Michigan basketball forced its way into the national consciousness in the late 80s and early 90s, disappeared into irrelevance for 10+ years, and then turned into a Big Ten and national power a few years ago thanks to John Beilein's coaching system and some late-developing superstars.
The product of that success left the 2014-15 Wolverines in an awkward position, as Maize n Brew points out:
"...This past season, Trey Burke was supposed to be a senior. Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III were supposed to be juniors. None of them were top-100 recruits when they committed to Michigan, and none were supposed to leave early for the NBA. The only prospect that Beilein expected to head to the NBA before his senior season was Mitch McGary, who was a blue-chip recruit from the get-go. But, as you know, that's not what happened. Under Beilein's tutelage, Burke, Stauskas, and Robinson III developed into exceptional players, and, in two years, all three plus McGary were off to the NBA."
Your stars are gone, but the cupboard wasn't exceptionally empty. The guard trifecta of Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr. and Caris LeVert looked more than prepared to compete in the Big Ten, and Beilein teams consistently survive, and thrive, without interior scoring. Ranked #24 and then #19, things didn't look too bad.
The #injuries, the #NJIT upset, the #overtime losses, no #NCAA or #NIT for that matter, 2014-15 truly did not go as planned. So let's look at a few positives, because it's the off-season and who really wants to stew about things for 7 months?
John Beilein still puts players in positions to succeed. That's the overwhelming lesson to learn here. Overrun by injuries and left with little chance to make the NCAA Tourney, the Wolverines played inspired ball over and over again, taking Final Four-level teams to overtime and beating OSU. Freshmen who were red-shirt possibilities looked capable and explosive when given opportunities to shine.
That LeVert injury may have been a blessing in disguise. All those minutes where Caris would have been playing? Given to freshmen who will be with the program for the foreseeable future. A season where the peak was possibly an NCAA play-in game? The injury created important big minutes-experience for Spike, Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and Aubrey Dawkins.
Sometime it's your year. Sometimes it just ain't. But this is a program starved for stability, which now has it under Beilein, so this aberration of a year shouldn't cause too many waves.
Would be nice to have some interior scoring one day though!
Not much to add to what Graham said, he laid it out pretty well. This was always going to be a challenging season for Michigan, having to replace the core of last year's team in Stauskas, Robinson III and Jordan Morgan. Not unexpectedly, Michigan struggled out of the gate and then a bad season got worse with injuries to LeVert and Walton Jr. CBS noted throughout the NCAA tournament that Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky was the only player in the country to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, but LeVert held the same distinction when he was injured. Without LeVert and Walton (who was essentially lost for the season shortly thereafter), Michigan was left to rely on Irvin, Albrecht and a host of freshmen. Just how dire was it in Ann Arbor? Not only did the Wolverines field a line-up of three freshmen and two walk-ons at one point, but they were also forced to burn a walk-on's (Andrew Dakich) red-shirt season. Despite it all, Beilein's charges acquitted themselves quite well, taking Final Four-bound Michigan State and Wisconsin to overtime and generally playing above their weight class. But while what Beilein and Michigan accomplished this season shouldn't be diminished, moral victories are not the end goal for this program. So in the aftermath of a disappointing season, what lies ahead for the Wolverines?
As Graham mentioned, if there was a silver lining to this season, it was the additional minutes that players like Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman received. Michigan will surely be a much improved team next year, with LeVert (possibly) and Walton returning to join Irvin, Albrecht (possibly) and a more seasoned group of second-year players. But whether the Wolverines are simply improved or are able to contend for a conference championship will depend not as much on LeVert's return or newcomer Duncan Robinson's impact, but on their play in the paint. Simply put, to be a legitimate power, Michigan needs legitimate power inside.
Look no further than this season's NCAA tourney. While not every team had the dominance of Jahlil Okafor or the skill-set of Kaminsky, the common denominator among teams that advanced deep into the tourney was a roster that featured multiple, talented big men. Even looking within, Michigan's last two tourney runs were fueled by a breakout performance by McGary in 2012-13 and the emergence of Morgan in 2013-14. Stauskas may have been the Big Ten MVP in 2013-14, but you could make the argument that Morgan was Michigan's most important player over the second half of the season. For Michigan to be truly successful in 2015-16, it will have to find someone to take his place. Or a collection of someones.
Ricky Doyle surprised with his play this season, but he'll need help in the rugged Big Ten. And whether that help comes from improved play from Mark Donnal and/or Kameron Chatman or precocious play from incoming freshman Moritz Wagner, it will have to come from somewhere, because for Michigan to challenge for the conference championship, it will need significantly stronger play inside.