Uncertainty leaves Michigan searching for answers

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — It was almost like Michigan basketball coach John Beilein could smell the question coming, and he answered it almost before it was done being asked.

Can you recall a season that begins with so much uncertainty?

“Probably only in the first years, just because we didn’t know,” Beilein said, of his start at Le Moyne and Canisius. “We have so many balls juggling right now with this team.

“It’s a veteran team with a whole lot of things we still have to answer, and we don’t have the answers just yet.”

The Wolverines will get their first glimpse of just what they have at 7 p.m. Friday, when they open the 2015-16 regular season against Division II Northern Michigan at Crisler Center.

Five keys for Michigan basketball

It would shock nobody if Michigan found its way back to an elite level — like when it reached the championship game three years ago and the Elite Eight two years ago — but it wouldn’t rattle the Earth if the Wolverines didn’t, either.

Even poll voters are apprehensive, putting Michigan No. 25 (Associated Press) and No. 26 (coaches).

It’s all left Beilein, admittedly, feeling just a bit squirmy, albeit still smiling.

“I’m always uneasy going into the season,” he said. “Because you don’t know what you have.”

This much is certain: The Wolverines have their four best players back from significant injuries — Caris LeVert (foot), Derrick Walton Jr. (foot), Spike Albrecht (hip surgery) and Zak Irvin (back surgery), though for at least the opener and possibly Monday’s game against Elon, Irvin won’t play, while Albrecht will get “spot minutes.”

But will they be as effective post-injury as they were before?

Michigan also has an extremely deep and talented sophomore class that’s also as experienced as any in the country, given the amount of fill-in work it had to do last season.

But will Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman build on their breakthrough moments, or level off?

Is D.J. Wilson ready for prime time, as his teammates insist he is?

Will Ricky Doyle or Mark Donnal step up and make Michigan a better rebounding team?

Can Duncan Robinson’s shooting skills transfer to Division I, like he did, coming from Williams College?

Can Moritz Wagner, a freshman from Germany, make an impact right away, as he looks like one moment in practice, or does he need more time and possibly a redshirt, as he looks like the next moment in practice?

Truth is, maybe a bit of uncertainty isn’t such a bad thing. After all, the Wolverines thought they knew just how great they were going to be last year — then they got punched in the mouth early in the season, with the loss to New Jersey Institute of Technology, started losing one player after another, finished 16-16 and even missed an NIT berth.

“Last year was a little bit of a humbling experience,” said Albrecht. “A lot of times guys get caught up in the hype. We were coming off an Elite Eight team and all the success we’ve had in recent years.

“You might be thinking just because you’ve got Michigan across your chest, you’re gonna be a big-time player, a big-time team. And then the struggles we had, I think that kind of struck reality for a few guys.”

Michigan, which beat Le Moyne in an exhibition game last week, made the NCAA Tournament five consecutive years before last season.

Then the Wolverines got as high as No. 16 in the coaches poll and No. 17 in the AP before things came crashing down.

That’s not how LeVert, who could’ve jumped to the NBA after his junior year, wanted to go out.

“That was a huge factor why I stayed in school, to kind of leave the program better than when I found it,” he said. “Last year wasn’t very good. We definitely want to get some wins this year and put the program back where it’s supposed to be.”

Where that is, nobody’s really sure.

Early season tests against Xavier, Connecticut, North Carolina State, SMU and possibly Syracuse will paint a clearer picture — as will Michigan’s ability to avoid further disastrous injuries. Wilson and Dawkins already are nursing ankle pain.

Michigan’s roster is deep, and versatile — with no fewer than four swingmen on the dockets.

But as Beilein pointed out, that can be a blessing and a curse. The more options you have, the more decisions you have to make; and the more decisions you have to make, the more likely you are to get some very wrong.

“It’s a bit more complex than I would like it to be at this time of the year,” he said. “It’s difficult to try and figure it out. One day, somebody looks like a million bucks and another guy doesn’t, and they just switch spots the next day. Sometimes, too many makes it more difficult.

“Usually at this time, I’ve got a pretty good idea who the five starters are. I’ve got to start five guys, because you’ve got to start five guys. Nobody’s been bad (but) putting it all together, who plays where, when is Zak gonna be ready, when is Spike gonna be ready, has made it a little bit more difficult. That’s what we’re dealing with.”

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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Northern Michigan at Michigan

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Friday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: BTN Plus/WWJ

Outlook: Northern Michigan lost, 94-53, to Michigan State in an exhibition last week. MSU only led by five at halftime.