Michigan’s 2014-15 season came to a screeching end when Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton went down with season-ending injuries.
But while those crushing injuries to arguably the team’s two best players ended one season, they gave the Wolverines a jump on another.
The sidelining of LeVert and Walton allowed other players, younger players to get playing time they weren’t originally slated to receive. And while 2014-15 ended with losses in nine of the team’s last 13 games — the bottoming-out finish to a 16-16 record and 8-10 conference mark — it also ended with guys like Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman establishing themselves as valuable pieces to the 2015-16 puzzle.
“It is painful to go through that. It is painful for (the players) as well. We had a lot of close losses, and right now you can see the effect has been terrific,” head coach John Beilein said last month during Big Ten basketball media day. “We have a lot of gap to make up with this young team. But without question, now that we look back on it, it was very beneficial for all of us, including the coaching staff.”
“At first I was heartbroken because of the injury, but then I kind of looked at it from a bigger scale and really saw what Muhammad and Aubrey were doing out on the court as far as the confidence they had. They really grew,” LeVert said. “You saw them out there making big plays on the road against Michigan State, at home against Wisconsin, in big games like that. And I think that will really help us this year down the stretch.”
[BIG TEN HOOPS PREVIEW: It's defense first for blue-collar Purdue]
LeVert is an All-Big Ten type player, an All-America type player, some would say. When he went down for the season after six Big Ten games, he was averaging nearly 15 points and five rebounds a game, shooting better than 42 percent from the field and better than 40 percent from behind the 3-point line.
His loss last season marked the end for Michigan. His return this year will mark the start of what could be another special campaign for a Beilein-led team, as LeVert said he’s feeling better than he did even before he went down.
“It was definitely tough at first, watching my team go out there and fight, knowing that I really couldn’t do anything physically to help them,” LeVert said. “But a couple weeks after the injury, my teammates were really there for me, coaches were there for me, and I knew that I could help the team out in other ways, encouraging guys and things like that. So I definitely think it was a learning experience for me.
“I would say I feel better than I did before the injury just as far as my leg strength and my durability. I’m able to play for longer stretches of time.”
[BIG TEN HOOPS PREVIEW: Hayes, Koenig take over for depleted Badgers]
Having a healthy LeVert back in action is obviously huge for the Wolverines. Same goes for Walton. And Zak Irvin and Spike Albrecht, two more Michigan guards who had offseason procedures to get themselves all patched up for this season.
But equally important are the guys who filled in for the injured stars. Eight players started at least 13 games for the Wolverines last season. Nine averaged at least 15 minutes a game. That might not be the case this season, but to bring back that kind of experience and depth is huge.
“You never want to see guys go down, and last year having Caris and Derrick go down, that obviously didn’t help us. But it did allow for other guys to step up and get a chance to play, get some game experience,” Albrecht said. “There’s nothing like game experience. Guys like Aubrey and Muhammad got to play in big games, crucial moments. Now when they get in there this season, there’s no pressure, they’re not worried because they’ve been there before.”
It could very well create a headache for Beilein, who has to figure out how to distribute the minutes between the returning stars and the now-experienced backups.
“We have to get these young men that will probably have to move back in their minutes and still get comfortable with a five-, 10-, 15-, 20-minute slot, and some of those same young men might be in the 30-, 35-minute slot,” Beilein said. “So we're going to determine that out, and it is great to have depth. And it gives you all kinds of choices. Sometimes that’s tough too. … You still don't have all the answers. You try to evolve during the season as well.”
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Michigan gear right here]
The recipe might not be finalized quite yet, but the ingredients make it seem like the Wolverines can again challenge for a Big Ten title, even in a league as crowded at the top as this one appears to be. Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin, Purdue. They’re all great teams. But Michigan is right there with them. LeVert, Walton and Irvin make up a terrific scoring trio, while on off nights, we now know guys like Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman can supply what’s missing.
It’s only been three seasons since Michigan finished as national runner up. It’s only been two since a miracle shot by Kentucky prevented Michigan from reaching back-to-back Final Fours.
Last season was wiped out by injuries, but this season looks like it will more closely resemble the two that ended as one of the final teams standing in the NCAA tournament.
At least, that’s what these guys think.
“We have very high expectations. We want to get back to where we were in years past,” Albrecht said. “Last year we kind of dipped down, had some injuries, things like that. But we’ve put in a lot of work this offseason, and we’re excited about the upcoming season.”