Big Ten Basketball Preview: Beilein's Wolverines in search of consistency

With the lure of professional hoops hovering like a dark cloud over the college level, roster turnover is an issue for every single coach in America. But that doesn't mean losing a couple of All-Americans from the Big East and graduating an all-league mid-major scorer are one in the same. Only one of these aforementioned programs has the ammunition to snatch up replacements like it's nothing year after year, while the other faces an uncertain future.

Because unless you are one of a handful of teams that breeze through talent each summer like clockwork and still manage to compete for Final Fours every now and again, it's imperative to keep the guys you have on campus around for as long as possible. And while that seems so ridiculously simple on the surface, it's actually part of the reason why the current gap between the game's elite and the not-quite-there-yets doesn't want to close. Bolting early has become such an epidemic that it now influences anyone, anywhere, and at any age, to seriously consider the leap.

A prime example of what this can do to big programs struggling with taking the next step is in Ann Arbor, Michigan where John Beilein's Wolverines enter the year with high expectations after a promising 2010-11 campaign. Most who watched this team play last season, especially down the stretch, came away impressed by the overall potential that many of its integral parts were showing. Still, a roster with plenty of intrigue hardly translated into anything tangible on a conference, or even national level. As it was, Michigan's 9-9 mark in Big Ten play tied the best league record of Beilein's four year tenure, but barely registered a blip on the radar in the program's lengthy history.

Quick Big Ten Predictions

  • Tourney Teams - Ohio St., Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan St., Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern
  • POY - Jared Sullinger, Ohio St.
  • Newcomer - Andre Hollins, Minnesota
  • Coach - Thad Matta, Ohio St.
  • Champion - Ohio St.
  • Don’t Sleep On - Northwestern (team); Iowa's Melsahn Basabe (player)
  • It wasn't until the NCAA Tournament, in a second round (third, whatever) loss to Duke, when people really started to consider the type of impact Michigan might have in 2011-12. The No. 1 Blue Devils were the prohibitive favorite to repeat as champs, and Beilein's squad showed up that day, weathered the storm, and ended up giving Coach K's boys a closer battle than anyone predicted. The defeat, if nothing else, showed millions of viewers that Michigan was on the cusp of something better.

    And then Darius Morris pulled the rug out from everybody. Although some had envisioned it all along, the 6'5" guard made a calculated decision to enter his name into the 2011 NBA Draft pool. Despite not hiring an agent at the time to afford himself a final chance to return for his junior season, the likelihood of his probable defection quickly overshadowed the good vibes he helped put in place. Once you flirt with the luxuries that come with playing at a higher level, it's awfully hard to go back to your old digs as an amateur.

    Before most even wanted to acknowledge it, Morris was long gone. The four star recruit that came all the way from California, viewed as a possible savior to Michigan's success-starved program, Morris' vast improvement as a sophomore ended up being nothing more than a formality in the end. It's hard to blame him, personally, for leaving school when he did. Even if being the 41st overall selection isn't quite as rewarding as it would be to go in the lottery a year later, the kid made a call and stuck with it. We can at least give him that.

    At the same time, it's pretty hard to blame optimistic Wolverines fans for feeling like they were left out in the cold. Last year's roster was one of the most talented squads this program has seen in a while, and the general consensus was that every player on that bench knew that something special could be in store down the line. But above all, Morris was THE guy that could make that happen. Taking Morris out of the mix not only forces Tim Hardaway Jr. into an immediate leadership role, but it effectively eliminates Michigan's preferred go-to option in late game situations, and a guy who at certain points last year was the only one on the floor who could get a competent shot off. As far as the point guard situation goes, things are muddled. The keys to the offense will either be handed over to one of two incoming freshman, Trey Burke or Carlton Brundidge, or three-point specialist Stu Douglass if the youngsters struggle.

    So while rival schools like Ohio State or Michigan State might be able to cushion a loss of Morris' value a bit better, in Ann Arbor it's going to take a rotating group of inexperienced players to step up in his place. Don't mistake Michigan's remaining bodies for walk-ons or anything, but a strong supporting cast doesn't quite have the same effect when it loses the main guy it was trying to support. And especially when you consider that this isn't a team that has been able to seamlessly plug in new talent from its bench with each coming season.

    We've seen that the product Beilein puts on the floor is going to be competitive enough to stay afloat in Big Ten play on most nights. And it's safe to say that the sophomore trio of Hardaway Jr., Jordan Morgan (RS Soph.) and Evan Smotrycz will be a formidable unit all season long. But is there a glass ceiling in place for this team in 2011-12 like it appears, and did Morris leaving school help create it? Both seem like fair questions at this point.

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