Michigan basketball is preparing to return to the court after a stirring run last spring that ended with a loss to Louisville in the National Championship game. The Wolverines left it all on the table and returned home with no shame. Both teams played well, Louisville was just that much better.
Critics will point to the departures of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. as two key reasons why John Beilein’s team won’t be able to replicate last year’s success.
I beg to differ. Here are 10 reasons why the Wolverines will return to the Final Four for a 2nd straight year.
- When Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III sat side-by-side and announced their returns, it became clear that they had an itch that wasn’t quite scratched last year. The moment these two decided to return is the moment Michigan became a title contender for the 2nd straight year.
- Everyone is sleeping on Derrick Walton, Jr. The freshman point guard will primarily be tasked with filling the vacated minutes left by Burke, albeit with some help from Spike Albrecht. Expect Walton to start early, if not right away, and expect him to be really good. I remember two years ago when people were mocking Rob and I for predicting big things out of Trey Burke as a freshman. We feel the same way about Walton. There will of course be some drop-off from Burke to Walton but with the returning players Michigan has in the mix, Walton doesn’t have to be Trey Burke. He just has to understand the offense, run the show, and protect the ball. And he will.
- Glenn Robinson III is on the brink of superstardom. As a freshman he played mostly under the radar, which is of course when he wasn’t playing above the rim. GR3 averaged 11 points and 5.4 boards while shooting 57% from the field and 32% from long range. Expect all of these numbers to increase. Robinson deferred entry into the NBA draft knowing that he would be the star to lead this version of Michigan basketball. He won’t have to carry the load but reports of his improved shooting and dedication to his craft lead one to believe that a breakout season is on the menu.
- The Monster. Mitch McGary was carefully handled during the regular season last year, averaging only 19 minutes/game. Then, once the tournament started, Beilein unshackled McGary and a star was born. Mitch averaged 14 points and 11 boards during Michigan’s 6-game tournament run including back-to-back games of 21 and 14 followed by 25 and 14. With more minutes, McGary will be in full on beast mode all year, wrecking the opposition’s old view of a soft Michigan middle.
- Zak Irvin is the kingpin of the new freshmen pack and will play a key role off the bench for Beilein. Expect him to fill in anywhere from the 2 to the 4. Irvin is long, talented, and can score in a variety of ways. The drop-off that Michigan experienced when they went to their bench last year should be a thing of the past thanks to Irvin’s presence.
- Jordan Morgan became the forgotten man down the stretch for Michigan last year but he is back with an eye on the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award. Don’t bet against him. Morgan was sensational last year in hedging ball screens and battling in the post. His confidence was rattled a bit last spring but he has worked his tail off and will not only provide great leadership as a 5th year senior, but also valuable on-court contributions.
- With Morgan and McGary in the paint, and help from Jon Horford, Max Bielfeldt, and newcomer Mark Donnal, the Wolverines possess a formidable front court to battle in the rugged Big Ten all season long. Michigan has long struggled to build a competent and capable front court. This unit is the best we’ve seen in years.
- Experience. Last year Michigan received substantial minutes from 5 different freshmen. All of these players return with a full year and a championship run under their belts. They’ll be stronger, smarter, and just plain better. Albrecht and Caris LeVert will be key reserves throughout the year for John Beilein.
- Speaking of last year’s freshmen, Nik Stauskas will be shifted from small forward to shooting guard, which will give him the opportunity to showcase his playmaking skills. Stauskas would be wise to always maintain his shooter’s mentality but he will also be asked to help Walton play the role of facilitator. Stauskas is an able ball-handler and showed with consistency that he can finish at the rim and pull off some sweet dimes.
- It took a while, but John Beilein has this thing rolling downhill now. Top recruits are all over Michigan’s board, which is a testament to Beilein and his stellar staff of assistants: Bacari Alexander, Jeff Meyer, and Lavall Jordan. It’s time for another banner.
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