Take a look, for a moment, at the composition of the starting lineups of the first eight teams to advance to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 on Saturday:
Miami — three seniors and two juniors; Indiana — two seniors, two juniors and one freshman; Gonzaga — three seniors, one sophomore and one freshman; Iowa State — three seniors and two juniors; North Carolina — two seniors, one junior and two sophomores; Virginia — two seniors, one junior and two sophomores; Kansas — one senior, three juniors and one sophomore; and Duke — one senior, one junior, one sophomore and two freshmen.
Notice a trend? Each of those starting lineups, with the exception of Duke’s, is composed primarily of upperclassmen.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget the impact that seniors and juniors have on college basketball. Programs like Duke and Kentucky, frequently fraught with star one-and-done freshmen, steal the headlines and seem to make deep runs year after year after year. Elite young talent can sway the balance of the NCAA Tournament and take teams deep into March Madness. But the most reliable way to survive the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament typically requires a blend of experience and talent that is almost impossible for most programs to accumulate in just a year or two.
Michigan, for two years, had one of those rare runs in which young players carried the team deep into the tournament. In 2013, the Wolverines started three freshmen, one sophomore and one junior in the national championship game against Louisville. One year later, Michigan started one freshman, three sophomores and one senior against Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
But Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson and Tim Hardaway Jr. were exceptional talents who left Michigan early to play in the NBA. Senior guard Caris LeVert, a key player on the Elite Eight team, will join them in the professional ranks next season.
Some Michigan fans have derided John Beilein for his apparent inability to replace those guys with equally talented players who could keep the run going. But at the end of this season, one thing became clear: His perceived failure will leave the Wolverines with a bevy of savvy veterans next season.
Take Derrick Walton Jr. He came to Ann Arbor as a highly touted recruit before the 2013-14 season, but one who didn’t have to be a focal point right away because of the talent Michigan had during his freshman season. Slowly but surely, his per-game averages in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals have increased in each of the junior guard’s first three seasons.
He’s not a bona fide star, but going into his senior year he has experienced nearly every type of season possible. He started during a deep NCAA Tournament run during his freshman year, suffered through a disastrous season during his sophomore year and helped lead this year’s season-saving run to reach NCAA Tournament. He had six(!) steals in Michigan’s loss to Notre Dame on Friday, and there’s little doubt that the varied experiences of his career will help him lead this team next year during his senior season.
Zak Irvin has experienced a similar career arc. He has weathered more personal up-and-downs on the court than Walton, but he has been through the same range of experiences in terms of the Wolverines’ team success.
At times, Irvin’s shot selection is frustrating. But as he demonstrated time and time again during the final weeks of the season, he isn’t afraid of taking the big shot, even when he’s been way off the rest of the game. That kind of resiliency is why teams with older players thrive in March, and it’s part of the reason next season looks bright for Michigan.
If Beilein starts the same players next year that he started against the Fighting Irish, he will have two seniors in Walton and Irvin, a redshirt junior in Duncan Robinson, a junior in Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and either a redshirt junior or a senior in Mark Donnal — depending on whether Beilein decides to give him his fifth year back — in his starting lineup.
Even if Moritz Wagner, who will be a sophomore next season, replaces Donnal as a starter, the makeup of the potential starting lineup looks awfully similar to that of the first eight teams to make the Sweet 16 this season.
It’s no guarantee, as evidenced by the injury woes of the past two years, that the Wolverines will be a great team next season or that they will be able to replicate the NCAA Tournament runs of 2013 and 2014, but the last two weeks showed that this year’s iteration of the Michigan men’s basketball team could compete at a high level in do-or-die situations.
The players who made the key shots against Northwestern, Indiana and Tulsa will all return, barring unexpected changes, and if the Wolverines return to the NCAA Tournament next season, their lineup will be chock-full of veterans. And if the early portion of this year’s tournament is any indication, that will only help their cause.
Cohen can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @MaxACohen.