Perhaps the bar was set too high. The Michigan Wolverines entered this year with high expectations after the program produced two first round picks in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. en route to a national championship runner up season. Optimism peaked after the tournament when Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III opted to pass on the NBA draft and return for their sophomore campaigns. Despite a couple tough losses and McGary recently being shut down for back surgery this U of M team still has pieces to build on. With that in mind lets look three takeaways for the Wolverines as non-conference play just concluded Saturday.
1) No real "bad" losses
Before you crucify this team for the two-point defeat in Puerto Rico against a mediocre Charlotte team put it into context. Glenn Robinson III contributed a season low four points in just nine minutes as he was hampered with a back injury for most of the game. The tournament setting and tip-in buzzer beating layup by Charlotte’s Terrance Williams further inclines me to give the ninth youngest team in the country a pass. The road loss to an experienced and talented Iowa State team is nothing to hang your head about. Then losses to top ranked Arizona and at then tenth ranked Duke hurt their record yes, but provide invaluable experience going forward. If this team is still in the thick of things in mid-March, it will be due in large part to their battle tested non-conference slate.
2) The best part about freshman is they become sophomores
Highly touted recruits Zak Irvin (Mr. Basketball in Indiana) and Derrick Walton Jr. (Runner-up Mr. Basketball in Michigan) came to the program with big shoes to fill. The transition has been a work in progress but both players need time. In the one-and-done era often times people expect these recruits to come in and be NBA ready form day one and it’s just not realistic. Both Irvin and Walton Jr. had incredibly big shoes to fill replacing Michigan royalty but the talent is clearly there. Patience is a virtue.
3) McGary injury could be blessing in disguise for 2014-2015
To call this season a loss after McGary opted for back surgery would be doing an injustice to John Belein as a coach and the other talent on this roster. Having said that, McGary’s decision greatly increases the likelihood he returns to Ann Arbor for his junior season. GR3 is as good as gone come April but Nik Stauskus, Michigan’s other candidate to leave for the NBA has had some of his defensive deficiencies exposed making his return likely as well. This means next season Michigan could be looking at a starting five of Walton Jr., Stauskus, breakout player Caris Levert, Irvin and McGary. Add in bench production from Spike Albrecht, current redshirt Mark Donnal, and incoming four star recruits Kameron Chatman, and Ricky Doyle and suddenly Michigan starts to look very formidable. With some of the talent around college hoops this year it’s hard to see Michigan competing for a title this year without McGary but the future is as bright as its ever been for the maize and blue.
Michigan opens Big Ten play on Thursday at Minnesota. This venue has traditionally been a tough one for the Wolverines in the past. The Golden Gophers (11-2, 0-0), are led by first year head coach Richard Pitino. This should provide a good measuring stick for both teams who enter conference play certainly with the talent to compete in the Big Ten, but many questions as well. Game is set to tip at at 7pm ET and can be seen on the Big Ten Network.