Ferris St.-Michigan Preview
Darius Morris hurried down the court and managed one final shot - a runner in the lane that bounced off the back of the rim.
Michigan was that close to taking Duke to overtime in last season's NCAA tournament, that close to extending a remarkable turnaround season at least five more minutes, with a round of 16 berth at stake.
Although the Wolverines fell just short, they took several steps forward in 2010-11, and they'll look to keep progressing as they open this season at home against Division II Ferris State on Friday night.
Little was expected of Michigan at the start of the season, and as late as January the program seemed trapped near the bottom of the Big Ten. The team began to click down the stretch, however, not only reaching the NCAA tournament but routing Tennessee in its opening game before losing 73-71 to Duke.
"We have a lot of confidence," guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said. "We tasted the NCAA atmosphere and we want to go back there and taste some more."
The first order of business is replacing Morris, and nobody harbors any delusions about that. As a sophomore, Morris averaged 15.0 points and 6.7 assists a game, shouldering plenty of responsibility as the team's point guard. Although he wasn't much of a threat from 3-point range, Morris diversified the offense with his ability to penetrate, creating good shots for himself and his teammates.
Morris was a second-round pick in the NBA draft.
"Obviously we're going to miss Darius," guard Zack Novak said. "You can't say you're not going to miss a player like that. We know we've got our work cut out for us, but I think we're ready."
If they can adequately replace Morris, the Wolverines should feel optimistic because they return every other key player from a team that went 21-14 last season. Hardaway came on strong toward the end of the season and ended up averaging 13.9 points. He made 76 3-pointers, one of four Michigan players with at least 45.
Jordan Morgan was efficient around the basket, shooting 63 percent from the field. The Wolverines looked increasingly comfortable in coach John Beilein's offense. Michigan shot well, didn't turn the ball over much and did a serviceable job on the boards. The combination was effective, resulting in a two-game sweep of in-state rival Michigan State and a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Of course, the 6-foot-4 Morris was at the center of it all. Senior Stu Douglass, who made 53 3-pointers last season, is a candidate to take over at point guard. The Wolverines also add freshman guards Trey Burke and Carlton Brundidge to the mix.
"What I'm really interested to see is, because of Darius' length, how big a factor that would be in some of the passes," Beilein said. "But I also think, while we're rebuilding that position a bit, the strengths in the other positions will help that be an easier transition."
Michigan will be tested early, traveling to Hawaii in November for the Maui Invitational. The Wolverines face Memphis in that event, then will play a rematch from last season's NCAA tournament in their second game, against either Duke or Tennessee.
On Friday, Michigan will get its first look at newly renovated Crisler Arena, which includes new seats and a new high-definition scoreboard. Although expectations are significantly higher than last year, Beilein is taking nothing for granted as he tries to take the Wolverines to the NCAA tournament for the third time in five seasons as their coach.
"We were sweating on Selection Sunday last year, despite the eight seed," Beilein said. "We were sweating that. I think based on the league and the schedule, we're going to have to perform early and we're going to have to perform in the season as well - and there are a lot of good teams with a lot of good coaches out there.
"We don't know anything about injuries, we don't know anything about chemistry yet. There are a lot of hurdles we have to still jump through."
That seemed apparent last Friday, when Michigan escaped with a 47-39 exhibition victory over D-II Wayne State. The Wolverines shot 37.3 percent from the field and went 5 of 24 from 3-point range.
Hardaway Jr. scored 20 points and Novak added 14.
Great Lakes Conference champion Ferris State went 24-8 last season and reached the Midwest Regional championship game of the D-II tournament, the first time it advanced to a regional title game since 2005. The Bulldogs, however, lost four of their top five scorers from 2010-11, including Justin Keenan (21.6 points and 9.7 rebounds per game) and Darien Gay (14.6 ppg and 4.3 assists per contest).
They'll need junior guard Kenny Brown, who averaged 9.2 points and is the top returning scorer, to step up along with junior Daniel Sutherlin (5.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and senior Dontae Molden (5.0 ppg).