After barely escaping with a .500 record and missing the postseason for the first time since 2010, the Michigan men’s basketball team likely views last season as a year to forget. Upset losses to the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Eastern Michigan and subsequent injuries to star guards — namely then-junior Caris LeVert and then-sophomore Derrick Walton Jr. — left the young Wolverines in shambles.
But while starting several freshmen may have seemed like a drawback last year, it may come as a blessing to Michigan this year. The Wolverines return all five starters from last season and nine total players who averaged at least 10 minutes. Throw in redshirt freshman forward D.J. Wilson, freshman forward Moritz Wagner and a newly-eligible transfer in redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson, and Michigan has a rotation that could extend as deep as 12 players.
In fact, a recent ESPN study ranked the Wolverines as the third-most experienced power-conference team based on percentages of returning minutes and possessions.
Depth still can’t be confused with experience, though, and Michigan coach John Beilein is well aware of that.
“Compared to last year, they’re still not an experienced team,” Beilein said. “Yes, we do have four guys that have played a lot of college basketball — the four scholarship juniors and seniors — but we have so many young guys that were thrown in there.”
The “young guys” — six players who logged minutes last year but still have three or more years of eligibility remaining — make up over 40 percent of Michigan’s returning minutes. Some of them, including sophomore guard Aubrey Dawkins and sophomore forward Ricky Doyle, showed flashes of brilliance last season, but all still have plenty of room to grow.
And for most of them, “room to grow” has a literal meaning.
Many of the returning players were in Ann Arbor this summer building muscle with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson, whose famed “Camp Sanderson” program has shaped the physical gains of former Wolverines and current NBA players including Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas.
“We couldn’t physically intimidate anybody last year, because we were just babies out there,” Beilein said. “Some of these giraffes and young thoroughbreds are turning into bigger animals, bigger people, and they’ve got to be able to use that now.”
LeVert, who himself has experienced the fruits of Camp Sanderson, hopes that his young teammates’ physical gains can make up for their relative lack of experience.
“Just the sophomores in general (have impressed me),” he said. “All those guys have made huge improvements in the weight room and on the court as well. I think it’ll really be an advantage to us playing with Duncan and D.J. this year, who didn’t play last year.”
LeVert and Walton are finally back to full strength, so instead of being thrust into starting roles too early, the beefed-up sophomores will likely find themselves coming off the bench.
Though the experience statistics may be a bit misleading because of last year’s chaos, the versatility on this year’s bench cannot be ignored. From Chatman to Robinson to sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, the bench will be full of players who can play multiple positions and have done so in game action.
“I think it’ll be an advantage to us, just the versatility we have, with a lot of guys such as D.J. or Kam or Duncan who can all play two to three spots,” LeVert said. “I think that’ll really pay dividends to us late in games and late down the stretch of the Big Ten season.”
Beilein may not be ready to call his team experienced, but he can take solace in the fact that he can turn to his bench in the case of an injury or late-game substitution without worrying about throwing a rookie into the fire.
At the same time, though, he knows the growing will never stop.
“Whether you’re here, high school, the pros, there’s always something next,” Beilein said. “It’s never like, ‘Hey, we made it.’ ”