Following the 2013 National Championship heartbreaking loss, Michigan announced that two players would be leaving for the NBA: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Last year was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Ann Arbor, but Michigan exceeded expectations and was one shot away from a second consecutive Final Four. Five players from last year's squad are gone, including NBA draft picks Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson and Mitch McGary, and veteran presence Jordan Morgan. What do the Wolverines have in store this year?
Michigan will win 25 games this season
At first glance, that number seems a bit daunting. But examining Michigan's schedule shows that the Wolverines have a good chance to reach this number. Last season's 28 wins were aided by an outrageous 15-3 conference record in the best conference in the country. While I don't expect Michigan to have this record in conference again, they should still be able to get around the 12 or 13 win mark. In the nonconference, Michigan has four winnable games at Crisler before travelling to New York to take on Oregon and then either VCU or Villanova. The Wolverines then welcome Nicholls State, Syracuse, NJIT and Eastern Michigan before travelling to Tuscon to play Arizona and then play SMU and Coppin State to end the nonconference. Besides for Arizona, a team that will likely be ranked in the top 5 to start the season, Michigan should be favored in every other nonconference game. If Michigan is able to do that, they will be 11-1 on the year. As always, the Big Ten slate is a brutal gauntlet, but Michigan has some favorable matchups. The toughest matchups of the season will be road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State, and a home game against Wisconsin. Besides for these three games, Michigan should be favored in all of these games. Given that Michigan will probably win at least one of these games, and likely lose a game or two that they will be favored in, I give Michigan a 15-3 or a 14-4 record. If they do end up finishing 14-4, this will give Michigan a 25-5 record heading into the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament. Even if the Wolverines don't finish with such a great regular season record, they will have chances in the postseason to win enough games to get them to 25.
A freshman will average at least 10 PPG this season
The starting five from the 2012-13 Michigan team is gone, as are Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford. Replacing 7 important players over two seasons from either the NBA or graduation is never easy, but John Beilein has found incredibly talented players to replace them. Last season, no freshman reached this total, as Derrick Walton came closest with 7.9 points per game. This season, Michigan could likely have two freshmen in the starting lineup. The two guard spots are taken by Derrick Walton Jr. and Caris LeVert, and I expect to see Zak Irvin start at small forward. But the two true frontcourt spots are up for grabs. Michigan's highest rated recruit, Kameron Chatman, should be given the opportunity to start at power forward, and I give the slight edge to Mark Donnal to start at center over Ricky Doyle. Both Chatman and Donnal have never played in a game for Michigan, but are both capable scorers from all areas of the floor. Given Chatman's versatility to play both small and power forward, I expect him to be given a ton of minutes early to establish himself. His ball handling, shooting ability and movement off the ball should allow him to score the ball in a variety of ways, and make him the favorite to be Michigan's third or fourth scoring option behind LeVert, Irvin and possibly Walton.
Nik Stauskas made a huge leap between his freshman and sophomore season, becoming a more complete player, better passer, and all around scorer. He finished the season as a second team All-American, and some argued that he could have been given a spot on the first team. Caris LeVert was the clear number two option last season behind Stauskas, but is a tremendous talent who offers a wider range of offensive game than Stauskas and is a lockdown defender. LeVert was already placed on second-team preseason All-American lists and rightfully so. His sophomore campaign was tremendous in its own right, but LeVert is ready to make an even bigger jump and slide onto the first team. He will likely be asked to play between 32 and 35 minutes a night, and could become the de facto point guard and run the offense like Stauskas did at times last season. If LeVert is able to play within himself and guide the Wolverines to a successful campaign, he will be very deserving of a coveted spot on the All-American team.
Michigan will make the Final Four
Last season, seventh seed Connecticut won the National Championship with an extremely talented backcourt and a frontcourt that contributed but was seen as more of a secondary facilitator. Every year, teams with dominant backcourts seem to have more success in the NCAA tournament, and Michigan will rely heavily on its backcourt this season. Of the returning key contributors, three of the four play in the backcourt, and the fourth, Zak Irvin, is a wing player that is capable of playing anywhere from 2 to 4. Another key aspect of a Final Four team is having a player who has the ability to take over a game if need be. In Michigan's case, that could be both Irvin or Caris LeVert. LeVert has shown tremendous improvement over the past two seasons on both ends of the court, and has the ability to be a 20-point scorer if Michigan needs him to be. John Beilein took arguably a less talented team to the Elite Eight last season, and is one of the best coaches in the country for any situation. It is somewhat of a long shot, but don't be surprised if the young Wolverines are making some noise late into March and early April.
John Beilein will win National Coach of the Year
Given last season's clear overachievement for Michigan, it was unfortunate that John Beilein was not given national recognition for his success. Beilein has been a head coach for the last 39 seasons, starting as a high school coach in New York and ending as the coach at Michigan since 2007. Beilein has made it to a Final Four, won multiple conference titles and constantly been one of the classiest coaches in the entire country. This could be one of Beilein's toughest coaching gigs, but he seems to be relishing the opportunity already. Michigan took a trip to Italy in August, and Beilein has already given great praise to this young but talented Wolverine team. If he is able to take Michigan to the Final Four, there is no doubt that no one is more deserving for the award than John Beilein.