Ann Arbor — Coming off an Elite Eight appearance last season, Michigan still isn't satisfied. UM lost three players to the NBA and two more experienced frontcourt players, but still looks back to the final shot against Kentucky that ended its season.
Aaron Harrison's 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds left — defended well by Caris LeVert — remains a reminder of how a single play can turn a game and a season.
Coach John Beilein said Thursday at Michigan media day that the Wolverines still use that play as a motivator to play hard on every possession, using a poem called "One Possession" by Jeff Smith to underscore the point.
"We have this poem that we read the other day ... it's just sort of a corny poem about a guy saying, 'Coach, get off my back; it's a turnover and there's still 39 minutes to play,'" Beilein said. "We talked about that because Caris played exceptional defense on that; he was perfect. But is there one other play in that game that could have turned that game?"
It wasn't meant as a slight on LeVert for his defense. Rather, it's motivation to value each possession and not to give any away.
The season ended on a sour note for the Wolverines, who won the Big Ten regular-season title. But they're ready to move forward with a new group that includes six true freshmen, a redshirt freshman and five sophomores.
LeVert, a junior, was named to the preseason All-Big Ten first team and expectations are higher for Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr.
But reflecting on the way last season ended is just the first step in getting the Wolverines ready for this year.
"When you look at the way that game ended and how closely contested the shot was, it reminds us all that the game is a game of inches," assistant coach Bacari Alexander said. "We're just trying to build that foundation to get the guys to understand that the cumulative effect of winning possessions throughout the course of a 40-minute game is vital."
Asked how often he thinks about the last 3-pointer, Alexander shot back, "I think about that shot every day."
But much like a home loss on a buzzer-beater against Wisconsin, Beilein used it as a teaching tool to help make his players better. Last season, the Wolverines were much better in conference play in those game-ending situations.
"We had an outstanding record in close games in the Big Ten," Beilein said. "Those close games weren't decided in the last minute; they were decided maybe in the first minute. That's a continued point of emphasis."
One of the biggest surprises during the Italy tour was Irvin, who averaged 20.8 points and 7.3 rebounds in the four games, but was more aggressive offensively and showed more of the flashes that he showed in a smaller role.
But after a summer of working with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson, he's added 5½ inches to his vertical jump and could make a similar transition to his game that Nik Stauskas had last season.
"He has really worked. You'll see a different athleticism than what you saw last year," Beilein said. "His shooting is just as accurate as last year but he'll get a lot more opportunities. He's making good progressions in every area."
In the open practice, Irvin hit several 3-pointers but also finished a drill with a one-handed tomahawk dunk, showing explosiveness at the rim that he lacked last season.
Austin Hatch also participated in practice, although in a limited role, as he continues to recover from injuries suffered in a second plane crash that he survived. Beilein honored Hatch's scholarship and he continues to be an asset in practice, motivating the other players through his courage.
"He's one of our 13 scholarship players right now and he's done a great job of embracing the team and being a part of the team and giving us everything he can give us in every practice," Beilein said. "He's limited in practice right now as he continues to improve his skill level. At the same time, the kids love him and he won't be in some of the more competitive (drills) but he's brought a lot to this team."
Beilein described Hatch's role as "being a student of the game" and being a solid practice player more so than being a regular rotation player. But the lesson learned in Hatch's resiliency and perseverance could prove to be as valuable as anything he does on the court in his Michigan career.
"I have requested and received a film of him playing in high school that we just don't know how to show the rest of the team but we will do it," Beilein said. "When he was playing before the injuries ... it's really a great video."