Injuries and the inability to close out close games doomed this season of Michigan basketball. Caris LeVert came into the season with B1G Player of the Year hopes while Derrick Walton Jr. looked to make the Beilein point guard jump like Darius Morris and Trey Burke had done in previous seasons. Walton came down with turf toe and missed the majority of the B1G season, while LeVert missed the last fourteen games of the season. If you're the youngest team in the B1G and one of the youngest teams in to country (and you're not Kentucky), losing two key players is going to be a major problem.
This team was enigmatic from the start, however, they did beat Syracuse and Oregon and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against Villanova in the early part of the non conference schedule. Then things got screwy when they lost to NJIT at home (that would be The New Jersey Institute of Technology, for those of you who didn't know, which is all of you). Fans and pollsters probably thought that it was just a fluke after a tough stretch and a hard fought win against Syracuse. Then the Wolverines lost their next game to Eastern Michigan, scoring a measly 42 points in the process. They then got blown out at Arizona and lost to SMU at home, neither of which would have been particularly troublesome if it weren't for the fact that those two games made it four losses in a row.
Beilein's Final Four and Elite Eight teams of the past two years have also started out slow with a few inexplicable losses (though none as bad as NJIT, I would say), but the difference with the 2015 squad was that it never seemed like anyone was ready to make the leap we saw Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas make in their sophomore years. LeVert was supposed to make that leap and while he did show flashes of being capable of taking over a game single handedly, his play was erratic. Walton was hampered by turf toe, and Zak Irvin clearly wasn't ready to be the best player on the court early in the season.
After the loss to SMU, though, the Wolverines won seven out of ten to start the B1G season 6-3; it at least looked like this team could sneak into the tournament, and given John Beilein's March wizardry of the past few years, that was an exciting prospect.
LeVert and Walton were both out for the season by the time Michigan traveled to East Lansing for their first matchup with Michigan State. The game was close until overtime, where the Wolverines were shut out and lost by 10. Get used to this theme. Michigan lost five in a row to essentially put any tournament hopes out of reach. Of their final nine losses, five came by three points or overtime. Beilein made some uncharacteristically baffling in-game decisions (sticking to his two fouls before halftime and you sit rule, even if that meant trotting out an all-walk on backcourt is probably the most egregious) and most of the close games were very much winnable.
Ultimately, though, it seems like it was a miracle Beilein had his team in these games to begin with. Aubrey Dawkins, Spike Albrecht, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman should have only been playing between 10 and 20 minutes a game this year, instead they were frequently being relied upon to play twice that. This team just wore down at the end of games due to lack of depth, lack of experience, and having to play roles the players were unaccustomed to.
That's the part Michigan fans probably want to forget. The good thing, however, is that this season wasn't a total loss. Spike Albrecht is going to be one of the best sixth men in the nation next year after he showed that he could effectively run a B1G offense this year. Ricky Doyle showed flashes of becoming an effective B1G center. Aubrey Dawkins emerged as the best freshman on the roster and showed out of this world athleticism and a sweet three point stroke. Zak Irvin went from looking like he'd have a hard time putting the ball on the deck and getting to the rim, to say nothing of becoming a facilitator, to looking like he may have a Stauskas-esque season next year. Even if LeVert declares for the NBA draft, this team will have more depth and a whole hell of a lot more experience next year. Oh yeah, and none of that was even the brightest spot this year, that would be this:
No one on this roster has had to experience the adversity the Wolverines faced this year, and this team fought fought until the bitter end; hopefully for Wolverine fans that means there won't be too much adversity next year. (Losing Max Bielfeldt and his calves is going to hurt, though.)