Tourney-tested UM expects big things next year
New York — Michigan basketball, in all likelihood, was a year ahead of schedule, making an NCAA Tournament this season when, for so long, it seemed like even the possibility was a pipe dream.
Making it to March Madness, now, could pay significant dividends moving forward, with the Wolverines returning their entire active roster, a roster that now will have had pivotal March Madness experience to build on after this season ended late Friday night in a crushing 70-63 loss to Notre Dame at Barclays Center.
"Now everyone on our team's got experience in the NCAA Tournament," Zak Irvin said. "We've just gotta get ready for the offseason and get ready for next year."
John Beilein, still picking up the pieces of a handful of early NBA defectors and the worst luck on the injury front in his 41 years of coaching, was understandably proud of this team, given all it went through, not just the injuries but the growing pains and the humbling defeats, too, to rally at the Big Ten tournament and win the games it needed — notably, against Indiana — to just slip into the NCAA Tournament.
He wasn't joking when he said he would've embraced an NIT bid for this team, because, after all, that would've been progress from a season ago, when Michigan was 16-16 and didn't even sniff postseason play.
Detractors will look at 2013 and 2014 and see that Michigan made the national-championship game and Elite Eight, respectively, and wonder what the heck happened.
Beilein knows what happened — buh-bye, Trey Burke, Mitch McGary, Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III to the NBA; buh-bye, Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert to the shelf — and now knows this team is back on the upswing. And he believes just making the NCAA Tournament, with a "First Four" win over Tulsa and a narrow loss to Notre Dame in the round of 64, was a huge step toward making much bigger strides next season.
"It was big," Beilein said. "There's some guys that will improve and improve a great deal. I know they will, because this hurts us all. They'll work at it like we had a bad season, which we didn't."
Michigan finished the season 23-13, losing just two games to teams that weren't in the top 25 at the time, including the NCAA Tournament loss to Notre Dame.
Many of the Wolverines losses were routs, though, showing just how large a gap there is to be made up.
The gap got smaller as the season went along, as Irvin got healthier following offseason back surgery, as Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. learned to become floor leaders with the absence of LeVert, as Duncan Robinson learned the Big Ten game after transferring from Division III Williams, as Mark Donnal emerged as a viable frontcourt option, as Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman learned how good he actually was, and as freshman Moritz Wagner got more and more comfortable with the American game after coming to Ann Arbor from his native Berlin, Germany.
There were great strides made by all, even if there still is a long way to go for each of them.
"Just gonna use this as fuel going into the offseason," said Walton, who'll likely be a co-captain next season with fellow senior Irvin. "I didn't shoot the ball as well as I know I should've. Just fuel at this point."
Same goes for Irvin, who made some big shots when it mattered late for Michigan, but was 4-for-16 against Notre Dame. Walton has had too many stat lines like that, as well — like going 0-for-6 in the second half Friday, after going 4-for-7 for 10 points in the opening half.
Robinson's gotta get stronger, so he won't hit the wall he hit this season when going up against the rough-and-tumble Big Ten competition. His defense much improve, too, and that's the case with just about the entire roster. Outside of a few impressive, several-minute stretches in big wins this season, the Wolverines defense was a mess, particularly in the post.
Defense is the main reason Aubrey Dawkins, D.J. Wilson and Kam Chatman saw their minutes so limited.
Beilein insists you must earn your minutes in practice, and they didn't, and it severely limited the depth for Michigan, which had little to go to most of the season beyond Dawkins and Ricky Doyle, until Wagner rose to the occasion late.
"I think we learned a lot, and I also think that we realized that we want to do a lot more next year, and we're capable of doing a lot more next year," Robinson said. "And that starts right away in the offseason. We have a lot of areas where we need to improve.
"We're ready to go to work. That's one thing I know, for sure."
That sounds all fine and dandy, though Beilein cautions they don't overdo it this offseason, either. Michigan still is trying to put its finger on the reason behind all these injuries lately, and some think the gym rats are more vulnerable.
Beilein said he's looking forward to more depth next season, made possible by a four-man freshman class which includes, by most accounts, at least two guys who could make an immediate impact.
Those two are Lima, Ohio, point guard Xavier Simpson, who last week was named Ohio's Mr. Basketball after scoring 59 and 65 points in two games this season and was to play for a state championship in Columbus Saturday night; and Austin Davis, the big man and exceptional athlete from Onsted, Michigan.
The other recruits are forward Jon Teske of Medina, Ohio, and Ibi Watson, a guard, from Pickerington, Ohio.
"The state of Ohio," said Beilein, "plays really good basketball."
Michigan was arguably the least-experienced team in the Big Ten this season, and still finished middle of the pack with impressive wins over Maryland, Purdue and, in the Big Ten tournament, Indiana.
Next season, Michigan could be among the most-experienced team in the Big Ten, especially now that Irvin and Walton and Robinson and Donnal and Abdur-Rahkman are used to playing big-time minutes.
They probably won't need to play as minutes next season, at least that's Beilein's sincere hope.
But if they have to — especially in crunch time, late in games — they won't be novices, looking like deer in the headlights. They've been there, now. And they're hungry to go further, now.
"Zak and Derrick were the only guys coming into this Tournament that had any time playing in the NCAA Tournament," Donnal said. "Having these two guys under our belt, knowing how good we can be, I think serves us just moving forward."
Brent Hibbits, F, 6-8/205, Soph.
Kameron Chatman, F, 6-8/215, Jr.
D.J. Wilson, F, 6-10/240, Soph.
Derrick Walton Jr., G, 6-1/190, Sr.
Andrew Dakich, G, 6-2/190, Sr.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, G, 6-4/185, Jr.
Moritz Wagner, F, 6-120/225, Soph.
Sean Lonergan, F, 6-5/210, Sr.
Zak Irvin, G, 6-6/215, Sr.
Duncan Robinson, F, 6-8/210, Jr.
Aubrey Dawkins, G, 6-6/205, Jr.
Ricky Doyle, F, 6-9/250, Jr.
Mark Donnal, F, 6-9/240, Sr.
The new guys
Michigan's recruiting class:
Austin Davis, 6-10/240, forward, Onsted, Michigan
Xavier Simpson, 5-11/170, guard, Lima, Ohio
Jon Teske, 6-11/210, forward, Medina, Ohio
Ibi Watson, 6-5/185, guard, Pickerington, Ohio