ANN ARBOR, Mich.–A few bounces here, an extra bucket or two there, maybe less injuries–all of that would have changed the course of Michigan’s 2014-15 season.
However, things didn’t go as originally charted for Wolverines coach John Beilein. Instead of making a run in March, Beilein and Michigan (16-16, 8-10 B1G) dealt with long-term injuries to star wing Zak Irvin (Jr.), point guard Derrick Walton Jr. (Jr.) and shooting guard Caris LeVert (Sr.).
Spike Albrecht–who is part guard, all motor–played most of his junior year with a pair of bad hips. But he forged ahead. Michigan closed the season knowing that things could and should have been different. But at the same time, it knew that it put forth an honest effort from beginning to end.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, each one of those guys is closer to being fully healthy. They’re the “Core Four” of the team, and they’re expected to set the tone. But they’ll have a lot of help from up-and-comers such as sophomore forward Ricky Doyle, redshirt sophomore forward Mark Donnal, sophomore forward Kam Chatman and redshirt freshman D.J. Wilson.
Sophomore guards Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins took enormous steps toward the end of 2014-15, exploding with incredible bursts of offense and defense as they showed glimpses of the future . The 6’4″ and 6’6″ wing tandem will be a cornerstone this year.
“They’re not running around, you know, blind right now,” Beilein said during Thursday’s media day event. “But there are more expectations (on them this year). Now you’ve got to have that next level. Last year, you were trying to figure out what you had to do.
Now you’ve got to try and figure out, alright ‘What’s the opponent trying to do, and were do my teammates need me?’ So there’s still more that they have to continue to do. But it’s certainly better than them not playing at all last year.”
And if Michigan gets really lucky, true freshman forward Moritz Wagner will continue to rapidly develop into the versatile threat Beilein desires. At 6’10” and roughly 225 pounds, Wagner has the potential to take on a few roles.
“I’m seeing some development in some guys that’s terrific,” Beilein said, adding that this year’s team is “really fun” to coach. “It’s development that’s encouraging. And at the same, maybe not as ready to show what they can do in these early games. So there’s a lot of … we’re juggling a lot of basketballs right now, as to who plays, where they play, how we play.
And after two weeks–like I said, I know more than I knew two weeks ago–but I don’t have all the answers. I think we need to have a really good year.”
That’s the type of season that eluded Michigan a year ago. This season is just Part 2 of what was set in 2014-15, as the Wolverines certainly aren’t starting from scratch by any means. They could have closed up shop in late January. By then, the writing was on the wall–they’d have to wait until next year to show off their true ability. But rather than waving the white flag, Beilein, who enters his ninth year in Ann Arbor, opted for his tried-and-true methodology–as in, he just let them play.
That’s been the trademark of his remarkable run, really. For some reason, he seems to know exactly when to tighten up or loosen the reins. In 2012-13, the Wolverines roared through March because Beilein trusted freshemen stars Nik Stauskas and Trey Burke, among others. He even trusted some frosh reserve named Spike–enough to let him shoot four consecutive three-pointers during the national championship versus Louisville (L, 82-76).
That one was for all the marbles, yet Beilein green-lighted an undersized freshman to pop away. Albrecht finished with 17 points, a performance that remains one of the best of the Beilein era.
Michigan wasn’t supposed to annihilate Illinois during the 2015 Big Ten Tournament. But Beilein put his players in the drivers seat, and they delivered a 73-55 victory. Irvin poured 14 on the Illini. Dawkins scored 18 and Abdur-Rahkman scored 15. A hobbling Albrecht was good for eight points and five assists.
Those types of moments–those with everything on the line or with something to prove–have defined Beilein’s teams at Michigan. The trust is earned, therefore it is given. That two-way street works wonders.
So how is he going to get around while Irvin, LeVert, Walton and Albrecht mend wounds this season? How is he going to shuffle the lineups until he finds the right fit at the right time?
“That’s the biggest challenge right now. That’s a great question,” Belein replied. “Because that’s… you hear me talking about the sweet spot right now, and we have some guys that are really playing really well.
We have some other ones, we know in March, they really will be far better players. But some (opposing) players are just good enough that they’ll get you beaten a lot in November and December; and with the way it is at our level, you’ve got win in November and December as well if you want to play in March.”
It’s October, but as usual, Beilein is fixated on the big-picture. His tactical mind is always at work.
“So that’s the balancing we’re trying to do,” he went onto explain. “How do we speed these guys up? Where some guys might just be more solid right now–well, we go with the other one. So, treading that line right now is difficult. How much do we just let people play? Or probably push the young guys. How much do we run what we run and just let them go? But every day, we think about it.
Believe me. Because that’s the key to it.”