Back in March, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s season ended with a crushing loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Seven months after that 70-63 loss to Notre Dame, things are drastically different around the program.
Gone from the team is Caris LeVert (who ended up with the Brooklyn Nets after being taken 20th overall in the NBA Draft), a trio of then-sophomores in Aubrey Dawkins, Ricky Doyle and Kam Chatman (all of whom transferred to other schools), and Spike Albrecht, who left the program to join Big Ten rival Purdue for his final year of NCAA eligibility.
Also gone are assistant coaches Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan. In their places are Billy Donlon, a former head coach at Wright State, and Saddi Washington, a former associate head coach at Oakland.
But Michigan coach John Beilein has stayed put, and he’s ready to lead the Wolverines in their quest to return to the NCAA Tournament.
COMPETITION DOWN LOW:
Going into the new season, one of the biggest questions is who will play down low for Michigan. While freshman center Jon Teske and freshman forward Austin Davis could eventually get minutes down low, the competition for the starting spot at the ‘5’ will be between senior forward Mark Donnal and sophomore forward Moritz Wagner.
While the duo combined for just over 10 points per game last season, they will be relied on heavily to contribute on both ends of the court.
Additionally, sophomore forward D.J. Wilson and redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson will duke it out for the starting role at the ‘4.’
And while one player will pull ahead and take the starting slot, there is no question that the depth behind them will be experienced — something that cannot be said at guard, where freshmen Ibi Watson and Xavier Simpson will be relied on.
“We have experienced depth with the bigger guys,” Beilein said. “That’s really good to have veteran depth, guys who have played for a year, at least.”
Four years ago, senior guards Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin came to Michigan as heralded recruits. Both played instantly and made a sizable impact even as freshmen. Now, in their last season at the University, their role has changed quite a bit.
Irvin and Walton have taken a larger leadership role, not only as players who lead by example, but also in their vocal presence in the locker room.
And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Ever since this summer, I’ve seen tremendous growth in (Zak and Derrick) in being able to lead and speak and push and encourage with the younger guys,” Beilein said.
Added Robinson: “They both kinda realize that it’s their last year here. There’s more of a sense of urgency, and they understand that we have the capabilities to accomplish a lot of great things. As seniors, they’re trying to put us in the best position to make it happen.”
In Donlon’s mind, there are two big differences between high school and college basketball.
“The speed of the game and the physicality of the game, they’re jumps,” Donlon said. “They’re working they’re way through it, and they’re doing a good job.”
With four freshmen coming into the fold, they’ve noticed this exact trend, and they’ve embraced the challenge.
“They love to practice,” Beilein said. “Between our two big guys and Ibi and X, they’re in the gym a lot and they love basketball. What’s the learning curve going to be? We’ll find out in the coming weeks.”
That’s why much of their time at Michigan so far has been focusing on the weight room and adjusting to the level of play.
But they haven’t completely isolated. They’ve had help, especially from the upperclassmen.
“Anytime I need help, (the older players) have been very helpful,” Teske said.