4B - February 13, 2012
The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com
Let's play agame of what if,
sticking strictly to hypo-
thetical scenarios. Let's say
it's Dec. 31, 2011 and the Michigan
basketball team has an imaginary
just 12 games
away Jr. sud-
shoot? Just ,
for the sake
of it, let's say DANIEL
he shoots just WASSERMAN
land in that 12-game stretch, and
not much better, 33.2 percent,
from the field.
What if Evan Smotrycz had
Stephen M. Ross-like money, but
even that wasn't enough to buy a
3-pointer? We can pretend he'll
shoot 30 3-pointers and only
make six of them, amounting to
an abominable 20 percent. And
what if; on top of all that, the
mythical 12 games included 11
teams from the nation's tough-
est conference, seven games on
the road - including contests
in Columbus, East Lansing and
Bloomington - and six games
against ranked foes.
What ifI told you that's what
the Wolverines and their fresh-
man point guard with no Big Ten
experience were up against in the
first 39 days of 2012?
If you told me that Michigan
would go 4-8 in that stretch, I'd
say the team might've been lucky
to win that many. When I tell you
that the Wolverines inexplicably
went 7-5, luck doesn't even cross
my mind. Michigan found itself
sitting just one game out of first
place in the Big Ten heading into
Sunday's matchup with Illinois.
And that's with the team's best
scorer, Hardaway Jr. shoot-
ing - and subsequently missing
- at exponential rates, and its
X-factor, Smotrycz turning into a
But this story isn't about the
Trey Burkes, Zack Novaks or Jor-
dan Morgans - the ones who car-
he 'Wt'm . .
-he 'What -Ifgame Blue bigs limit Leonard
Sophomore guard Tim HardawayiJr. scored 15 paints against the Fighting IIlini.
ried the Wolverines through the
most grueling stretch of confer-
ence play - because the story of
this year's squad won't be written
in January or February. For the
last three years, Michigan's mea-
suring stick was just making the
NCAA Tournament, which came
via wins in the heart of winter.
This year's benchmark is differ-
ent. This team will be remem-
bered for what it does in March.
So what does a mid-February
game against the middling Fight-
ing Illini have to do with March?
"I don't know that I'm a sci-
entist at it, but we really try to
understand the season," Michi-
gan coach John Beilein quipped.
"(We) try to figure out what is the
best way for your team to be good
in February, because usually if
they're good in February, they're
going to be good in March."
Enter Smotrycz and Hardaway
Jr. Illinois opened up an early 8-7
lead at the 14:25 mark. But sec-
onds later, Hardaway Jr. convert-
ed on the ever-important first
3-point attempt of his afternoon.
And in the next three minutes,
Smotrycz netted five straight
points, including a 3-pointer that
also came on his first attempt.
It's amazing how high confidence
one's can soar when the first shot
Suddenly, the two sophomores
- roommates, nonetheless -
couldn't miss. The two combined
to shoot 7-of-10 from the field in
the first half and hit each of their
four 3-pointers. Smotrycz had 12
first-half points, the most of any
player on the court, while Hard-
away Jr. added 10. Their 22 com-
bined points in the half exceeded
the 17 points the two had totaled,
together, in the previous two
games. And for the first time since
Dec. 29 - when Smotrycz had a
double-double and Hardaway tal-
lied 26 points - the sophomore
tandem led Michigan to a win.
Hardaway joked that his slump
this year was a case of finally hit-
ting the freshman wall that he
never encountered last year. With
Burke possibly hitting a fresh-
man wall of his own - granted,
the wall may only be knee-high
- Michigan needs Hardaway and
Smotrycz more than ever.
There's never a good time to
slump, but there is a good time
to break out of one. Sitting a
half game out of first place with
March right around the corner,
Hardaway and Smotrycz have
seemingly broken out at just the
- Wasserman can be reached
By BEN ESTES guy, tough to get off the boards.
Daily Sports Editor Big (matchup) win for us."
Of course, it's easy to limit
The frustrated cries from an opposing player when he's
the Crisler Center crowd rang not in the game, so it helped
throughout the arena, matching that Leonard got into early foul
the exasperated look on Jordan trouble himself. Just 16 seconds
Morgan's face. after Morgan picked up his sec-
Eight minutes into Sunday's and foul, Leonard did the same
game against Illinois, the red- and was also forced to the bench
shirt sophomore forward for for the rest of the half.
the Michigan men's basketball That allowed Michigan coach
team picked up his second foul John Beilein to breathe a sigh
and was forced to head to the of relief. Illinois backup cen-
bench. That was a bad omen ter Nnanna Egwu isn't nearly
for the Wolverines considering as effective as Leonard. It also
the man on the other team they eased the guilt of Morgan, who
were tasked with slowing down. has done abetter job of avoiding
Meyers Leonard has been one unnecessary fouls compared to
of the breakout players in the last season.
Big Ten this season and a boon "(Leonard's) was a pretty
for the Fighting Illini, averaging good foul for us," Morgan said.
13.5 points and ranking third "It definitely helped us. We
in the league in rebounding weren't able to necessarily
with 7.8 per game. At 7-foot-1, match his physicality. For him
Leonard has a significant height to have to go to the bench, it
advantage over every Michigan definitely balanced it out."
post player. But considering that Leon-
It was going to be tough to ard played just seven minutes in
slow Leonard down even with the first half, and that the Illini
Morgan on the floor, let alone committed nine turnovers and
with him watching on the side- allowed the Wolverines to shoot
lines. Plus, the Wolverines' nearly 57 percent from the field,
recent performances against Illinois coach Bruce Weber had
the frontcourts of Ohio State to be thrilled to be down just.six
and Michigan State weren't points at halftime.
exactly inspiring. The stage was set for a come-
Leonard showed his strength back - the Fighting Illini would
early. In the first two minutes, be able to ride their talented big
he scored easily on a pick and man the rest of the way, expos-
roll and then established great ing Michigan's lack of depth
position on sophomore forward in the post with the absence of
Evan Smotrycz deep in the injured sophomore forward Jon
paint, quickly converting a lob Horford.
pass into an uncontested layup. And when Morgan, astound-
But Morgan, Smotrycz, and ingly, committed his third
indeed, the whole Michigan foul just 25 seconds after play
defense combined to stymie the resumed at the beginning of the
future first-round NBA draft second half, Illinois was in even
pick the rest of the way, as Leon- better position.
ard didn't make another field But Smotrycz, who had to
goal and finished with five total learn the center position when
points. he joined the Wolverines, was
"I think our defensive scheme effective in the paint. Morgan
- trying to limit his touches - was, too, when he re-entered
worked somewhat," Smotrycz the game later.
said. "(Leonard's) tough, he And the pair of Michigan
takes up a lot of space. He's a big post men were aided by their
teammates, as it became a group
effort to contain Leonard. The
center found himself constantly
harassed by double teams when
he got the ball in the post - and
that was if he managed to get
the ball in the post at all, since
the Wolverines worked hard to
front Leonard and prevent pass-
es from entering the paint.
Michigan also changed its
look several times, switching
from man-to-man to a 2-1-2 and
a 2-3 zone for a few possessions
in the second half and throw-
ing off the Illini's timing in the
process. The combination of
Morgan's and Smotrycz's indi-
vidual efforts and the constant
help kept Leonard from ever
getting comfortable, despite his
"Defense against somebody
like that goes beyond just posts
battling," Morgan said. "It's the
whole team. We need a lot of
help, we need a lot of pressure
on the ball, and we need every-
body to be locked in on what
we're trying to do as a team."
The Wolverines are used to
having to deal with a quality
frontcourt when playing Illi-
nois. For the past four seasons,
Michigan struggled to handle
the Fighting Illini trio of 6-foot-
9 Bill Cole, 6-foot-9 Mike Davis
and 7-foot-1 Mike Tisdale.
But this year's edition of Illi-
nois wasn't as imposing. Leon-
ard still has holes in his game
and doesn't have the same sur-
rounding talent as his predeces-
sors did. Fellow forward Tyler
Griffey did have a career-best
18 points, but he did most of his
damage from the perimeter.
Still, slowing down a pres-
ence like Leonard is a positive
sign for the Wolverines, who
know that opponents will con-
tinue to try to attack the paint
because of how thin Michigan
is at center.
"We had a lot of attention on
him," Beilein said. "To be hon-
est with you, we were very con-
cerned about him."
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stop in to Ulrich's Spirit Shop and gear
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