Two seasons ago, Michigan found itself at the pinnacle of college basketball, playing for a National Championship with consensus National Player of the Year Trey Burke leading the charge. With the departure of Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., the Wolverines were supposed have a significant drop off. Instead, Michigan went 15-3 in Big Ten play and were one Aaron Harrison shot away from making a second consecutive Final Four. This offseason, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford all departed, leaving only two of the nine players who played in the National Championship game in 2013,Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert.
The two juniors seemed poised for another successful year in Ann Arbor despite being surrounded by primarily freshmen and sophomores. Michigan had a summer trip to Italy to get out some of the freshman kinks and rust for returning players and it gave Wolverines fans a glimpse into some fresh faces. Michigan won all four games, but the significantly lower level of competition didn’t give an evaluation of how good this team could really be.
Michigan began the season with a few wins against low-level Division I teams, and faced their first tough test against Oregon at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Michigan was able to beat the Ducks, setting up a final with Villanova. Both teams battled, each going on huge runs, but ultimately Villanova was able to eek out the 60-55 victory. In hindsight, this was a minor victory for Michigan, as Villanova landed for one of the top seeds in theNCAA tournament and Oregon is an NCAA tournament team as well.
Michigan was able to beat Syracuse and Nicholls State, but what followed could be considered the most embarrassing week in the history of Michigan basketball. The Wolverines dropped a nail-biter to the New Jersey Institute of Technology (yes, it’s still frightening even now) and then played an anemic offensive game against Eastern Michigan, losing 45-42. One of those losses is terrible, but two in the same week is downright unacceptable.
Michigan followed this with a trip to Tucson and an Arizona beatdown by 27 points, followed by a loss to SMU at home a week later. A win against Coppin State brought the Wolverines to 7-5 in the nonconference, but the two losses stung far more than any joy one win could have brought.
The Wolverines started Big Ten play 3-1, dropping a road game to a very good Purdue team. On January 17th, on the final play of Michigan’s game against Northwestern, Caris LeVert fell awkwardly and injured his foot. Michigan won the game 56-54, but LeVert was ultimately ruled out for the rest of the season. A Michigan team that could ill-afford any large number of losses would have to carry on without their leader in every major statistical category up to that point.
Over the next few weeks, the “play by committee” mantra became extremely apparent. John Beilein played walk-ons Andrew Dakich and Sean Lonergan at Rutgers in a win, and unknown players earlier in the season such as Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkmanand Aubrey Dawkins began to play prominent roles. Derrick Walton’s last game of the season was an overtime loss at home to Wisconsin, a crushing defeat in which the Wolverines had a chance to beat one of the best teams in the entire country on their home floor. Abdur-Rahkman and Dawkins moved into the starting lineup and were accompanied by Spike Albrecht, Ricky Doyle and Zak Irvin. Of the five starters at the beginning of the season, only Irvin remained.
Michigan fell just short in overtime at Michigan State, a game in which Abdur-Rahkman showed he was able to perform at the highest level. That loss seemed to deflate the Wolverines, however, as their lack of effort and size caused them to get blown out of their own gym against Iowa. They dropped a close contest against Indiana, and then let a 7-point lead slip away in the final minute against Illinois that led to an overtime loss. The Illini scored 21 points in a row in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime, and at 6-7 in the Big Ten, Michigan seemed dead in the water for the NCAA tournament.
A home win in late February against Ohio State gave Michigan fans a semblance of hopes for a potential late season push, but Michigan followed this with a loss at Maryland and a crushing defeat at Northwestern in which the Wolverines had a chance to close out the game in both regulation and the first overtime. Michigan ended the regular season with a home victory against Rutgers, as Aubrey Dawkins had 31 points and flashed a bit of potential of how good he can be in the next few years. Michigan handily beat Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament before dropping the next contest to Wisconsin for their second loss of the year to the Badgers.
At 16-16 and 8-10 in Big Ten play, this was a hugely disappointing year for Michigan. Sure, players suffered through illness, injury and lack of confidence, but after the success of the two previous seasons, Michigan would have loved to build off of that momentum and attempted to make a late run into March. The good news, however, is that every Michigan player on this roster has the opportunity to return. Caris LeVert could opt for the NBA Draft, and Max Bielfeldt, a senior, could return as a graduate student. Regardless of the decisions of these two, Michigan will still be very competitive next year given the experience and talent of the current freshman and sophomore class. In the end, this record was not good enough for Michigan to earn a bid to either the NCAA Tournament or NIT.