A look ahead: Breaking down the 2013-14 Wolverines

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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 21, 2013

Since the day Trey Burke decided to return to Ann Arbor for his sophomore season, the 2012-13 Michigan men’s basketball team was expected to contend for a Final Four. It didn’t disappoint, either, remaining in the nation’s top 10 for the entire season and eventually reaching its goal in Atlanta.

Though Burke and junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. have since departed in favor of the NBA Draft, freshmen forwards Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III chose to follow Burke’s lead and stay for their sophomore seasons. Their decisions, along with another top-flight recruiting class, position the Wolverines for another Big Ten title and Final Four hunt.

Despite the departure of Burke and Hardaway, Michigan essentially returns four starters — McGary started each game in the NCAA Tournament, while redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan started nearly the entire regular season after holding the starting post spot throughout the previous two seasons.

The Daily broke down the Wolverines’ upcoming roster, position by position:

Point guard: When Burke picked up two quick fouls in the championship game against Louisville, freshman Spike Albrecht filled in more than admirably, netting 17 points on 4-of-4 shooting from 3-point range. In the second half, everyone was reminded of the Albrecht we saw — or didn’t see — for much of the season, the one who hit just four 3-pointers in his 18 appearances during conference play.

Albrecht should see a rise in minutes from his 8.1 minutes per game average last season, and as he showed in the Final Four, his shooting touch gives him the capability to score in bunches, but he’ll likely play in another reserve role. Albrecht will probably be the starting point guard when the Wolverines open their season in November, but like Matt Vogrich this year, he’ll likely accept a diminished role in favor of incoming freshman Derrick Walton Jr. as the non-conference slate progresses.

Walton, a Detroit native, is the nation’s No. 37 recruit — good for the eighth-best point guard — according to Rivals.com, which tabbed Michigan’s incoming class at No. 12, second in the Big Ten behind Indiana. Walton, like Burke, is undersized — each stands at 6-feet tall — but is lauded for his passing and shooting abilities. His defense remains a question mark, but on offense, he’s consistently been tabbed as a “true point guard” who could flourish in a Wolverine offense loaded with a wealth of scoring options.

Bottom line: No matter how well Walton or Albrecht play, this position will be a downgrade from the consensus National Player of the Year, who played more than 35 minutes per game. Inexperience could hamper Walton early on, but when given time to jell with all of his surrounding talent, Walton should be able to facilitate another dangerously talented Michigan offense.

Wing: Hardaway’s offensive production can be replaced, but can his defense? After being a defensive liability for most of his first two seasons, Hardaway turned into one of the Wolverines’ most reliable perimeter defenders, often guarding the opposition’s top outside threat.

Michigan coaches have already said they’re planning on employing more lineups with two big men on the floor at the same time, which would allow Robinson to play at his natural position, small forward, rather than the undersized power forward role he played for most of his freshman season. Given the circumstances, Robinson’s play was respectable, but against bigger teams, he was abused defensively and disappeared on the offensive end. At the small forward position, Robinson could terrorize opposing teams with his flexibility to play on the perimeter or post up smaller defenders, while his ability to find space in transition is as good as anyone in the country.

Freshman guard Nik Stauskas isn’t the porous defender he was at the start of the conference season, but he’ll still benefit greatly from another offseason of strength and conditioning, as well as coaching. Combined with Robinson on the wing, the Wolverines are already looking at a formidable one-two punch, but perhaps the team’s top wingman next season, incoming freshman Zak Irvin, hasn’t even graduated high school.

The five-star product, Indiana’s 2012-13 Mr. Basketball, is Rivals.com’s No. 24 prospect. At 6-foot-6, his measurables are similar to Hardaway, but he possesses greater ball-handling skills and an impressive knack for getting to the basket or creating his own shot, which is solid.

With so much top-heavy talent, it’s easy to forget freshman guard Caris LeVert, who wasn’t even a Wolverine commitment at this time last year. LeVert’s 6-foot-5 frame was so scrawny that coaches quickly decided to redshirt him, but they quickly changed their course when his play in practice was too good to keep off the floor. LeVert is a superb perimeter defender who has flashed an ability to shoot and rebound. His body should benefit tremendously from a full offseason in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

Bottom line: Hardaway took the basketball program to a new level, but Michigan has a wealth of riches on the wing that might make forgetting Hardaway easy by the middle of next season. The top-four contributors here can score in a variety of ways, both in transition and in half-court sets, and despite the loss of Hardaway, should even provide an upgrade on the defensive end with Robinson playing at small forward.

Post: While Michigan will certainly miss Burke, McGary’s departure could’ve rivaled Burke’s in terms of setting the program back. With the freshman in Ann Arbor for another season, the Wolverines have their entire frontcourt back, which should set fear into opposing coaches.

McGary averaged 6.2 points and 5.1 rebounds in under 20 minutes per game during conference play last season, mostly off the bench, but took the nation by storm after a promotion into the starting lineup to kick off the NCAA Tournament. In over 30 minutes per game, he averaged a double-double, dominating some of the country’s best post men, including Kansas’ Jeff Withey. McGary was admittedly out of shape and wasn’t eating right until the middle of the season and should build upon a better conditioning and eating regimen with another college offseason program. In the tournament, he reminded everyone why he was once ranked as the nation’s No. 2 recruit, and he should only get better next year.

But the frontcourt doesn’t end with McGary. Earlier this week, Michigan coach John Beilein indicated that he’d use two big men on the floor at the same time for at least significant portions of games, something he has done very little of during his tenure in Ann Arbor. The days of the Wolverines getting absolutely abused in the post ended this past season, but Michigan still struggled with post-oriented teams like Michigan State. That should change in the upcoming year.

Morgan is a three-year starter but never seemed to fully recover from a midseason ankle injury. A healthy Morgan — one of the conference’s top low-post defenders — alongside a still-developing Jon Horford, gives the Wolverines three solid post players. Incoming forward Mark Donnal, who fell just outside the nation’s top-100 prospects, could challenge for playtime, and redshirt freshman Max Bielfeldt can provide a reliable few minutes per game if needed, as well.

Bottom line: McGary flashed All-American potential in the NCAA Tournament, and assuming he doesn’t regress, Michigan should actually be able to consistently outmuscle Big Ten teams in the post — something it hasn’t been able to do in years. While the Wolverines won’t always employ a two-post man lineup, they’ll certainly have the option to.

So what does this all mean? Burke had the talent to win games all by himself, and he did so countless times. While he’ll be missed, Michigan will have a combination of talent and depth it hasn’t had since at least the Fab Five years. Beilein has proven his wizardry time and time again when it comes to adjusting his system to his lineup, and that could shine through this year like never before. The Wolverines have so many offensive options — playing two bigs, going small, pushing the pace, playing in the half court — that their offense shouldn’t skip a beat once Walton gains some experience.

Defense will again be the question mark, but with the ability to play two men in the post, opposing teams won’t be able to exploit a weakness down low like they could in years past.

Michigan will be an even younger team than last year’s, which was one of the nation’s youngest. But if Irvin and Walton can adjust to the college game — and they should — the Wolverines are poised for another Big Ten title hunt and a top-10 finish.