The Michigan men’s basketball team was standing around the top of the key at Crisler Center Tuesday, watching each senior take the final shots of practice.
Josh Bartelstein dribbled to the paint and slammed the ball home while his teammates cheered him on, and Eso Akunne and Matt Vogrich each took a final 3-pointer. The Wolverines gathered at center court for a talk and then practice was over.
Just like that, the five seniors — Bartelstein, Akunne, Vogrich, Corey Person and Blake McLimans — had wrapped up their careers at Crisler.
“I’m happy for them,” said freshman guard Nik Stauskas. “They’ve all had successful careers for them, there’s no better way to end it going to the Final Four in their last year. We’re proud for them, and we want to win this one for them.”
For most of the team, the last practice of the year is a weird feeling — they won’t have mandatory practice until the fall — but it’s even stranger for Bartelstein, Akunne, Vogrich, Person and McLimans, who won’t return after spending four, or, in Person’s case, five years at Crisler.
The five seniors haven’t been an integral part of the team on gameday, as each player averages no more than six minutes per game. Vogrich started six contests before being replaced by Stauskas, and Person does a dance in the huddle before tipoff in each game, but besides that, none of the five have seen much playing time.
But they got to experience things that most Michigan basketball seniors never got to experience. Bartelstein was the first player to cut down the net at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday, signaling Michigan’s return to the Final Four for the first time in 20 years, and the five seniors got to watch the unveiling of the 2012 Big Ten Champions banner from the Crisler Center rafters this season. The title was Michigan’s first in 26 years.
Michigan coach John Beilein has said all season that the five seniors have played an equally important role on the team. Bartelstein was named captain at the beginning of this season because of his selflessness and dedication to the team, and Akunne and Person are vocal leaders on the bench.
But their most important role has been as the scout team. The seniors spend hours studying opponents’ offenses during film sessions, and Beilein has even joked that the five seniors know the other Big Ten teams’ offenses better than Michigan’s own.
“I know how important they are,” Beilein said. “That scout team we have is really important. That’s one of our biggest concerns next year — what are we going to do without those five guys? They have hardly done anything on the court this year except cleanup time, what are we going to do to simulate that?”
Though the departure of the five seniors is overshadowed by the possibility of multiple players leaving for the NBA, the loss will still be felt by Michigan. Beilein has stressed the value of the scout team and how each of the five seniors has a specific role on the team, and Beilein doesn’t know how to replace that. But Beilein may be faced with another challenge should sophomore Trey Burke or junior Tim Hardaway Jr. decide to leave for the NBA.
NOTE: Freshman forward Mitch McGary will return for his sophomore season, as reported by MLive.com’s Kyle Meinke. McGary, the breakout star in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in the past four games, has caught the eye of many NBA experts and has become a hot prospect in this year’s draft, but he was adamant on Tuesday that he would come back for another year.