John Niyo, James Hawkins and Matt Charboneau preview the Michigan State and Michigan college basketball seasons. The Detroit News, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — The confetti. The cheers. The chance.
Sophomore guard Jordan Poole remembers everything about the final game of the 2017-18 college basketball season — one that ended with Villanova closing the curtain on Michigan’s national title hopes.
“I’m still not over it,” Poole said during the team’s media day last week. “Being able to have that opportunity right there in our hands and have it separated is a feeling that you won't forget.”
Even when the Wolverines were recently watching film and Poole recognized some of the same plays they ran in the national championship, he couldn’t help but think to himself how they should’ve brought home the program's second national title.
He admitted reruns of that Monday night at the Alamodome in San Antonio play in his head every now and then. And when they do, he can get a little irritated, but also “instantly antsy” about the road ahead.
“I definitely still recall walking off the court and hearing all the Villanova fans going crazy and saying, ‘Villanova national champs,’” Poole said. “It has kind of sat in the back of my mind and it’s just fuel to the fire.
“Isaiah (Livers) and me talk about it. We want it really bad. I mean, I don't even know how to describe it.”
Like Poole, the Villanova loss still gnaws at Livers. The sophomore forward remembers losing the opening tip to Omari Spellman and then “everything went quick like a flash.”
Yet, Livers — like several of his Michigan teammates — hasn’t been able to bring himself to watch the title game. Part of him isn’t ready to see what turned the contest after the first 10 minutes and what adjustment could’ve been made to change the outcome.
“It's tough to think about that, but it's all about fate,” he said. “It's just how life goes.”
Instead of looking back at what could’ve been, Livers has carried that crushing feeling to help sharpen his focus on what could be.
And with seven players back from last season’s Final Four trip, one would be hard-pressed to find a more driven group heading into the 2018-19 campaign.
"Even though we lost in the championship and went to the Final Four and won the Big Ten (tournament) championship again I feel like we're still the most motivated team,” Livers said. “Every day we get better and it's one step toward being Big Ten championship, Final Four, (national) championship.
“We just think about that every day at the end of the day. I think if you think about that at the end of the day, the next day you have something to be motivated for.”
Michigan coach John Beilein has been down this road before, though, trying to temper the expectations that naturally come with a national runner-up team like in 2013-14.
The Wolverines will be without top shooters Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson, but return several critical pieces to last season’s record success, including starters Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson and Livers and the entire coaching staff.
As a result, Michigan enters the season ranked No. 19 in the nation— its first preseason ranking in three seasons and highest since it was No. 7 the year after falling to Louisville in the 2013 national title game — and viewed as one of the top teams in the Big Ten.
But don’t expect Beilein to pay any mind to the heightened attention.
"The expectations for a team that lost so many good players is probably way too high, and we're not going to worry about them anyhow,” Beilein said. “I can't let our guys worry about any hype, if we're a nationally ranked team, or where they come out in the early stock. We've just got to try and get better.
“We've got to try and beat Norfolk State and Northwood before that; that's what we've got to do. And then we'll see where we are after that.”
Regardless, Michigan won’t be a team that’s flying under the radar and operating in silence, especially with a top-15 recruiting class now in the fold.
And that’s quite fine with the five freshmen — forwards Ignas Brazdeikis and Brandon Johns, guard David DeJulius, center Colin Castleton and wing Adrien Nunez — who aren’t shy to accept that the bar has been raised for them.
“When I first got here in the summer there was for sure some pressure,” DeJulius said. "It's just the culture here now — winning. Me and the other freshmen we came in here knowing we were just in the championship game, so, shoot, we're in practice with guys who were just on the highest stage that there is, so you got to play up to par.”
Nunez added like any incoming class, there’s a desire to come in and build upon where the last group left off. And despite the team’s youth — nobody has more than two years of playing experience at the college level — he sees the potential, the means and the appetite for a different finish.
“We stay hungry,” assistant coach DeAndre Haynes said. “We know we're going to be hunted this year and we're used to being the underdog, but we'll take it. These guys are hungry. They want more.”
Coach: John Beilein (12th season at Michigan, 248-143 overall, 111-87 Big Ten)
Last year’s record: 33-8, 13-5
Top returning players: Charles Matthews, 6-6, R-Jr., wing (13 points, 5.5 rebounds); Zavier Simpson, 6-0, Jr., guard (7.3 points, 3.7 assists); Jon Teske, 7-1, Jr., center (team-high 26 blocks); Jordan Poole, 6-5, So., guard (6.1 points, 37 percent on 3s); Isaiah Livers, 6-7, So., forward (3.4 points, 36 percent on 3s)
This player will surprise everyone with a big season: There’s no question Matthews and Simpson will be the leaders, but Poole is the one who will probably make the biggest leap statistically with more than half the team’s offensive production gone. He’ll be Michigan’s top 3-point threat and could also be the one Beilein turns to in crunch time as the team’s top returning free-throw shooter.
Michigan can win the Big Ten championship if … Everyone settles into their roles and the offense comes together by the end of non-conference play. The Wolverines have as much talent — if not more — than any other Big Ten team, but how quickly they’re able to develop chemistry with five new faces in the mix could be the deciding factor.
Toughest opponent: North Carolina (No. 8) and Villanova (No. 9) are ranked in the top 10 in the Associated Press preseason poll and both handily beat Michigan by double digits last season. You could make a case for each team, but taking on the reigning national champions in their newly renovated home arena? It doesn’t get any more difficult than that.