The best way to view Michigan ahead of the upcoming season might be to completely disregard what happened last year. After a two-year stretch in which the Wolverines twice finished No. 1 in offensive efficiency while reaching the national championship game and the Elite Eight, things just totally fell apart for John Beilein's team last season.
Michigan had lost five NBA draft picks over the last two seasons, but still had the talent to make a run in the Big Ten. Then everything went to hell: NJIT pulled off the biggest upset of the regular season, and the Wolverines lost their next game to Eastern Michigan. Star scorer Caris LeVert suffered a season-ending leg injury one month later, and starting point guard Derrick Walton was shut down shortly thereafter with a toe injury.
As disappointing as Michigan's 16-16 finish was, all the pieces are in place for a bounceback campaign this year if everyone stays healthy. In fact, the injuries afforded young players like Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman an unexpected opportunity to shine late last season, which bodes well for Michigan's depth this year.
It still starts with LeVert, who made the surprising decision to return for his senior year. He could be one of the best all-around players in the country this year, as someone who can create his own shot off the dribble, knock down a catch-and-shoot jumper (he's made more than 40 perfect of his threes the last two years), facilitate and defend.
LeVert won't be asked to do it alone. Zak Irvin is a former five-star recruit entering his junior year who made major strides last season as a scorer. Irvin is the perfect type of floor-stretching combo forward Beilein's system thrives on, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him make another jump carrying a lesser offensive burden this season.
Walton, a feisty defender and another capable spot-up shooter, is a difference-maker at point guard when he's healthy. One-time national championship phenom Spike Albrecht is back for his senior season, too, and should provide shooting off the bench.
There will be questions about the front court, which was an issue for Michigan all last season. Centers Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal are each back for their sophomore seasons, but Max Bielfeldt is gone after choosing to spend his graduate transfer season at Indiana. Beilein will also be banking on power forward Kameron Chatman to live up to the recruiting hype he entered the program with now that he's in his sophomore season.
No, this team isn't as talented as the one that went to the Final Four in 2013, but the principal pieces have experience and are a seamless fit for Beilein's offense. Michigan fans are certainly eager to forget about last year, and this team should be good enough to accomplish that much.
John Beilein preached spacing and shooting before it was cool.
When Michigan's offense was the best in the country in 2013 and 2014, it thrived off the three-point shot. Michigan hit 37.9 percent of its triples in 2013 (ranked No. 25 in the country), then finished No. 4 the next season by knocking down 40.2 percent of their attempts from the outside thanks largely to the presence of lottery pick Nik Stauskas. Michigan's three-point shooting dropped to just No. 120 nationally last year, and it's no coincidence the offense slid to No. 66 right with it.
The good news for Michigan is it has the personnel to knock down shots and space the floor this year. LeVert is a reliable volume shooter from the outside, making 40.7 percent of his threes on more than four attempts per game the last two seasons. Irvin saw his three-point shooting percentage fall from 42.5 to 35.5 as his volume increased (from 3.9 to 6.8 attempts per game) last year, but no one doubts his range. Walton (down to 35.8 percent from deep last year after hitting 41 percent as a freshman) shares a similar story.
A pair of sophomores, Abdur-Rahkman and Dawkins, are the swing factors here. Each were regarded as two-star recruits entering the program, but became surprise contributors after the injuries hit. Dawkins (the son of Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins) broke out with a 20-point game against Illinois in late December by hitting 6-of-7 threes, and finished the year as a 43.8 percent shooter from downtown. Abdur-Rahkman put up four double-digit scoring games himself from February on.
Duncan Robinson also enters the year with a reputation as a sniper. If Beilein has shooters to work with, watch out. It's a formula he's had a lot of success with in the recent past.
Beilein has shooters, he has an experienced roster and he has a bonafide star in LeVert. But does he have enough talent in the front court for a sustained run in the NCAA Tournament?
Some damning stats from last year: Michigan was No. 325 in the country in offensive rebounding, No. 340 in block percentage and No. 251 in steal percentage. The Wolverines also finished No. 279 in defending two-point shots by allowing opponents to shoot 50.8 percent inside the arc.
Michigan's best hope is that Doyle and Donnal each take a step forward this year. Doyle shot an impressive 61.2 percent from the field last season on four attempts per game, while Donnal posted a better defensive rebounding rate and block rate. Chapman is the wild card even if he lacks the size of a big man at 6'8, 215 pounds. He's a good athlete and capable rebounder who should leave a mark on the roster this season.
Beilein's teams posted five straight seasons of top 70 defenses before finishing outside the top 100 each of the last two years. Even if Michigan will always be defined by its offense, it needs to find proper balance to get back to being a threat in the Big Ten.