While most college basketball teams' seasons are finished and four are gearing up for the game's biggest stage in Houston, Michigan had their own laundry list of issues to clean up this week. First, John Beilein announced that Caris LeVert underwent surgery on that same foot he injured earlier in the year and will likely miss the NBA Draft Combine. LeVert was expected to have an excellent senior season after a full offseason of recovery, but reinjured the foot against Illinois and only made one additional appearance against Purdue before shutting it down for the rest of the season.
The other senior, Spike Albrecht, was expected to give Michigan another major boost off the bench, especially after coming off a great end to the 2014-15 season despite Michigan only finishing with a 16-16 record. Albrecht only played in nine games this season, and never quite looked like himself on the court. Despite not being the most talented Wolverine, Albrecht's ball-handling ability on the offensive end and tenacity on defense was contagious for other Wolverines and earned him increased playing time every year. Michigan and Albrecht mutually parted ways this morning, as Spike will play his 2016-17 basketball season in a different uniform.
To be honest, it wasn't supposed to end this way. After the magical 2012-13 National Championship appearance run in which Albrecht nearly played hero, LeVert played defensive specialist and Michigan came within 10 minutes of winning a national title, it was supposed to continue. The Wolverines did just that the following season, shattering expectations and finishing 15-3 in the Big Ten before a heartbreaking exist to Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
In that run, LeVert played through an injured foot that wasn't examined until the offseason, the beginning of the wear and tear on his body. The duo's junior year was a major underachievement given the success of the previous two seasons, but LeVert and then-sophomore Derrick Walton's injury derailed the entire season as Michigan stumbled to 16-16 and missed the postseason.
So after two great years and a subsequent disaster, 2015-16 was supposed to the year that the two seniors, Spike and Caris, would lead Michigan to a fantastic season as the on-court and vocal leaders. Spike's surgery in the offseason would limit his participation early in the season, but few thought it would be enough to hold him out of too many games. LeVert looked fresh after a long break, and despite a few poor early-season performances, Michigan still had the firepower to compete with the upper echelon of the Big Ten.
But for a second consecutive season, LeVert stepped one way, the rest of his body the other, and 2016 was spent in street clothes except for one game. After all their hard work to grow from boys to men in a Michigan uniform, the two seniors could do nothing but watch.
Perhaps most frustrating was during the Notre Dame game. In the first half, Michigan fans got a glimpse of how good this team could be. Derrick Walton dazzled, Duncan Robinson drained 3s, Moritz Wagner filled the stat sheet and this Michigan team that for so many games looked lost finally had cohesion.
And then the wheels fell off. So many times when Spike and Caris were on the floor, they had the senior presence to control games, calm down their players and demand to the ball for a basket. Against Notre Dame in that second half, no one assumed that responsibility. And just after midnight in the wee hours of Saturday morning in Brooklyn, Michigan fell to Notre Dame without a senior to save the day.
As a Michigan fan, it would be extremely unfair to do nothing but tip your cap to the two departing seniors. Neither player was expected to be major contributors coming in to Michigan, as both LeVert and Albrecht were both late signees without many other scholarship offers. By the end of the first year, Michigan fans knew both their names.
While Albrecht will have another year somewhere else, he'll always be known for his performance in the national championship game, subsequent Twitter message to Kate Upton and his all-around goofy personality. He was always the player Michigan wished was two or three inches taller, as he could have been one of the most consistent players not only in the Big Ten but the entire country. He'll be a welcome addition to any program that takes him for next season, but his presence will surely be missed at Michigan.
And for Caris, it's truly a disappointment to end his career this way. The Pickerington, Ohio native came to Michigan 6'5", 160 pounds soaking wet, and continued to develop into a better player every season. He grew to 6'7" and gained at least 30 pounds of muscle, learning how to turn his wiry frame into a strong but agile one. His three point shot soon followed, and his drives to the basket, defensive length and playmaking ability had him pegged as a potential All-American for this season.
But LeVert's health got in the way again, and Michigan could do nothing but wait and hope that the senior would fully recover. It never happened, and it'll be interesting to see whether Caris will truly be able to make a contribution on an NBA roster with these injury concerns. If he stays healthy, he could become a really nice bench player on an NBA contender.
Four years ago, I sat here with these now seniors gearing up for my first year at Michigan. Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Albrecht and LeVert, the frosh five, took the college basketball world by storm. The time has flown by, as the highs and lows of the basketball team have made it a wild ride. While our time comes to an end, it's up to a new era of Michigan players to bring the Wolverines back to such prominent heights.
Michigan made that clear earlier this afternoon by releasing Ricky Doyle, as John Beilein wants to focus his frontcourt rotation around the youth of Moritz Wagner, John Teske and Austin Davis. The backcourt sentiment is the same, as Ibi Watson and Xavier Simpson will eventually take the keys from upperclassmen Derrick Walton and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman in the next year or two.
For now, as the offseason comes and speculations fill the college basketball landscape with transfers and one-and-dones, we can be grateful that we got to watch two young men play four years at Michigan and grow up before our eyes. What Caris and Spike did for the program is monumental and will hopefully have a lasting impact. Now it's time to turn the page and keep the momentum rolling.