December 17, 2013

Merritt sees merit in tough slate

David Merritt has been there, and seen a team come together under John Beilein. He served as a captain for the 2008-09 Wolverines, who stunned everyone by making the NCAA Tournament.

That squad, featuring sophomore guard Manny Harris, junior forward DeShawn Sims and a pair of program-building freshmen in Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, wound up battling to a 9-9 conference record, then taking down No. 24 Clemson in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines then fought No. 7 Oklahoma to the final moments, before bowing out, 73-63.

Beilein's results, and roster, have been upgraded significantly since then. The Wolverines shared the Big Ten title two seasons ago. They reached the NCAA championship game last year, with a roster that boasted a pair of NBA draft choices in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr.

Given all of that, and what he's seen Beilein do with a team, Merritt isn't fretting much over the Wolverines' 6-4 start to the season.

"It's all about patience and time," Merritt said. "They've got the right guy leading the team for that type of mindset. Throughout the years, we've always talked about how Coach Beilein has an uncanny ability to stay in the moment and really preach about getting better every single day.

"When you lose so much leadership and offense, in Trey Burke, along with ball screen action and getting other people involved, fast breaks, it takes time."

The Wolverines have been putting in the time. Merritt knows that firsthand. He recalled entering Michigan's Player Development Center late at night in early December and encountering a sight that made him nod and smile quietly to himself.

There was sophomore Caris LeVert, who went from the shadows last season to the spotlight this year, becoming a starter and key ingredient to Michigan's success.

"Just seeing Caris in the gym, almost at midnight, just doing drills and trying to get better was impressive," Merritt said. "You see the improvement in Caris and Nik [Stauskas], how much they've been in the gym.

"It's a very young team. It's all about patience and just getting better. I think they are getting better, but it's going to take some time as people adjust to new roles."

Merritt knows Michigan's younger players are trying to adjust and still play a schedule well beyond what the Wolverines faced even a year ago. That's not so good now, on the surface, he said.

It will look far different come conference play, the former captain projected.

"You lose these games, but you kind of win them as well," he said. "It's kind of a win-win. You look at last year, and the tough stretch Michigan went through in the Big Ten was primarily because the non-conference schedule wasn't as tough.

"Their toughest road test besides neutral-site games was Bradley last year. So they go into Ohio State and it's sort of a culture shock. They go into Indiana and it's a shock. They just hadn't been in those types of environments.

"They went through a stretch where it was, 'What's going on with Michigan? They're supposed to be one of the better teams in the country.' Whereas this year, you have the really tough games up front. You play Florida State, play at Iowa State, which is a very tough place to play, and you play at Duke."

Toss in No. 1 Arizona, along with a slip-up versus Charlotte with an injury-hampered crew, and the stumble out of the gate doesn't look so smooth. Again, Merritt insisted, it will pay dividends.

"You have such a young team, and they're starting to gain experience," he said. "Once they get into the Big Ten, going to Michigan State, going to Ohio State won't seem like such a shock. They've already been in those environments. It definitely helps you, in the Big Ten season, to have that type of schedule.

"Will you have the high number of wins in the non-conference? Probably not. But I think you'll be much better prepared for a tough Big Ten season this year, more than last year."

Some of it is learning how to win, Merritt noted. The freshmen have to learn from ground zero, while even the sophomores that battled to the NCAA championship game have to learn to win all over again in certain situations.

He used the stretch run against the Wildcats as a prime example. One team played like warrior veterans on the road. The other wasn't quite there yet, lacking enough savvy to hold off the charge.

"It's situational basketball," he said. "You see the game against Arizona. Arizona executed every single time down the stretch. They didn't make mistakes.

"They got the ball into their best player consistently, put him to the line and he made the shots down the stretch. That comes with time. That comes with playing together."

And the Wolverines will be doing plenty of that over the next 14 weeks, he noted.

"They've got very, very talented players," Merritt said. "As they move forward, I would predict they're a Sweet 16 team, top-15, top-20 team in the country. You just never know when you get to the NCAA Tournament, match-up wise, what is going to happen. You get hot…

"I think they'll be playing their best basketball, heading into February and then March, after this non-conference season. They'll get better and better, and as they play together more, they'll jell way more than they are right now, offensively and defensively. Even though they started 6-4, people can still be excited about this team."

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