Business as usual for Wolverines despite departures

The Big Ten is considered the nation's toughest basketball conference, but John Beilein is ready for another run.

Kamil Krzaczynski

ANN ARBOR — For most college basketball teams, losing five key players, including four starters, would mean a rebuilding season.

That’s not how things work at Michigan.

Yes, the Wolverines saw Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas head for the NBA, while Jordan Morgan graduated and Jon Horford transferred to Florida, but for John Beilein, that’s business as usual.

After all, in the last four years, he’s lost Darius Morris, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA and seen a huge number of key role players graduate, but the program hasn’t slowed down. 

After their appearance in the 2013 NCAA championship game, they lost Burke and Hardaway, then had McGary miss most of the season with a back injury, but they still won a Big Ten title and a berth in the Elite Eight.

"This wasn’t the plan — recruiting a bunch of top-100 kids and have them leave for the NBA — but that’s what we’ve had happen," Beilein said at Thursday’s Media Day. "We planned to have veteran players and a lot of great Senior Nights, but it hasn’t worked out that way, so you have to adapt to the new challenges."

This year, the team will be led by junior guard Caris LeVert, who has a chance to follow Burke and Stauskas as Big Ten Player of the Year. LeVert was originally supposed to redshirt two years ago, but ended up coming off the bench during Michigan’s run to the championship game, and he took a major step forward last season. If he continues to improve at getting to the rim, he’s got a chance at being an All-American…and yes, he’ll probably be headed for the NBA a year early.

LeVert, though, will have to shake off the image that has haunted Michigan fans all summer — Aaron Harrison’s game-winning 3-pointer in the Elite Eight that just eluded his fingertips.

"Caris played exceptional defense on that play — he was perfect," Beilein said. "There were a lot of other moments earlier in the game that could have that changed it around."

The other two starters in Beilein’s three-guard system will also be back from a year ago, with Derrick Walton at the point and Zak Irvin becoming a starter in place of Stauskas. Walton will serve more as a true point guard than he did a year ago, when Stauskas did much of the ball handling, but he’s still a 3-point threat and Michigan’s best threat to drive to the basket.

Walton’s backup will be cult hero Spike Albrecht, who will forever live in Michigan lore for his barrage of 3-pointers in the 2013 title game, followed by an unsuccessful attempt to woo Kate Upton via Twitter. Albrecht, 22, is now the team’s oldest player and will play 10-15 minutes a game. He’ll come off the bench firing, as will Irvin, who needs to show that he can be more than a 3-point threat.

After that, though, it gets complicated. The last two starting spots, and most likely the key reserves at both positions and small forward, are all going to be freshman. Kameron Chatman will most likely replace Robinson at power forward, with Mark Donnel starting at Morgan’s center spot. Both players can shoot, which will be a bonus considering that most of Michigan’s points are expected to come from the veterans on the perimeter.

"Those are positions where we just want freshmen to keep it simple," Beilein said. "We just want them to work on their footwork and be the same kind of solid team guys that Jon and Jordan always were."

Behind Chatman and Donnel will be more youngsters, including Ricky Doyle, D.J. Wilson and Aubrey Dawkins. Dawkins has already won the praise of his teammates for his dunking ability — he’s like Robinson in his ability to touch the rim with his head.

"This is going to be a tremendous opportunity for some young men to get out there and do big things," Beilein said. "We’ve only got five lettermen back, so we’re going to have a lot of freshmen on the floor. I’m not going to single anyone out, but a couple of these kids have been exceptional."

The Big Ten is considered the nation’s toughest basketball conference, especially with the addition of Maryland, but Beilein is ready for another run.

"We know that Wisconsin pretty much has everyone back, and other teams have 3-4 starters back, but that’s the challenge," he said. "We can’t wait to get started."