ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) – After winning the Big Ten and nearly reaching a second straight Final Four, Michigan coach John Beilein lost a few players to the NBA draft.
That’s become common for the Wolverines, but the departures – Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary – may be a bit harder to deal with this season.
“That is going to be really difficult to replace, and I know it’s the same thing I said last year,” said Beilein, entering his eighth season in Ann Arbor. “When you have young players, we refer to them as growing players. We don’t want to get into using that as an excuse. They’re growing. I like what I’ve seen.”
The growth period begins for No. 24 Michigan on Saturday at home against Division-II Hillsdale College.
The program has withstood some significant departures in the past. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. left after taking Michigan to the Final Four in 2013, yet the Wolverines still made it back to the Elite Eight last season.
Michigan, however, lost more than just Stauskas, Robinson and McGary. Jordan Morgan was a senior, and solid role player Jon Horford transferred.
Returning is talented guard Caris LeVert, who averaged 12.9 points as a sophomore. Spike Albrecht, Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin also have been solid on the perimeter, giving the Wolverines an experienced core to build around.
“I think everyone just buys into the system and does what’s needed to win,” Walton said. “Roles will play out in time, but for now everyone is just contributing wherever they can.”
LeVert’s improvement was crucial to Michigan’s success last season, and he’s probably the player with the most immediate star potential on this team, but he had surgery in May for a stress fracture in his foot.
He was able to start playing again in early August, so it doesn’t look as though the injury will be a major problem once the season starts.
Of all the departures Michigan must deal with, McGary’s may be felt the most because it leaves the Wolverines without any significant experience inside. Max Bielfeldt is back as the roster’s lone senior, but he’s only 6-foot-7. Redshirt freshman Mark Donnal and freshman Ricky Doyle – both 6-foot-9 – may be asked to play significant roles.
When Michigan is shooting well from the perimeter – which was the case for most of the last two seasons – the Wolverines might be the toughest team in the country to defend. Beilein has produced well-coached, unselfish teams that have become increasingly talented as Michigan’s recruiting has picked up.
The development of Stauskas and LeVert helped the Wolverines avoid any significant slide last season, and Michigan will be hoping for similar progress now from sophomores Walton and Irvin, both of whom played plenty in 2013-14.
It’s fair to say Michigan recently has been a finesse team – and one that isn’t all that tough at the defensive end. If the Wolverines are going to repeat as Big Ten champions, the offense will probably need to keep functioning at a high level.
The Wolverines also welcome freshman Austin Hatch, who has had to overcome the physical and emotional trauma of a 2011 plane crash that killed his father and stepmother and left him in a coma for about eight weeks.
It was the second plane crash Hatch survived. A 2003 crash killed his mother, brother and sister. His father, Dr. Stephen Hatch, was the pilot both times.
He grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but moved to Southern California last year to live with his uncle. He went to Los Angeles’ Loyola High School, finally appearing in a game in January for the first time in nearly three years.
“I don’t want to be known by the time my career comes to an end here as just ‘a cool story,'” said Hatch. “Obviously what happened to me is kind of unique, but that is what happened. That is not who I am. That is a big part of my life, but I am about moving forward and making the most of my experience here.”
Hillsdale went 18-9 last season and will be facing a Big Ten program for the third time in four years after losing to Michigan State 80-58 on Nov. 4, 2011, and to Indiana 79-39 on the same date last year.