With one game remaining on Michigan's non-conference schedule, Wolverine fans probably have a lot going through their mind. Some things have been fantastic, such as the team's great performance in the Maui tournament, while others have been awful, such as the team's loss at Virginia. Considering this, the fans should still have high hopes for Big Ten play and a strong NCAA Tournament performance.
Thursday night's game against Bradley (5-5) @ 6:30pm should be an easy victory for Michigan. Sure, there is always the potential for a loss and several non-conference "cupcakes" have given the team trouble this season, but Bradley is not a good team. Along with this, the team finally appears to be taking shape. Many people have pointed to Trey Burke as the surprise factor that has lifted this team, but I disagree. So far during this season the player that has really surprised me has been Evan Smotrycz.
Smotrycz played well last season, averaging 6.3 points and 2.3 rebounds per game, but he was still a bench player and his contributions were limited. In fact, he only played 20 minutes or more in two of Michigan's last 18 games. Along with that, he only scored more than 10 points 3 times and never got more than 4 rebounds. They were great number for a bench player and earned him Michigan's Sixth Man Award, but there were still some concerns.
Being a productive bench player is one thing, but it's another thing to be a productive starter. For instance, Smotrycz had good production for a back-up, but a starter is expected to produce even more at a consistent level. I'm sure most had high hopes for him entering this year, but his early struggles raised the concern flag. He had two solid games to start the year against weak teams, but he was pretty mediocre for a long stretch afterward. Even when he had good performances such as the game against Virginia, he ended up getting in foul trouble, which effectively erased his contributions and was a major factor in the loss.
However, he has really improved his play as of late. Not only is he putting up more points, he's also rebounding better. In the last three games, he's averaged 17.7 points and 9.3 rebounds and had his first double-double in his career. That's pretty impressive for him, considering he had a four game stretch earlier this season where he averaged 5.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. Obviously, one can debate the level of competition in both cases, but that's a significant improvement in a short amount of time. Whether his massive improvement is due to him settling into his new role as a starter is debatable, but the stats show he could be making that leap to another level, which Michigan fans hope to see continue.
Now, Smotrycz has been a nice improvement this season, but one thing really seems to be holding this team back from becoming the great team many envisioned and that's turnovers. Michigan may not have been the best B1G team in turnover margin last season, averaging 10 turnovers per game, but they still had a +1.66 turnover margin and were ranked #5 in the B1G. However, that has completely changed this season as they are averaging 14.6 turnovers per game and have a -2.66 turnover margin.
The reasoning behind this massive increase in turnovers can be debated, but it's likely because of Michigan's new freshman point guard Trey Burke. Now, Burke has been superb this season, but he has been atrocious at turnovers. I'm not saying this makes him a bad player, but it is definitely his weakness. Right now, Burke has 33 turnovers, which is 11 more than anyone else on the team. This doesn't mean he just be benched or even massively criticized, but I do believe it's the factor holding back the team from its full potential.
The best example of this was during the Oakland game. Michigan thoroughly dominated the Grizzlies, but because of 17 turnovers (6 by Burke), Oakland was able to keep it close and ended up losing by just 10 points, a score that should not have been nearly that close. Was Burke the only one responsible for the turnovers and close score? Of course not, he only contributed six of the 17 turnovers and is only a true-freshman, but if Michigan hopes to make a solid run through B1G play and the NCAA Tournament, it's going to need to improve on its turnover margin.
There have been some bright spots and some bad ones during non-conference play, but I think Michigan brings a very talented squad into its final non-conference test against an over-matched Bradley at home Thursday night. If Michigan can continue to utilize Smotrycz and reduce its turnovers as a team, it should be able to compete against a lot of big powers. Watch for a significant margin of victory and a lot of play from the bench and younger players.
Photo Credit: Angela J. Cesere