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Heralded freshmen might jump into key roles as Michigan seeks more 'special things'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
David DeJulius

Ann Arbor — College basketball, in its own sense, is a never-ending cycle. As one process ends, another begins.

Michigan coach John Beilein experienced it within an eight-day span. He attended Austin Hatch's wedding on June 16, accompanied Moritz Wagner at the NBA Draft on June 21, and saw Duncan Robinson and Jaaron Simmons sign deals with the Miami Heat's Summer League team and a Swiss pro team, respectively, soon after.

And then on Saturday, Beilein welcomed one of his most heralded recruiting classes during his tenure when all five incoming freshmen — Ignas Brazdeikis, Brandon Johns, David DeJulius, Colin Castleton and Adrien Nunez — arrived on campus.

"Now we usher in the new guys and hopefully we can be as successful in this era of Michigan basketball as we were in this past one that came after the (2013 national title game appearance) in '14 to '18, where there was another growth spurt with our program," Beilein said on Tuesday. 

"I don't know whether we're back to where we were in '14-'15 (a 16-16 season), but I hope not. Whatever it is, we're just going to try to grow it again and do some of the special things we were able to do these past couple of seasons."

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The Wolverines are coming off one of their most memorable and successful seasons in program history. They set a single-season program record with 33 wins, became the third Big Ten team to win back-to-back conference tournament championships and reached the national title game for the second time in six seasons.

They will return seven players with Final Four experience, including three starters (guard Zavier Simpson, wing Charles Matthews and forward Isaiah Livers) and two others with starting experience (guard Eli Brooks and center Jon Teske), in the hopes of sustaining the momentum they've built.

But in order for Michigan to extend its success, it will have to do so with a young roster that will feature no seniors and three juniors (Matthews, Simpson and Teske). And, once again, it will have to overcome the loss of senior leaders (Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson) as well as an early departure to the NBA (Wagner, who was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers with the No. 25 pick).

"Whatever you want to call it — remodeling, rebuilding — we've lost a lot of talent the last two years, a bushel load of talent," Beilein said. "Some years the replacements are immediate, but some years the replacement takes two or three years to develop. But we lost an awful lot of really talented players both offensively and defensively.

"Probably most importantly, we lost in the last two years tremendous teammates. This new generation of Michigan basketball, they might have taken that for granted but you have to work to be a great teammate and that'll be one of the things we'll teach all summer long."

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That's where the group of freshmen, which is rated the nation's 12th-best 2018 recruiting class by 247Sports and the second-highest of Beilein's tenure, comes in.

Most of the quintet will be needed to plug in and at least play cameo roles from Day 1. Some, namely Brazdeikis, Johns and DeJulius, could see their roles expand as the season progresses, much like Jordan Poole's and Isaiah Livers' did last season.

And while high hopes and immediate results naturally come with high rankings, Beilein said his expectation is that each of the five freshmen will step up and help prevent the program from taking a step back, whether it's in the 2018-19 season or beyond.

"I love our guys that came in their first year and they either had somebody in front of them that really played well or they weren't as comfortable playing college basketball. But by their junior year, the D.J. Wilsons, the Moe Wagners were really good," Beilein said. "But you also have Tim Hardaway (Jr.) and Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas came in here making plays, Glenn Robinson (III), as freshmen and you could see it.

"Obviously, you prefer to have the first one, but it really doesn't make a difference. You embrace it and you get them to grow. I think it's very similar in the NBA. You'll have some guys that'll come in right away and they're (Boston Celtics rookie) Jayson Tatum, they're getting it done. And then other ones could be like Giannis (Antetokounmpo) in Milwaukee. He wasn't a star as a freshman and now he is, so you just go through it."

With Brazdeikis, Johns, DeJulius, Castleton and Nunez still settling into their new home, the main focus at this time of the year is to get accustomed to the university and its academic rigors.

Next will come the indoctrination of fundamentals, which began Wednesday with the start of summer workouts. It will begin with the four hours of skill development allowed each week during the offseason by the NCAA and continue through the team's August trip to Spain up until the season tips off in November.

"It will be boring for them, but everybody understands in the long run you got to learn to add and subtract before you end up multiplying or going to calculus," Beilein said. "We're going to teach them how to add and subtract, assume they know very little and just grow it from there."

Let the process begin.