Minutes played start to take toll on UM freshmen

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Northwestern guard Dave Sobolewski celebrate Northwestern's win with students Tuesday night.

Evanston, Ill. — One of the clichés in sports is that by the end of the season, freshmen aren't freshmen anymore — they're closer to being sophomores in the way that they think and execute on the court.

For Michigan, playing five freshmen has had mixed results — it is 14-14 (7-9 Big Ten) as it enters the final week of the regular season, on the precipice of ending the season next week in the Big Ten Tournament or earning a postseason bid, likely the NIT.

The reliance on the freshmen could bode well for next year, when they could return more seasoned. But in the short term, coach John Beilein is on guard to ensure it's not taking its toll.

"I've worried about it but I haven't seen it to any degree other than the shooting stats," Beilein said Monday. "Aubrey (Dawkins) and Muhammad (Ali Abdur-Rahkman) have dropped off the last five games, so it may be a little bit there in their legs, but we don't have many other choices."

Because of the injuries to Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr., the Wolverines have Spike Albrecht, Zak Irvin and Max Bielfeldt as experienced rotation players. In extenuating circumstances, Beilein has used walk-ons Andrew Dakich and Sean Lonergan.

With the four-game summer exhibition tour in Europe, Michigan's season has been a little longer than most, but as it nears the end, the wear and tear are starting to show a little.

"Combined, the Italy trip in August and all these games, they've played a lot of minutes," Beilein said. "I'm sure however the season ends, they'll need that time to rest because they've really been through a lot of positive experiences, but that doesn't necessarily lead them to be at their best when they're out there all the time."

Irvin has started to show some versatility in his game, as he's been challenged to dribble, drive and pass more because defenders are guarding him more closely.

Some of that improvement can be attributed to skill development Beilein still has players working on at this late stage of the season.

"Zak's the best example of a guy who's made tremendous strides," Albrecht said. "He's worked really hard and the coaches have worked really hard and the younger guys can look at him as a guy where the hard work is paying off, because it's really showing these last few games."

'They're just kids'

While no one is giving up, Beilein conceded he's had to do more rebuilding this year with the departures of five players to the NBA in the last two seasons.

"When you take over a team, (a down season) is what can happen to you," Beilein said. "We have to work together to understand that it's temporary and part of the process. I'm not walking off the ledge of a building; I'm fine.

"When you have your last couple of years be the way we were, you just get spoiled and you're expecting certain things. You just tone it back and say they're just kids and they can do this."

With Beilein's previous coaching stops, he didn't have to rebuild multiple times, but the recent attrition and the large freshman class have hastened the process since the trip to the championship game in 2013.

"I didn't expect to have to do it two or three times at the same program," Beilein said. "You think once you get it (to success), it's going to be there. To have this happen where we're starting all over again, you're saying we've done it before, so let's do it again."