- Todd Needle/Daily
By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published September 27, 2013
In the midst of its Final Four run to cap last season, the Michigan men’s basketball team began branding itself as Team 96, celebrating what was thought to be the 96th year of the basketball program.
That was until, “we discovered there was a year in 1909 that we did have a team,” Michigan coach John Beilein said, laughing, at his Friday press conference to open the 2013-14 season.
Historical discrepancies aside, Team 96’s — or is it 97 now? — point guard and consensus National Player of the Year Trey Burke is gone. The biggest question mark in deciding whether Team 98 will cement its own legacy rests in the hands of freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr.
Until foul trouble sidelined Burke for most of the National Championship’s first half, he was the floor general in nearly every meaningful minute the Wolverines played last year. And while his backup, Spike Albrecht, certainly entrenched himself in Michigan lore with a heroic 17-point half in place of Burke, it’s unlikely that the sharp-shooting sophomore has the physical tools to be a season-long starter on a Wolverine squad with enough talent to justify top-10 expectations.
Fortunately for Michigan, a new rule was implemented this year giving coaches six additional practices over the course of two added weeks to the front of the preseason. The move couldn’t come at a better time for Beilein and his staff in their attempt to acclimate Walton to the college game before the tough non-conference slate kicks off in November.
“This change is so good overall,” Beilein said. “It’s a whole different dynamic because of the amount of time that we can practice.
“Six extra practices should really be helpful for us.”
Fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan highlighted a specific area where the rule could particularly benefit Walton, explaining that Beilein always opens fall practices by reteaching even the most basic fundamentals such as “how to catch the ball.” That made an already-tight window even smaller for the newcomers to pick up Beilein’s complex offense.
“We’ve had months now where that stuff is already engrained in everybody, even the freshmen,” Morgan said of the differences in this year’s offseason. “Now we can focus on trying to establish an identity in our offense and defense.”
This isn’t the first time in Beilein’s seven-year Michigan tenure where a freshman point guard is poised to play significant minutes. Burke, and Darius Morris before him, each arrived in Ann Arbor as highly-acclaimed recruits and departed two years later as NBA Draft picks.
“I’ve been doing it a long time, so it seems like every couple years, you’re breaking in a new guard,” Beilein said. “They’re the quarterback. They’re the one you probably have to the greatest connection with. So I’m pretty used to it.”
But still, that doesn’t necessarily make it easier for Beilein, who was asked how long it’ll take for him to trust Walton with his offense’s reins.
“Every young man, it takes a while,” Beilein said. “Trust maybe isn’t the right word — I trust them all — just make sure that we’re on the same page is the biggest issue.
“I trust they’re learning is what I trust and as a result, I expect him to be like every freshman, to have some moments where I’m like, ‘What are you thinking?’ and at the same time, I’ll say, ‘Are you getting it?’ So this young man, from everything that I’ve seen so far, has the ability to pick up things pretty quickly.”
Notes: Beilein announced that sophomore forward Mitch McGary has been limited in practice with what he called a “lower back condition.” McGary, who had a breakout postseason run that landed him on several early preseason All-America teams, is officially listed as day-to-day and isn’t expected to miss any game time. … According to Beilein, he and his assistants will focus on individual players for the next two weeks, and he said it’s unlikely any concrete lineup decisions will be made until exhibition season. The Wolverines open with Concordia on Oct. 29, 10 days before the regular season officially kicks off.