As far as two-year runs go, there have been worse. Michigan continued its revival under John Beilein by advancing to the Elite Eight - missing a return trip to the Final Four by a mere possession. While ending its season the way Michigan did, not simply falling one game short of a Final Four appearance, but coming up short by way of a last-second three-pointer, is surely disappointing, it did nothing to diminish the Wolverines' accomplishments, which include 59 wins and an 8-2 record in the NCAA tournament over the past two seasons to go along with the program's first uncontested conference championship in a generation.
It didn't always look like it would end well for the Wolverines, however, particularly early on. Struggling to cope with the loss of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA and with Mitch McGary hampered by a nagging back injury, Michigan started the season rather inauspiciously, with a lackluster 8-4 record in non-conference play, highlighted (lowlighted?) by a loss to Charlotte in the finals of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament. Yet, after back surgery forced McGary to shut it down for the season in mid-December, rather than folding, Michigan showed resolve, picked up its game and ran away with the Big Ten. Sure, other conference teams had much-publicized injury and consistency issues, but when considering that the Big Ten sent three teams to the Elite Eight, winning the conference - by three games, no less - cannot be discounted.
Michigan was able to do what it did, in large part, because of the improved play of Nik Stauskas. As I wrote earlier in the season, it's not that Stauskas shot better this season than he did during his freshman campaign, but rather that he did everything else better. More or less a spot up shooter during his freshman season, Stauskas developed into an all-around player this year. Still deadly from long range, where he connected on 47% of his three-point attempts, Stauskas was able to create his own shot more effectively, and proved equally adept at driving to the basket as hitting the long jumper. Stauskas also turned playmaker, allowing freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. to ease into his role running the offense. In addition to averaging 17.5 points a game, Stauskas boasted an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 2:1. But it was more than just numbers, Stauskas was Michigan's leader from day one, routinely demanding the ball in critical moments, where he came through more often than not. Stauskas was named first team All-American by the NABC and was the second Wolverine in as many seasons to be named Big Ten player of the year.
If there was one player who improved as least as much as Stauskas from last season, it was Caris LeVert. A lightly-used reserve as a true freshman last season, LeVert developed into one of Michigan's most consistent players, its best one-on-one threat and its best on-ball defender. Just how far has LeVert come? A candidate to be red-shirted last year, LeVert now finds himself on NBA watch lists after his sophomore season. A second-team All-Conference performer, LeVert figures to be among the leaders of next year's team. And as well as he played this season, averaging 12.9 PPG, more than 10 points better than last year, he's still more raw than polished and is a good bet to perform at an even higher level next season.
Michigan also got key contributions from freshmen Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin, but if there was a key to Michigan's success as important as Stauskas or LeVert, it was fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan. After a disappointing season last year, in which a late-season knee injury left him hobbled and mostly forgotten during Michigan's tourney run, Morgan provided an essential inside presence and finished the season playing as well as any of his teammates. To get a sense of Morgan's importance, one need look no further than the first half of the conference tournament championship game loss to Michigan State, where, with Morgan sitting virtually the entire first half in foul trouble, Michigan not only struggled defensively, but offensively as well. An unheralded part of Michigan's offense, Morgan's ability to screen, pick and roll and play off the ball was critical to Michigan's offensive performance. When defenses paid too much attention to any of Michigan's perimeter shooters, Morgan was more than capable of converting at the rim, converting a school-record 70% of his field goal attempts. As the season progressed, Morgan's play improved and his minutes increased, culminating with him playing the best ball of his career in the NCAA tournament, where he scored in double-figures every game and averaged 12.8 points and 7.8 rebounds. Who would have thought that even with Stauskas and fellow sophomore Glenn Robinson III leaving early for the NBA, Morgan might be the most difficult Wolverine to replace on next year's roster?
Throughout the season, critics labeled Michigan a one-trick pony, suggesting that if the Wolverines didn't shoot well, they had little chance of winning. Forget for a moment that this applies to nearly all teams, but beyond that, Michigan rarely shot poorly. The Wolverines regularly posted shooting statistics that left opponents shaking their heads and broadcasters at a loss for words. The remarkable thing about hitting 16 of 23 three-pointers in Champaign or connecting on 58% of its threes and 83% of its free throws in East Lansing was that it was not that surprising to those who watched Michigan play this year. Michigan finished the season shooting 48% from the floor, 41% from beyond the arc and 76% from the line. Add in the fact that the Wolverines rarely turned the ball over and it's easy to see how Michigan finished the season as the most efficient offense (highest adjusted offensive efficiency rating) in the history of the kenpom era.
Michigan's success was a collective effort, but to describe this team as one whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts wouldn't be completely accurate. Not only would it be cliché, but there were some very good parts on this team. This might have been the first season, however, in which Beilein's offensive vision was truly showcased. Last year, Michigan rode to the finals largely on the back of Burke. This season, contributions came from everywhere, and despite losing the national player of the year, Michigan performed even better offensively.
But it wasn't just shooting percentages and advanced statistical analyses that defined Michigan's season. Michigan displayed a resolve that it hasn't always showed, allowing the Wolverines to win in Madison, Columbus and East Lansing in a season that also saw them defeat three top ten teams in the span of an eight days on their way to securing Michigan's first uncontested conference championship since Glen Rice was still in uniform, giving Michigan at least a share of two of the past three Big Ten titles. So while the sting of not reaching the Final Four will linger, this team and this season will be remembered fondly.