When looking at the season in retrospect, it’s easy to see how the year was made for the Michigan basketball team’s growth. After battling departures from senior captains Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht, it was difficult to expect the same preseason top-25 expectations as the Wolverines learned to play without their two leaders.
But though LeVert was lost to injury, sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman proved to be a steady replacement, clocking in 15 points per game this postseason. Freshman forward Moritz Wagner figured out how to help his team again, emerging in the Big Ten Tournament as the spark the Wolverines needed. Junior forward Zak Irvin hit two game-winning shots, one to put Michigan past Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament and another to get past Tulsa during the First Four.
Friday night’s first round loss to Notre Dame hurt, but for Michigan, the hurt will continue in the offseason and remind the Wolverines what the Big Dance means. All of the active members of the roster will be returning next season — barring a player’s departure — and being through the tournament once before will pay dividends.
“One hundred percent, regardless of on the bench or the court, I’ve learned so much this year,” Wagner said. “Just the coaches, the players — a lot of the players — just to compete in practice is just an unbelievable push, unbelievable opportunity to improve every day.”
Added junior forward Mark Donnal: “We’re really close to being a special team. Unfortunately, we came short of our expectations this year, but I think this serves as motivation for next year to work even harder.”
Jon Sanderson, Michigan’s strength and conditioning coach, is known for transforming players over the summer. Donnal thinks that most of the Wolverines plan on spending the summer in the weight room, providing ample time to improve.
Redshirt sophomore Duncan Robinson agrees with that sentiment.
“I’m far from satisfied in that regard — I’m far from a finished product,” Robinson said. “I look forward to putting a lot of work in this offseason and getting a lot better.”
Wagner is unsure of where he’ll spend his summer, but when asked if he’ll be returning to Michigan for his sophomore season, he answered right away: “One hundred percent, yeah. No doubt.”
It’s difficult to make the argument that a player’s physical ability is less important than the relationships between the athletes off the court, but many Wolverines noted the considerable improvement in rapport due to the tumultuous final weeks of the season.
On the subject of developments made over the course of the season, a similar response echoed from multiple players.
“I definitely think (the last two weeks) brought us together,” said redshirt sophomore Duncan Robinson. “It showed that we’re capable of winning tough games against good teams, we just gotta be better defensively, we definitely learned that, and we will be next year.”
Junior guard Andrew Dakich, who initially planned on redshirting this season but jumped in when Albrecht announced his retirement, is known for his leadership and intensity during practice.
One of his big takeaways from the season is that the team grew both physically and mentally.
“Just kinda building off this year in a sense of, not necessarily on-the-court, but off-the-court relationships, have grown tremendously,” Dakich said. “I think that’s the kind of bond, to have that, and progressing on the court as well, (next season) could be something special.”
The 2015-16 Michigan basketball season has come to a close, but the Wolverines are far from done ruminating about its bittersweet ending.
“It’s awesome,” Wagner said of the NCAA Tournament. “At the end of the day, it’s just basketball, but it is just a stage thing. It’s a huge stage. You kinda feel that around you, the environment is impressive, but at the end of the day, it’s playing basketball.”
Added Dakich: “Just to see how close we can be to something special kinda speaks for itself, in a sense.”
Fifty-one weeks from now, the Wolverines will still be thinking about the 2016 tournament while awaiting their 2017 fate. Every starter will know how it feels to lose, and that experience will only help them.