Early Growing Pains for Young Michigan Team

11/26/13 in NCAABB   |   Andrew_Ericksen   |   230 respect

Oct 29, 2013; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach John Beilein talks to guard Nik Stauskas (11) in the first half against Concordia University Cardinals at Crisler Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY SportsIn his 7th season as Michigan’s head coach, John Beilein is facing one of his most difficult challenges yet.  Coming off one of the most successful seasons in the history of Michigan basketball, the task is now to get this year’s team back to the Final Four with a chance to finish what last year’s team fell just short of accomplishing.
With the monumental losses of 2013 NCAA Player of the Year Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., it almost seems hard to imagine the Wolverines would have the resources to make another run, but believe it or not, this year’s team is even deeper than last year’s with an added year of experience and a pair of Freshman who could really make a difference.
The two things that hurt the team most with the losses of Burke and Hardaway are leadership and creativity.  They weren’t afraid to take the big shot and always appeared composed in the waning minutes of tight games.  And when coach Beilein’s methodical offense was well-defended by opposing teams, closing off pass angles and shot opportunities, Burke and Hardaway used their creativity to find shots on their own.  Hardaway could pop a jumper from anywhere on the court and Burke could break down any defender to find an opening for himself or for a teammate to get a good look.
There’s no doubting the talent on this year’s team.  Mitch McGary is likely to be one of the NCAA’s best big men; a bruising scorer and rebounder that constantly frustrates opponents.  Glenn Robinson III is an athletic marvel with the ability to heat up from three-point range and put on a dunking highlight reel.  Nik Stauskas has the potential to become one of the country’s biggest surprise stories as a 6’6” sharpshooter that fits perfectly into Beilein’s offense.  When he was hitting shots last year, the Wolverines were a much tougher team to beat, but his Freshman year saw a lot of inconsistency and a lack of confidence at times.
Those are the team’s top 3 returning players, but guards Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert and forwards Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan were also valuable pieces to the team last year and should be able to really help the team down the stretch.
Then there are the two new freshmen, two of the biggest keys to the team’s success this year.  Derrick Walton, Jr. has been receiving comparisons to Burke since the moment he committed to Michigan.  He’ll even gladly admit that he studied Burke’s career when he was a high school senior at Chandler Park Academy in Harper Woods, Michigan.  He’s a smart, quick guard that can effectively score and dish it out to teammates.  Meanwhile, Zak Irvin - freshman #2 - is a 6’6” swingman with an ability to score in a variety of ways.  He’s been streaky from three-point range to start the season but he has a quick release and the type of resilience necessary to be a top scorer.
The Wolverines are off to a 4-2 start this season, with a road loss to Iowa State and a two-point buzzer beater loss to Charlotte in the final game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament.  Being ranked 7th going into the season, the two early losses are no doubt a disappointment, but by the end of the season, that preseason ranking is likely to make a lot more sense.  McGary has missed a few games and played sparingly in others as he’s recovered from a back injury, while Robinson sat out the second half against Charlotte with a back injury of his own.  Irvin has been shaky in the early going and Walton and LeVert have been pretty on and off as well.
But Beilein’s boys will have to start bringing things together soon because the out of conference schedule this year is pretty brutal.  The Wolverines travel to Duke on December 3rd and then 11 days later they play host to Arizona, teams currently ranked 6th and 4th respectively in the AP polls.  Then there’s the Big ten schedule which will feature another heavy dose of ranked teams including 3 current top-10s in #1 Michigan State, #7 Ohio State, and #10 Wisconsin.  The Buckeyes are the only one of those three teams the Wolverines won’t face twice.
There’ll be some growing pains in the upcoming weeks and even into the Big ten schedule, but expect to see the Wolverines play a big factor once March comes around once again.
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