Nearly four years ago, Michigan basketball coach John Beilein welcomed five freshmen to his program: Mitch McGary, Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert.
The group was quickly dubbed the “Fresh Five” — an homage to the infamous “Fab Five” of the early 1990s, arguably the best recruiting class of all time. Four players in that group reached the NBA, and the Wolverines reached the NCAA championship game in 1991 and 1992 before a pay-for-play scandal forced the program to vacate those wins.
Unlike the Fab Five, the Fresh Five were never a cultural phenomenon, and they were never the center of massive controversy. They joined a team already stocked with established stars and NBA prospects in Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke, and while the Fab Five arrived in Ann Arbor two years after Michigan’s national championship in 1989, the Fresh Five arrived unburdened by the trophies of seasons past.
The Fresh Five, dealing with less hype and less pressure, quickly made a name for themselves anyway. Stauskas quickly earned a reputation as one of the nation’s best pure shooters. Robinson proved himself to be an elite athlete. McGary’s freshman-year NCAA Tournament play sparked a run all the way to the 2013 national championship game.
Everybody remembers what happened next. Albrecht scored 17 points in the first half of that game to give Michigan a 12-point lead over Louisville, and though the Wolverines couldn’t hold their lead, a legend was born.
After an Elite Eight run the following season, the trio of Stauskas, McGary and Robinson were gone. Their early NBA Draft entries left just LeVert and Albrecht in Ann Arbor for the second half of their college careers.
That was never the expectation.
“That year, we were recruiting guys to be here for four years,” Beilein said in October. “Mitch was the only one that we felt probably wasn’t a four-year player at the time. I underestimated their DNA.”
Having lost three players to the NBA, Beilein and Michigan’s fan base recalibrated their vision for the future to center instead on LeVert and Albrecht. Once again, those expectations were shattered.
Expected to carry the team in their final season, LeVert and Albrecht have instead fallen victim to injuries, appearing in a combined one game in 2016. In LeVert’s 11-minute appearance Feb. 13 against Purdue, he suffered what Beilein called a “temporary setback” in his recovery from a mysterious injury to his lower left leg that the program has long refused to detail.
LeVert hasn’t seen game action since, and with just three regular-season contests remaining, time is running out.
Relative to Albrecht, LeVert is lucky. Albrecht’s time ran out months ago, as he announced in December that his attempt to return from a pair of offseason hip surgeries was unsuccessful and that he was ending his career at Michigan.
“I never, in a million years, would have envisioned it going like this,” Albrecht said then. “To see my playing days at Michigan come to an end like this — that definitely wasn’t part of the plan.”
LeVert wears sweatpants to games and doesn’t emerge from Michigan’s locker room until pregame warm-ups are done. Albrecht joins his teammates on the court before games, but with the prospect of playing long since eliminated, he’s left to focus on his outfit instead of his jump shot — sometimes an eye-catching combination featuring red pants or a pink shirt.
Neither seems likely to play substantive minutes again for the Wolverines. In the unlikely event LeVert plays Wednesday against Northwestern, his minutes will be limited. It’s tough to imagine him returning in time to reintegrate himself into Michigan’s offense and return to his early-season form before the Big Ten Tournament, or the NCAA Tournament, if the Wolverines survive that long.
In the seniors’ absence, Michigan has shown infrequent glimpses of its post-Fresh Five identity. The Wolverines have lived and died by the 3-point shot and have been bullied inside by Big Ten front lines, often falling victim to game-ending scoring runs against elite opponents.
The 3-point shots have not fallen lately, and the results generally haven’t been pretty, save for a pair of home-court upsets against Maryland and Purdue.
It’s hard to imagine Indiana going on a 25-0 run at Crisler Center with Albrecht or LeVert on the floor, and it’s tough to imagine Michigan State jumping out to a 16-point halftime lead four days later. It’s a senior’s job to be a run-stopper and a rivalry-game rally starter. But Michigan is a team without seniors and, consequently, a team that still has missing pieces.
LeVert has been one of the missing pieces before, and has plenty of experience rehabbing from long-term injuries. He underwent surgery in May 2014 to repair a stress fracture in his left foot, then injured the same foot the following January, causing him to miss the remainder of his junior year. In light of the injury, LeVert elected to forego the NBA Draft for another year and return for his senior season.
“He understands the process,” Beilein said of LeVert in October. “He understands God’s will. He is just working like crazy to do everything he can to take care of each day, and everything will work itself out.”
Much to the chagrin of Beilein, LeVert and Michigan fans everywhere, everything hasn’t worked itself out, or come particularly close.
LeVert and Albrecht were supposed to spend their final weeks at Michigan on the court, leading a team back to the NCAA Tournament after a 16-16 finish last season that came in no small part due to LeVert’s injury.
The pair, who saw floor time together as freshmen during the 2013 Final Four, instead seem destined to spend their final weeks at Michigan on the bench, sitting and watching.
“Am I happy he came back?” Albrecht said in October. “Heck yeah, I am. I didn’t want to be the lone senior, be the old man in the group by myself. … I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about that, but at the same time, I told him, just know that whatever you do, I’m here for you and I’ll be rooting for you regardless.”
The plan, of course, was for LeVert and Albrecht to root for one another on the court. Instead, they’re keeping each other company on the bench, watching their senior years play out without any seniors playing.
In a twisted way, it makes sense. The Fresh Five were unpredictable from the moment they set foot on campus, and this four-year period could have ended any number of ways that defied belief, like Michigan’s 16-0 start their freshman season or Albrecht’s 17-point national championship outburst the same year.
This ending is certainly unexpected, and it seems destined to defy belief, though in exactly the wrong way. Barring a miracle, however, this much is certain: The Fresh Five era wasn’t supposed to end like this.