All this week (and next!), we'll be running college basketball team previews for the 20 (or so) Most Interesting Teams. Today we tackle the Title Snipers.
Why are snipers so terrifying and exciting? Whenever I think of those dashing sociopaths, with their fancy rifles and thin smiles, I think of Enemy at the Gates and Saving Private Ryan. In both films, there was no shortage of gruesome death involving knives and guns and grenades and eye-gouging. But if I had to choose between those fates or death from afar, I'd take the gut-wrenching, up-close-and-personal variety every time. At least you'd have a few seconds to come to terms with your demise, right? I prefer a little bit of begging and panic before I go, thanks. Might as well make death more like the rest of my life. With a sniper, you're just out strolling around one day and BAM, it's over. "Hey guys, I'm heading to fill up the ole canteen. Anybody want anything? Water? Kool-Aid? I'm not sure if we have any Kool-Aid left, actuall—*ETERNAL SILENCE*"
You don't even hear the gun shot. And snipers in movies are always creepy, like Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates or the silent German guy in Saving Private Ryan. [Or Barry Pepper in Saving Private Ryan — Sniper ed.] I don't know if they started out weird, or if it's a job hazard of being a dealer of death. Either way, I bet they don't get many Christmas cards.
THAT BEING SAID, the four teams profiled below are the snipers of the college basketball battlefield in 2012-13. They're not as close to the target — a national title — as the Indianas and Kentuckys and Louisvilles, but that doesn't mean they aren't equipped to get off a lucky shot. They're exciting, they're terrifying, and they're a real threat. And look, I'm not saying anyone below is a creepy sadist like all those movie snipers, buuuuuuut ... Jim Boeheim is involved. I'll let you make your own judgments.
Michigan: Pray for Trey
The Gist: Remember how I raved about FSU's Michael Snaer on Tuesday? That's because he definitely gets a spot on my "Preseason All-Favorites" team. But if you're asking me to pick an All-Favorites MVP — and I think you are — that man is sophomore point guard Trey Burke. At 6-foot-1, Burke was just the 84th-ranked prospect in his high school class. From there, he beat out Cody Zeller for the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Award (the one given by the media, anyway) and made second-team all-conference. He was the engine that propelled Michigan to a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship for the first time since 1986. He had so many tools in his arsenal: He could shoot (34.8 percent from 3), pull up, drive, dish, protect the ball, and defend. Even in Michigan's slow-down offense, which I believe neutered some of his natural playmaking ability, he shone as one of the most exciting players in the country. I have a lot of great Burke memories from '11-12, but the way he put the entire team on his shoulders in the home win over Michigan State inspired one of the great lines of the year from Mike Tirico ("Nothing going on ... except talent!) and inspired me to throw together a sloppy highlight video. It's a weirdly perfect display of everything the spectacular freshman can do:
OK, end of gushing. END. Michigan gained a couple of very talented freshman recruits to join Burke and backcourt mate Tim Hardaway Jr., and should be very strong defensively, but there are some glaring weaknesses on the offensive end.
Strengths: John Beilein is a coach who loves to play controlled, efficient basketball, which is another way to say slowwww. Aside from his first season, he's been in the bottom 20 percent of the tempo rankings every year at Michigan. Even though a fan like myself would love to see Burke in the open court more often, running and being spectacular, I can't deny that he's an ideal stall-ball player, able to create in tight spaces and with the shot clock running down. If that fails, he can always stick a pull-up 3. Tim Hardaway Jr., his backcourt mate, is an exceptionally strong guard who will crash the boards hard and come up with his share of offensive boards. Then there are the new guys — small forward Glenn Robinson (no. 18 recruit in the country) and power forward Mitch McGary (no. 27). Both present a similar profile at their respective positions: aggressive, powerful glass attackers and potentially great defenders. If Jordan Morgan can stay out of foul trouble, and Jon Horford (Al Horford's brother) can stay healthy, that adds two more big, brawling interior players. In terms of defense and rebounding, this club has an embarrassment of riches.
Weaknesses: Aside from Burke, they can't shoot. Though he was effective inside, Hardaway's abysmal 28.3 percent mark from 3 hurt the team last year. He was much better as a freshman, but if he can't return to his old form, things look really rough for Michigan. Robinson's jump shot is weak, McGary has trouble being productive outside the paint, Morgan can barely even score in the paint, and Horford is a defensive specialist and a hustle guy. So in a grueling Big Ten, where interior buckets will be hard to come by, is there a second scoring option for the Wolverines? Or is it all Burke, all the time?
Relevant Les Misérables Quote: In honor of the film version of the greatest story ever told coming out in December, we're giving each team their own appropriate lyric. I will not apologize for this.
"One day to a new beginning / Raise the flag of freedom high! / Every man will be a king / Every man will be a king! There's a new world for the winning / There's a new world to be won / Do you hear the people sing?" (YouTube)
The student sections in "One Day More" are some of the most stirring parts of Les Mis, and their enthusiasm before the battle is infectious. With Michigan ranked at no. 5, enthusiasm around the program is as high as it's been in at least 20 years. But the reality, at least this year, might be more than they bargained for.
Confident, Insightful Projection: Michigan dodged a bullet when Trey Burke decided to stay in school, but they lost a key component when Evan Smotrycz and his 43.5 percent 3-point shooting rate, opted to transfer. They'll win a lot of grind-it-out games (I vote them the preseason "Most Boring Exciting Team"), but it's very easy to imagine a repeat of the disastrous 65-60 loss to Ohio in the first round. In the end, you have to think no. 5 is way too high for a preseason ranking, even if the freshmen live up to their hype. Verdict: third place in the Big Ten, second-round exit.