Speaking to about 50 members of the University of Michigan’s student section, the Maize Rage, prior to the team’s annual open pratctice on Oct. 21, head coach John Beilein didn’t sugarcoat Michigan’s chances for the upcoming season.
“I like where our team is at this point in the year, but obviously it’s hard to replace two guys like Trey (Burke) and Tim (Hardaway Jr.),” Beilein said. “So we need to see how our players respond and how the freshman fit in.”
Practice proceded much like it had in the previous few years: The projected starters scrimmaged the bench players, assistant coach Bacari Alexander screamed at Jon Horford, and Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan told the students how important we are and thanked us for supporting the team.
That quiet Monday night revealed so little of a team that, in the following four months, has done nothing but make noise during a roller coaster ride of a 2013-14 season.
Dreams of another magical non-conference slate crumbled in Ames, Iowa when Michigan fell for the first time in just its third game of the season. After starting 16-0 last season, the Wolverines had just suffered their earliest loss since the 2007-08 season when a loss to No. 5 Georgetown dropped them to 2-1.
Unfortunately for the youngest team in the Big Ten, the losing didn’t stop there. Michigan dropped three of its next seven games and fell to 6-4 on the season, surfacing an unthinkable question into the minds of Wolverine fans: Could the defending national runner-ups and preseason No. 7 team in the country miss the NCAA Tournament?
The biggest blow lay in the shadows until Dec. 27, when Michigan’s preseason All-American forward, McGary, announced his plans to have back surgery that would sideline him indefinitely. This news broke just days after Michigan fell out of the national rankings for the first time in more than a year.
With a difficult Big Ten schedule looming, the wounded Wolverines looked ready to crash and burn, but Beilein didn’t allow that to happen.
Michigan stormed back onto the national stage with a 10-game winning streak that included three straight wins over top ten opponents. The team’s first victory in the Breslin Center since Stu Douglass’ corner three pointer vaulted the Maize and Blue over its in-state rival three years ago placed the new-look Wolverines atop the Big Ten.
McGary’s injury seemingly re-energized veteran post players Morgan and Horford as the duo more than made up for the 6’10″ hole in the middle of Michigan’s lineup. Together, the tandem that fans affectionately dubbed “Morford” solidified the Wolverines defensively and blended into an offense that requires little more than a few put-backs from its center position.
Meanwhile, a revolution developed in the backcourt.
Something clicked for freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. during the beginning of Big Ten play, and he evolved into a leader reminiscent of Trey Burke during his freshman campaign. His confidence skyrocketed after his complete domination of Keith Appling in East Lansing, and even veteran players like Horford acknowledged his leadership, saying he “not only knows what to say, but when to say it.”
Unlike Burke, Walton enjoyed the luxury of maturing in the shadows of emerging guards Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert. Stauskas, who figures to become Michigan’s second straight Big Ten Player of the Year, leads his team in points and assists per game and possesses the same take-over-the-game mentality as Burke did on the big college stages.
LeVert, on the other hand, became Michigan’s most consistent and versatile player after contributing just 10.8 minutes per game to last season’s Final Four journey. The baby-faced sophomore more than tripled his minutes, points, assists, rebounds, blocks, steals and field goals this season.
Michigan twice surrendered its outright conference lead in the next five games when it fell to Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. Both stints in second place were short-lived though, as Michigan State coughed up the lead within 24 hours of gaining it.
The Wolverines earned the inside track to the Big Ten championship with a sweep over the Spartans on Feb. 23, when an 11-point first half lead evaporated in the wake of Michigan’s offensive onslaught.
Days later, Glenn Robinson III’s bank shot at the buzzer lifted the Wolverines over Purdue in a game in which they trailed by as many as 19 points. Despite the low standing of that Boilermakers team, that comeback victory propelled Michigan to two more victories, including a 31-point dismantling of Illinois to clinch the Big Ten outright.
On March 9, Michigan State will travel to Columbus to battle Ohio State in the final nationally-televised Big Ten game of the regular season. It must satisfy John Beilein to think about the conference’s officials selling that game to CBS at the beginning of the season as the game that would probably decide the Big Ten champion.
Instead, nearly a full week beforehand, Michigan rendered that matchup completely worthless. Ohio State can finish .500 in the conference at best, while Michigan State ran out of excuses during a home loss to Illinois last Saturday. All season long, Tom Izzo whined about his team’s injuries, only to watch the group that grabbed the preseason No. 2 AP ranking tally a season-low 46 points against a conference bottom-feeder.
In Ann Arbor, Beilein took the loss of an All-American in stride, and Michigan rode it all the way to a championship.
This year’s Michigan basketball team failed to accomplish some of the feats that it did last season. It never held the No. 1 national ranking. It didn’t win 16 games in a row. It may not even make it to the Final Four, though that remains to be seen.
But these players created a legacy of their own. They stomped the Buckeyes in Columbus during Aaron Craft’s final meeting. They silenced Izzo and the all-powerful Spartans with a convincing sweep.
Almost a year ago, a magical run to the Final Four brought the most famous college basketball team ever back together in Atlanta. As Jalen Rose led his former Michigan teammates down the isle of the Georgia Dome towards the court where the Wolverines prepared for the National Championship game, fans realized that Michigan basketball truly returned.
But this year’s team accomplished something that last year’s team and even the Fab Five couldn’t. These players are outright Big Ten champions.