The start of the 2013-14 Michigan season began in late April, as the final specs of snow melted off the University of Michigan campus. The decisions of four players would determine what type of year John Beilein would be in for. Without much of a surprise, both Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. declared for the NBA draft (and have been two of the top four rookies all season), while Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III decided to return for one more year. Two other sophomores-to-be, Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas, did not have much of an impact as they wanted, and spent the summer in Ann Arbor working on their game and adding muscle to their seemingly weak frames. By the time November rolled around, Michigan was preseason ranked #7 in the country, and expectations were high for a very young team.
The non-conference schedule was rockier than most Michigan fans anticipated. After wins in two exhibition games and two easy home games, Michigan travelled to Ames, Iowa to take on a very good Iowa State. It was the first game for Mitch McGary, and though the Wolverines played tough, it wasn't enough to get by Fred Hoiberg and the Cyclones. Michigan then traveled to Puerto Rico for a tune-up tournament, defeating Long Beach State and Florida State before losing Glenn Robinson to an ankle injury for the majority of the game and falling 63-61 to Charlotte.
Two more tough non-conference tests loomed, an away game against Duke and a home game against Arizona. Against Duke, Coach Krzyzewski played a box-and-one against Stauskas, not allowing him to catch the ball within 30 feet of the basket and making every attempt he did get off difficult. Stauskas finished 0-2 from the field and 4-6 from the free throw line in 34 minutes, but Wolverine fans were pleased with 24 points from Caris LeVert. Against Arizona, Michigan was not big enough on the interior to stop both Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley, and Arizona was able to outlast Michigan 72-70 despite a raucous Crisler crowd. Even if Michigan wasn't winning these tough early season tests, it was great preparation for the Big Ten season ahead by giving the younger players a chance experience hostile road environments.
By the time Big Ten play rolled around, Michigan was raring to go. The first Big Ten test of the season saw the Wolverines go into "The Barn" and beat a very good Minnesota team by 3. The Wolverines kept their winning streak going, winning home games against Northwestern, Penn State and Iowa while beating Nebraska (their only home loss of the season), then #3 Wisconsin and then #3 Michigan State all on the road. By this point, it was clear that Mitch McGary would be done for the year, and the Michigan players clearly began to understand their roles. Nik Stauskas had one of his best games of the season in East Lansing, going for 19 points and outplaying Spartan Gary Harris on the road.
Like all young teams, eventually there has to be a speed bump along the way. After starting 8-0 in the Big Ten, Michigan went on a 2-3 skid, including losses at Indiana, Iowa and at home to Wisconsin. Frank Kaminsky absolutely manhandled the Wolverines inside, going for 25 points and 11 rebounds in a dominant performance at Crisler. But Michigan still sat at 10-3, and won their final 5 games of the Big Ten to finish the season 15-3, 3 games better than the second place team. Postseason excluded, John Beilein was able to take a team full of question marks and turn them into one of the ten best teams in the country. Jordan Morgan was playing his best basketball of his career, and Michigan had a full steam of momentu heading into postseason play.
In the Big Ten tournament, the Wolverines fought off a pesky Illinois team and escaped Ohio State before falling in the championship to a healthy Michigan State finally playing its best basketball of the season. Michigan fans were hoping for a #1 seed, but likely because of the loss to Michigan State, ended up with a #2 seed in the Midwest region. The region was stacked with #1 seed Wichita State, #3 seed Duke, #4 seed Louisville and #8 seed Kentucky, arguably player for player the most talented team in the country. Michigan managed to make it to the championship game of this region, only to be outlasted by an extremely talented Kentucky team that is gelling at the right time. Michigan went shot for shot with Kentucky, managed to slow down first half hero Marcus Lee in the second half, but with the game on the line, Aaron Harrison hit the biggest shot. In a game played at such a high level, it was going to come down to one team making one more "dagger" shot than the other, and Harrison ended the Wolverine season with two seconds left.
At some point, Michigan's defense was going to let them down. While they had one of the most efficient offenses in the country in the last 10 years, their defense was always a problem. Jordan Morgan at 6'8 was the only real shotblocker, and playing a 6'6 power forward at all times made manning the interior even more difficult. This choice, however, is what made Michigan so potent on offense (and why Wisconsin made the Final Four this year.) Having four players that can all dribble, pass and shoot with such success makes opposing defenses always have to be on their toes for a variety of offensive moves.
This Michigan team was one of the most fun teams I have ever watched for an entire season. It's rare to see players, either on the bench or on the court, that truly care for one another. Teams that can go out and make 14 3's on a given night make their fans realize how truly lucky they are to watch them play, and to have back to back Big Ten Players of the Year in Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas also shows how John Beilein is both an elite recruiter and an even better developer. What does all this mean for Michigan fans?
Savor one of the best offensive campaigns in the last 10 years. Remember Jordan Morgan going into "F-U" mode with about 20 games left in the season and leaving everything out on the floor. Remember Nik Stauskas going from "just a shooter" to one of the best players in the country. Remember Caris LeVert going from a 5 minute per game player to a 35 minute a night guy on the best team in the Big Ten. Remember Spike Albrecht becoming the de-facto "closer" for certain games and hitting huge shots while maintaining a 10:1 assist to turnover ratio. Remember Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. just scratching the surface of how good they can be.
And that's how I want to end this. Michigan basketball isn't going anywhere, anytime soon. In my two years in Ann Arbor, Michigan has 59 wins, a Big Ten championship, a Final Four, and one shot away from making it a second in a row. For next year, Michigan brings in 6'7 wing Kameron Chatman from Oregon, a top 50 recruit and a guy who can score all over the floor. Redshirt freshman Mark Donnal is stronger and has an even better jumper, and could be looking to start at the power forward position next year. Irvin, Walton, LeVert, Spike and Jon Horford will all definitely be back. The future of 3 "super sophomores" is still unknown, but even if they don't return, Michigan will compete for a Big Ten Championship yet again. The 2013-14 season is one of the most successful in the history of Michigan basketball. Who's to say the 2014-15 campaign can't be even better.