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What’s Coming Up January 5, 2010

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This blog has become more of what I call an occasionally-updated site, since I have essentially had zero time to put in my two-cents on the basketball team in the past few weeks (and frankly, I haven’t wanted to write about what appeared to be an overrated, losing team).

But now things are looking a bit different. Not a lot different, but a little bit different. This team should be 2-0 in Big Ten play right now, but Manny and DeShawn Sims were left at the airport on New Years Eve, so the team fell flat without their two scorers at Indiana. Looking at that game first, everybody that boarded the plane played well, but unfortunately for all of us we forgot our two leading scorers and rebounders at the airport, so we got squashed. Both Stu and Zack Novak played outstanding, hitting all sorts of ridiculous outside shots. Darius looked solid, and even Zack Gibson gave us some good minutes. All in all, it was a great team effort, but we were without the bulk of our scoring.

That is why I felt so good about this team’s chances going back to Crisler on Sunday. We all knew that Crisler would be rockin’, and if the team gave us anything to cheer for, we were gonna get behind them 110% and help them out as much as possible. Novak and Douglass once again hit some big 3-pointers, and Manny and Peedi both looked as good as ever. It was the most impressive game of the year, and to add to the excitement, it was against a ranked Ohio State team.

Looking at the next couple weeks, we are heading into the defining portion of our schedule. Every game from here on out is a big one, especially the next three weeks. These next three weeks will set the tone and tell all of us if the team is going to dance for the second straight year. Games against Penn State and Northwestern appear on the surface to not be that big, but it is just as important as any other conference game. Going into conference play I said that we need to go AT LEAST 12-6 in addition to a victory against Connecticut, and I stand by that prediction. Two of those victories must also come against Michigan State and Purdue. We already have one victory against a ranked conference opponent (though they probably won’t be ranked this week), and we need several more to boost the overall resume.

Three of the bottom four conference teams loom in the next 10 days. Penn State, Northwestern, and Indiana are all coming up. Sure, Northwestern was ranked last week for the first time since Lincoln was president, but they should fade fast. Indiana beat us in what was this year’s most frustating game, and Penn State should be our first road victory – no excuses. If we can roll of those three in a row, our conference record will be 4-1 and we will riding a huge wave of momentum. We need all the momentum we can get because the game after Indiana is UCONN. They may or may not be ranked at the time, but a victory is needed, regardless.

From there, road games against Wisconsin and Purdue follow, and then the biggest game of the year is on January 26. What I’m basically saying is that we kind of need to win seven of the aforementioned games. Ok, I can take one loss in that group (prefereably at Wisconsin or Purdue). 7-0 or 6-1 in the next set of games will get us right back into the national picture. Let’s say for a second that we do go 6-1 in those seven games and we lose at Wisconsin (because it is simply impossible for anybody to win in Madison – ask Duke). We grab our first two road victories at Penn State and Purdue (both are possible as long as Jim Burr is not officiating the Purdue game), and we have three more victories against ranked opponents. Two of those would be against top-10 foes, and our overall record would be 13-7.

13-7. Not the best record, and probably only enough to get us into the “others receiving votes” category. But that’s good, because in the past two years we have only won two games when ranked (and I’m not counting Wayne State or Northern Michigan). At 13-7, we would then need to win at least 6 of the final 10 games, but that is much easier said than done. But if we SOMEHOW do that, we would be 19-8 going into the Big Ten tournament and one of the hotter teams in the conference. We would probably be the 4-seed and face a Minnesota or Illinois in the… ok I digress. I’m getting way too far ahead of myself.

What I’m trying to say is that the NCAA Tournament is still very possible. This team is officially beginning to look like what they are capable of, and if they can build on this momentum and gain confidence, they can still be the deadly team they were seen as at the start of the season. So don’t give up hope. We are officially in the most important stretch of the season, and our team is looking as good as ever. It all starts on Thursday night at Penn State. Hold off on the BCS Championship – your basketball team is more important for that one hour in which the two games overlap.

Utah Looms Large December 6, 2009

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Sitting at what is now 4-3, we find ourselves more than halfway through the nonconference season with some work to do. Two early losses in the Old Spice Classic and then another L at home to Boston College does not look good, but when you look at the entire season as a whole, none of those are particularly BAD losses. Sure, Alabama may look like a black eye on our resume when it is all said and done, but Marquette and Boston College are both good teams. While I don’t think BC is a tournament team this season, they will definitely be in the conversation and should be a higher seed in the NIT.

Having said all of that, these remaining nonconference games are going to be huge for this team. Utah has already beaten Illinois, and they play in a very tough arena over in the Salt Lake state. After being a bubble team last season, early on this season it looked as if Utah would be one of the top teams in the Mountain West Conference. But with two bad losses to Idaho and Seattle had the Utes reeling. Enter Illinois. The Utes then turned it all around and took down the Fighting Illini in a thriller, 60-58. We now have to go in and take care of business. This is an opportunity to be a good (and thus far, only) road win.

I think Beilein will have the guys ready to go. The three-point shooting is slowly starting to come around, and if we can just play better team defense I don’t think we will have a problem with this game. Considering our team has not been able to put together a really great game yet this year, I think we are due sooner rather than later.

A Look at the Old Spice Classic November 25, 2009

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Once again, Michigan finds themselves in an early-season tournament in a field of tough competition. While the Great Alaska Shootout provided little competition two years ago (where Michigan went 1-1), the Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament proved to be our coming-out party, as we took down #4 UCLA at Madison Square Garden. This year, it is the Old Spice Classic, with tons of talent across the board.

First up is Creighton, one of the winningest mid-major programs of the past decade. Darryl Ashford is the go-to guy for a team that is rebuilding after the loss of do-everything guard Booker Woodfox. But look out for Kaleb Korver, Kyle’s younger brother who can get hot in a hurry. While he hasn’t produced much so far this season, he is getting plenty of minutes and should heat up as the season goes on. The Blue Jays opened the season with a tough loss against #22 Dayton – showing that they can hang with ranked opponents even in a year where they are supposed to be “rebuilding”. This will be the first close game for the Wolverines all season, but I think we can pull it off.

Next will be either Marquette or Xavier, two teams that are also somewhat rebuilding after losing their leading scorers from a year ago. Marquette loses both Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal from their NCAA Tournament team last season. But returning is forward Lazar Hayward, one of the most skilled returning players in the Big East. He is being counted on to produce big time for the Golden Eagles, who lack versatility across the board. Maurice Acker is a quick guard who can knock down 3’s, and Jimmy Butler is a dead-on shooter as well, but it is Hayward who is responsible for everything inside the arc (he also shoots it from outside, too). Xavier, on the other hand, loses Derrick Brown, a versatile player, but gets Jordan Crawford, famous for his dunk on LeBron at the Nike Summer Camp. Crawford is one of the premiere players in the Atlantic-10, averaging nearly 20 points per game so far this season. Terrell Holloway and Jason Love are the unquestioned leaders of the Musketeers, however, as they both fill the box score as well as anyone else in the conference. Frankenmuth’s Brad Redford, Michigan’s Mr. Basketball in 2008 (the year after Manny), is a deadly shooter off the bench, shooting over 50% from beyond the arc this season.

I’ll take Xavier in this game, since Marquette is still trying to figure out how to win without McNeal, Matthews, and former point guard Dominic James. Crawford will also have an advantage against the smaller Marquette guards, which would bring us up against a very dangerous and underrated Xavier team in the semi-finals. Because of Xavier’s size and athleticism, one would think that we would have a tough time against the Musketeers. But if the Wolverines can pressure Jordan Crawford and succeed with the 1-3-1 zone, I still like our chances.

So let’s say we beat Creighton and Xavier/Marquette. That puts us up against Florida State, Iona, Baylor, or Alabama. A betting man would take Baylor or Florida State: the Seminoles are the most athletic team in the tournament, and Baylor has a terrific starting lineup, with former Wolverine Ekpe Udoh solidifying the center position next to Josh Lomers and AJ Walton shoring up the backcourt with LaceDarius Dunn. As fate would have it, I wouldn’t be surprised to see us up against Ekpe and the Bears, which is probably a tougher matchup for us than Florida State. FSU boasts only Solomon Alabi, an NBA prospect with terrific length, while Baylor has two starters over 7 feet tall in Lomers and Udoh. I would be utterly shocked if either Alabama or Iona make it to the finals.

But hey, anything could happen. This is college basketball, where any team can win on any day.

Michigan 77, Houston Baptist 55 November 24, 2009

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Kinda late on this post, but I still wanted to get this out there before my Old Spice Classic preview. In a game where most have called our efforts “sloppy” and our team to be “looking ahead to Orlando”, we still managed to beat Houston Baptist by 22 points. Peedi Sims scored 22 points (5-8 from beyond the arc) to spark us to a 12 point halftime lead. Manny had 25 to lead all scorers, and it appeared that he could basically score at will, but at the same time he wasn’t trying very hard throughout the game. Personally,  I don’t think the team was looking ahead to this week, but rather we just came out flat. If anything, they were looking ahead to Saturday’s football game against Ohio State. Most shooters came out throwing up bricks, so Manny and Peedi took control of the game. This is not the last time we will see the Detroit duo have to put the team on their shoulders; it is inevitable that the team is going to have some rough shooting nights, and when those nights come along we need Manny and Peedi to score most of the points.

Eventually the other guys came through, with Zack Gibson scoring 8 and the other guards knocking down some 3’s later, too. Overall, I think the rest of the team did a good job in the second half of helping out the big two pull away from HBU, but the first half was definitely all about Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims.

Anyways, I don’t have much else on the game, but look for an Old Spice Classic preview soon.

Michigan 97, Northern Michigan 50 November 16, 2009

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I don’t care that it was only a game against lowly Northern Michigan, or that they finished last in the GLIAC last season. The fact is, we played a terrific game for 40 minutes on Saturday night, and for the second weekend in a row the basketball team was the only one of the three main sports teams to emerge victorious. The football team fell flat again, and the hockey team dropped two to MSU on both Friday and Saturday night. Sure, we have had a cupcake schedule thus far, but it appears as if basketball has been the lone bright spot for major athletics this year (so far).

But on to the game: Manny dominated with a triple-double, Vogrich was steaming hot with FIVE triples, and Zack Gibson looked shockingly good with 11 points. By now everybody knows the stats, so I like to move on to the smaller things that get overlooked. First, some positives – the 1-3-1 looked great, with Darius at the top and Manny/Air Novak putting great pressure on the wings. Last year with Stu at the top, there was a slight lack of athleticism at the top, but with Darius now at the top, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the opposing team to get off that first pass. The two guards on the sides of the middle line were also very aggressive, going for a lot of passes and loose balls, which is so nice to see after being somewhat passive last season when they were in it. Maybe it’s because the team is more comfortable with the zone, but it appears that they are really executing the defensive schemes better this time around. They also played the zone a lot in the first half. At one point I think they went into the 1-3-1 set on three consecutive plays – they would never do it more than 1 out of 5 plays last season.

As for something not so good: Cronin. I’m sorry, but he just looks so awkward out there. He clearly has some great hands, as we saw with a few of his rebounds and the touch on his shot, but at the same time he looked a bit slow on the defensive side of the ball. He can only get better, and I still think he will be a contributor eventually (he is still considered a freshman, after all). I won’t go too much more into it, and he had a nice block without even jumping, but I think it has become quite clear that he will not see many minutes this season.

I hate to end on a note as negative as that, but I really am out of time tonight. The next game is Friday night against Houston Baptist, who has played against a lot of Big Ten teams in the past (their most recent game being a walloping at the hands of Ohio State last season). The game starts at 7pm, and should be a slightly tougher test than the NMU game this weekend.


Early season predictions November 13, 2009

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While the college basketball season has technically started and the big boys are destroying some lower-tier teams (see Ohio State’s 40-point spanking of Alcorn State or Cal’s obliteration of Detroit), I don’t think it’s too early to make some basic predictions. Michigan’s real season kicks off tomorrow night against Northern Michigan, so I feel that this is the perfect time to make these predictions.

Let’s start at the top…

National Champion: Texas Longhorns
I refuse to join the masses here in picking North Carolina, Kansas, or Michigan State. I just don’t see any of those teams as being strong enough across the board to win a national title. Texas, on the other hand, is my dark-horse candidate. The Big 12 will be one of the strongest conferences in the nation (after the Big Ten, of course) and they will have some great competition to keep them on top of their game throughout the year. Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and even Baylor will give them some great games, but in the end I think it will be Damion James and the rest of the Longhorns hoisting up the trophy at season’s end. Look for Avery Bradley to have a tremendous year, as well. But if he doesn’t, look for a disappointing end in Austin.

National Runner-Up: Michigan
Yes, I said it. Call me overly optimistic or partial to my school, but I think there will be a surprise team in the championship game. And why not Michigan? They return just about everything, gain another shooter and point guard, and will get plenty of competition in the nation’s toughest conference. All of the Michigan “experts” claim that they can make it to the Sweet 16 or Elite 8, but I’m going to take it two steps further. I even predicted in the Maize Rage’s season preview that Michigan would make it to the Elite 8, but I have decided since then to make a bolder claim. The National Championship is in sight, and we should make a run that I haven’t witnessed since I was four years old.

National Player of the Year: Damion James, Texas
If Texas is going to win a National Title in 2010, they’re do-everything man is going to be a Player of the Year candidate. Along with James on the All-American First Team, look for Kalin Lucas, Sherron Collins, Manny Harris, and Patrick Patterson

Final Four: Texas, Michigan, Michigan State, Kansas
I already explained the first two, and the other two are pretty self-explanatory. Kansas would clearly fall to Michigan, with State losing to Texas. If those four did somehow make it to the Final Four, imagine the anticipation of a Michigan-Michigan State championship game.

Big Ten Champion: Purdue
The Boilermakers return all five starters, unlike the Spartans, who lose their only post presence and lockdown defender. The conference championship will more than likely come down to those two teams, with Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, and Minnesota contending for the next four spots. While Purdue will win the regular season title, expect someone else to win the tournament (I’m thinking Illinois).

Big Ten Player of the Year: Manny Harris
It will come down to Manny and Kalin Lucas, but I honestly believe it will be Harris, who will get the same opportunities to shine as he did a year ago. He’s fully healthy now (which he wasn’t for most of last season) and he continues to develop his outside jumper, which, if he can consistently knock down, will turn him into one of the deadliest players in the nation. Lucas will put up similar numbers to Harris, but the Wolverines’ improvement record-wise will give Manny the nod for Player of the Year. The two of them should be joined on the All-Big Ten First Team by Evan Turner, JaJuan Johnson, and Kevin Coble.

Michigan 73, Wayne State 54 November 10, 2009

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Manny Harris scored 25 and Air Novak scored 15 to lead us to an easy victory Friday night. Most people know the basic stats by now, but the big thing for us in the Maize Rage was the turnout. Not only were the bleachers, full, but the entire lower bowl overflow was consumed with students. There were even some kids in the gold section in the upper deck. Sure the game was impressive, but the turnout was even more so.

As for the team itself, all of the freshmen looked like… well, freshmen. Darius Morris started at point guard (shocker of the night) and did well distributing the ball and defending Wayne State’s smaller guards (they started three players under 6 feet tall). However, his shot looked flat and he still puts no rotation on the ball. He scored four points and looked decent in flashes, but overall he was still a freshman on the court. More playing time like this, though, and he will become accustomed to the Beilein style very quickly. Vogrich was an unpleasant surprise, as we all thought he played absolutely no defense, but his shot looked nice. He didn’t score any points, but he is going to get his chance soon enough.

Manny, of course, looked unstoppable, while Peedi didn’t do too much; he split time at the 5-spot with Gibson, which probably won’t be a lasting trend when the Big Ten grind hits in January. Let’s face it, this is Manny’s world right now, and we are all just living in it. He may have been playing against a weak opponent, but he looked straight up determined that entire game. Something about him was different Friday night, something that we didn’t see the past two years. He is more confident, he has a smoother stroke, and he has that All-American swagger that should help keep his confidence up when the conference season rolls around.

Looking ahead, Northern Michigan is just around the corner on Saturday night, though I myself will not be there (I’m going to Wisconsin for the football game). Hopefully it’s a repeat of Friday night…

TONIGHT November 6, 2009

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I couldn’t be more pumped for basketball season to start. With the football team falling apart again this season, the student body is beginning to hold on to the basketball team to give them something to cheer about. And they won’t be disappointed. Tonight marks the beginning of a season that comes with higher expectations than any Michigan team has had since the Fab Five era. John Beilein has never started a season in the top 15 like we are this season, and for the first time in his career, he has two NBA prospects leading the way.

Talking with other Maize Ragers and some representatives from the athletic department, we don’t seem to believe there will be a ton of kids in attendence tonight, but as the game gets closer, I am starting to believe that there will be more kids than we expect. Now with 2600 student ticket packages, just about all of those kids are going to want their ticket for the highly-anticipated Michigan State and Connecticut games, and the only way to do that is to start by going to tonight’s game. I know there’s a hockey game at the same time (against the #1 team in the country, no less), but I think basketball will prevail, and we will see the bleachers almost entirely full.

This is an interesting game because we will get to see what Beilein hopes to do with his 9-10 man rotation. He claimed that he wants to settle on a starting lineup (a big change from last year where like 10 different players started at least a game), and I think, at least for now, it’s going to look a little something like this (as I wrote in the Rage Page).

PG – Laval Lucas-Perry
SG – Stu Douglass
SF – Manny Harris
PF – Zack Novak
C – DeShawn Sims

I think that’s a safe bet for a starting lineup, but we could also see Anthony Wright and/or Zack Gibson in the starting lineup for these first few games. I know Beilein wants to see both of them succeed, and they have to tools to do so. Wright can get sizzling hot from beyond the arc, and when he does the opposing team can only sit back and watch. Gibson can play some tough interior defense if he’s got the right mindset, as we saw glimpses of great post defense last season. For the majority of the non-conference season, there is no doubt that those two are going to get the bulk of the minutes off the bench, though it won’t take many mistakes to get Ant back at the end of the bench. Both Vogrich and D-Mo will see some time (probably a bunch tonight), and I think Vogrich will be called upon to spell Manny this season. That will only amount to about 6 minutes per game, but if he can come in and give the team some quality PT, then there’s no reason he shouldn’t see the floor when Stu is tired, too. Morris is the de-facto backup point guard, and I also have heard rumblings about seeing Eso Akunne at point. But I think LLP is going to get about 50% of the playing time at point, while the other 50% will be split evenly between Stu, Darius, and I guess Eso.

I don’t want to do too much more pre-game analysis, but I will definitely be posting a recap afterwards. Take a look at tonight’s Rage Page: our Bum of the Game is Jerry Oden. He will be wearing #22 and plays all frontcourt positions for the Wayne State Warriors.

What kind of effect will the freshmen have? October 30, 2009

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The pre-season polls have been officially released, and for the first time in recent memory, Michigan has a steady spot. At #15, the Wolverines will officially begin the season with “expectations”. The question now becomes how will the team fare as the favorite?

Obviously, we will have to wait a few weeks to see the team in a real “test”, since they will be playing mainly Division II opponents over the next couple of weeks. But these first few games against Wayne State, Northern Michigan, and Houston Baptist will be a good opportunity to see the freshmen and how they will fit in with the offense. One of my fellow ‘Ragers said at Michigan Madness that Darius Morris looks somewhat out of place and has a flat shot without any rotation. After a further look, I noticed that he really does look a bit out of place. He clearly has talent, as we all saw with his uncanny ability to shake off double teams and find the open man on the break, but it appears that he still needs to get used to the Beilein offense.

It’s no secret that the point guard takes the most time to adjust to the Beilein system, both on offense and defense. Offensively, the point guard needs to be not only patient, but must be able to move without the ball, which is not always easy for someone who spends his entire life with the ball in his hands. Notice last season that there were many times when we would see a Zack, Peedi, or Anthony Wright at the top of the key with the ball and dribbling towards the wing, where the point guard (either Kelvin Grady or CJ Lee) would come around the corner and pick up the ball again to continue the offense. Darius is going to have to learn to spot up and position himself to get shots this season, something that he probably didn’t have to do in high school. Instead, it was he who did the dribbling and finding open teammates. Of course, that will still be a part of Morris’s role on this team, but with Manny still here, the slashing duties are still going to be mainly with the All-American candidate.

Defensively, it’s a huge adjustment for anybody to learn the 1-3-1. Whether Darius plays at the top or bottom of the zone, he will have to learn the many ins and outs of playing the half court trap. Stu was mostly used at the top of the zone last season, while Kelvin and CJ were usually at the bottom, but where Darius plays remains to be seen. The basics of the 1-3-1 are to trap in the corners of the court, with the top or bottom player in the zone leading the trap. Darius definitely has some length and quickness, but then again so does Manny, and he rarely played the top of the zone. I think we will see Darius begin at the back of the zone, but by the time he has adjusted and developed his defensive instincts, he will be a stalwart at the top. Overall, don’t expect Darius to be a tremendous presence to begin the season, but I think by the end of the season we will see him running the offense and leading the difficult task of breaking Big Ten full court presses.

Matt Vogrich, however, is a much different kind of player than Morris. He is the prototypical Beilein shooter and should have little trouble fitting in to the style of play that Michigan is known for. He has a deadly shot and a quick release, which are traits of the kind of player that flourishes in this system. In the short run, look for Vogrich to have more of an impact than Morris. In essence, I’m looking for him to be a hybrid of Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, with the shooting ability of Stu and the intangibles of Zack. It’s much easier to predict Vogrich’s progression: he is going to be a solid shooter that comes off the bench for a few years, but by the time he is a junior or senior he will seeing as many minutes as anybody, though he may not see many starts. I think it bears repeating, though, that Vogrich will probably look the best out of the gate. But once the Big Ten season gets underway, other teams may be able to catch on to his strengths and limit his efficiency.

While Jordan Morgan will probably redshirt and Josh Bartelstein will probably see only a few minutes here and there, I think both Eso Akunne and Blake McLimans will contribute this year. Both are flying under the radar, and with Eso originally a preferred walk-on, people may be surprised to see him contribute this season. But I see Eso as another Zack Novak. Nobody expects anything from him, but his motor and underrated abilities as a shooter may help him fit in to this system. Eso is far from Zack as far as shooting the ball goes, but he is ideal for taking advantage of smaller players in the post. Peedi (and to an extent, Cronin) are the only players on this team that have a resemblance of a post game. But Eso, who spent a lot of time in the post in high school, will have a chance to take smaller guards down low and potentially do some damage. He is only about 6’4” on a good day, but he is one of the strongest on the team and can flat-out score. I don’t think we will see a ton of Eso on the perimeter, but do not be surprised to see him body up some of the bigger players in the Big Ten. He is ideal for the bruising conference play that will come in January, and he should get some chances to prove his worth late in the season.

Blake McLimans is more of the Beilein-type. Tall and lanky, he can shoot the long ball and can alter a lot of shots in the paint. He won’t be out there for 40 minutes every night, but I expect to see him impact some games at pivotal times. I also don’t expect him to put up gaudy numbers, but I do think he can be the man to come in to a game where Michigan is down late in the first half and pick up the intensity. I can see it now:

–          Down seven with five minutes left in the first half, Blake subs in for Zack Gibson.

–          Blake blocks a lay-up, gets Michigan another possession.

–          Double-teamed in the post, Peedi dishes the ball out to Blake, who knocks down a three-ball from the top of the key.

–          Blake alters another shot by a guard driving into the lane.

–          Blake hits another three from the top of the key.

–          Michigan is now only down one point, with two minutes left in the first half.

–          Crisler goes crazy.

I just know that will happen sometime this year. So Blake, make me a prophet and become a game changer.

Having said all of that, it is now up to the freshman class of 2009 to go out there and show their worth. They are the future of this team and are the building blocks for a very strong and improving basketball program.

Less than two weeks! October 26, 2009

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That’s right, there is less than two weeks left until the start of the 2009-2010 basketball season. As the basketball season inches closer and closer, there is less and less to talk about as we prepare for what is sure to be one of the most entertaining in Michigan history. Just about everything has been exhausted and analyzed, and it’s pretty clear that this should be a Michigan team to remember. Rivals.com listed us at #14 on their pre-season countdown, and Lindy’s has us at #9. Others have us a bit lower, like The Sporting News, which ranks us around #20.

The only thing left to do is play ball. The Maize Rage will be ready to go for that first game against Wayne State, and you can bet we’ll be there in full force once the season gets underway. Other than that, there really is not much else to blog about; however, I will be incorporating other members of the Maize Rage into this blog.