UM’s Irvin upbeat as he works way back from surgery

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Zak Irvin was excited to see what this Michigan team could do, when healthy.

And the health of the team was looking really good as summer started to make way for fall.

But then, during an early September open-gym session — some five-on-five — Irvin fell, and all of a sudden, Michigan’s overall health was dealt another blow.

Irvin had back surgery, and there is no set timetable for his return — but he’s likely to miss some of the early season games in November.

“I was in shock, especially when I got the news I had to get my back taken care of,” Irvin said Thursday at Michigan media day.

“But everything happens for a reason.”

One of the first things Irvin, a junior, did after getting the news was reach out to Spike Albrecht (hip surgery), Caris LeVert (foot surgery) and Derrick Walton Jr. (foot injury), who all battled big injuries, either during last season — LeVert was shut down in January, Walton in February — or over the summer, the case with Albrecht.

Their main message: Just stay positive.

“I was able to end the season last year pretty confident with myself,” said Irvin, who has played in all 69 games during his first two seasons — a streak that is likely to end when Michigan opens the regular season Friday, Nov. 13, against Northern Michigan.

“Obviously, this was tough to go through.”

Irvin said he’s felt more like a coach than a player during the early days of practice, because he’s not able to get after it just yet. And even when’s finally able to, he knows that will be tough, as well.

You can’t just snap your fingers and be back in game shape. Just ask Albrecht, who figured he’d be good to go right away in practice, but quickly found himself battling soreness afterward.

“Just trying to get back in shape is probably the biggest thing,” said Irvin, a versatile guard/forward who was Michigan’s leading scorer in 12 games last season. “These guys have been working day in and day out. That’s something I’ve gotta work on.

“I’m just taking it day by day, just trying to get healthy.”

Sophomores surge

Michigan’s sophomores aren’t only coming into this season with more experience than most their peers in the Big Ten, thanks to last season’s slew of injuries.

They’re also a lot stronger. Coach John Beilein said that will be evident right away.

Take Ricky Doyle, for instance.

“He came in country strong. He didn’t lift a lot of weights, but he was still strong walking in that day,” Beilein said. “One of his bigger issues was to just change the muscle mass and make it more productive ... 250 pounds, what is the composite of those 250 pounds? His lean muscle mass has gone way up.

“He’s probably is in the best condition he’s been.”

Doyle credited the work of strength-and-conditioning coach Jon Sanderson for helping him increase his vertical leap by 4-5 inches, and redshirt freshman D.J. Wilson — who’s getting rave reviews from every corner in Crisler these days — by an amazing 7.

The team’s desire, after missing the NCAA Tournament a year after making the Elite Eight and two years after making the title game, helps, too.

“There’s no comparing the intensity at practice for this year and last year,” Doyle said. “It feels like a completely different team.”

‘Embarrassment of riches’

Michigan’s roster is full of players who can play all over the place.

Assistant coach Bacari Alexander called the depth and versatility, “an embarrassment of riches.” Irvin likes it, too, saying there are only two positions — “on the court or off the court.”

The Wolverines also will have flexibility when the game’s on the line.

“Caris ... his being out last year gave us much more comfort in guys like Zak Irvin. He’ll be out there shooting (Friday). He’s progressing really well,” Beilein said. “Zak Irvin had the ball in his hands a lot late. Aubrey (Dawkins).

“Our best teams had two, three guys we could go to late. Caris is certainly going to be one of those, but I don’t think he’ll be on the only option.”

Slam dunks

Beilein said analytics are showing him and his coaching staff that redshirt sophomore Duncan Robinson’s shooting skills will translate from Division III Williams College, where he transferred from two years ago. He sat out last season, per NCAA rules.

Beilein went so far to say a shot by Robinson being slightly guarded might be a better shot than some other players shooting wide open.

“I have a lot of confidence, because he’s done that on a petty big stage,” Beilein said. “I think the national championship game in Division III is a big statge.”

... How did Albrchect’s best-man speech go at his brother’s wedding last week? Funny or tearful? “I went fun,” he said. “I went full comedy. I’m not very sentimental.”

... How’s German freshman Moritz Wagner fitting in?

“Just fine,” Dawkins said, with a smile. “He’s a goofball, funny guy. That’s perfect for our locker room.”