knock down the open three if it's there. He's backed up by a pair of upperclassmen in Jerret Smith and CJ Lee. Smith is a 6-3 junior who's a solid shooter but isn't particularly quick with the ball. He's fighting for playing time with Lee who is a walk-on transfer from Manhattan. Lee's actual first name is Cecil but he prefers to go by CJ - again, good decision making on his part.
Up front Michigan's best player is DeShawn Sims, a 6-8, 225 lb. sophomore who plays more of face up, finesse style of game. Despite his size he will struggle to finish around the basket but from 10 feet and out hill hit the jumper. At the other forward spot is 6-6 senior Ron Coleman, the most experienced member of the team. Coleman has been a bit of an enigma over his career in Ann Arbor as he carried the reputation of a pure shooter in high school but has been unable to find any consistency as a college player.
The center spot is shared by Zack Gibson and Ekpe Udoh a pair of 6-10 sophomores. Gibson transferred to Michigan after a single season at Rutgers and is less of a physical presence than the 240 lb. Udoh. Neither guy is counted on to give the team much offense in the post although Gibson has some ability to hit short jump shots.
Rounding out the Michigan reserves are a pair of wing players in 6-6 Anthony Wright and 6-4 K"Len Morris. Neither guy has shown much ability to knock down jumpers, something that is essential for that position in Beilein's offense.
What to Watch
Defensively Beilein has always favored a 1-3-1 zone which is why if you've bumped into Taylor King this week you've probably noticed he was smiling. All zones some area of weakness and with the 1-3-1 you can find openings for deep jumpers along the baseline. The hope is that the defense can disrupt the rotation of the ball enough to allow the baseline defender to recover from one corner of the floor to the other before the offensive player can get a shot off. If Duke can successfully move the ball around or through the zone it will make it tough for the Wolverines to defend - especially when the Devils can place guys like King and Jon Scheyer in those corners, spots where both guys are comfortable shooting.
Of course King is comfortable shooting from anywhere on the floor and he's seeing considerably more playing time since he returned from Maui and found that "ball-you-man" note that the Defense Fairy left under his pillow. At some point the question of whether King is a better three-point shooter thanâ¦ JJ Redick (gasp!) gains some legitimacy. I realize that in some corners of the Duke world comparing anyone's shot to Redick is akin to naming your teddy bear Mohammed but still, King's shooting 50% on threes since returning from a restful stint in Hawaii and those numbers include his 1-4 clank-a-thon against Davidson.
Regardless of where King ranks in the pantheon of Duke gunners (and does anyone thing it was an accident that somehow King ended up wearing Chris Collins' old number?) he's certainly one of the most entertaining guys Duke has put on the floor in recent years. There's a great line in Jack McCallum's book :07 Seconds or Less from an opponent's scouting report on Eddie House which can apply to King as well - "Won't shoot it unless he has it in his hands."
Beyond the potential for another explosion from King is the bigger challenge for a Michigan team that is struggling to play the kind of basketball that made Beilein successful. While the Wolverines have several guys who can knock down the outside shot they don't have anyone who will aggressively pursue the shot. Their most aggressive offensive players are guys who like to drive to the basket or spot up for a short jumper. That's one of the biggest reasons behind their struggles this season.
Duke provides a particularly bad matchup for Michigan for several other reasons as well. First the Wolverines lack the inside scoring and rebounding punch that could attack Duke's weaknesses. That allows Duke to be even more aggressive with their perimeter defense which disrupts the ball protection that's so critical to Beilein's offense.
All these things - the struggle to match personnel with offense, a bad matchup on both ends of the floor, and coming off a loss at the hands of the coach you just fired - add up to make this game as appealing to Michigan as an invitation to join Bobby Knight and Dick Cheney for a little bird hunting.