It’s a phenomenon Michigan coach John Beilein is still getting used to: looking at his roster at the beginning of the season and seeing far more freshmen and sophomores than juniors and seniors.
“It continues to amaze me,” Beilein said during a press conference on Wednesday. “We have Jon and Jordan and then we have the sophomores. It just continues this way. It’s been difficult.”
With the departures of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. for the NBA, as well as the loss of five senior bench players to graduation, Michigan will once again be fielding a very young team.
Beilein and his staff will be calling upon five sophomores who logged serious minutes last year to be leaders. The good news is that a few of them are old for their grade.
“I look at them and I think what differentiates them from most sophomores is that they’re prep school guys,” Beilein said. “Spike has already turned 21 years old. He’s the only 21-year-old altar boy still out there. Mitch is 21 years old. They’re a little bit older, and I feel that from them. They have a maturity about them that I trust.”
But there’s more good news: they are also extremely talented and possess extensive experience on college basketball’s biggest stage, the Final Four. Beilein can take comfort in the fact that while his sophomores may only be second-year players, they are older than most and have seen it all.
“It was really great to see these young men, how they performed on the grandest stage ever in the Final Four,” Beilein said. “I loved how we performed, all the way down the line. Now, in this situation, I think it takes a minute to get used to if you haven’t done it for eight months, but at the same time they’ve been there and that’s why Mark (Donall), Zak (Irvin) and Derrick (Walton) came here — they wanted to play in these environments.”
Perhaps the two players with the most to prove are Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. Both had very successful seasons, but questions follow them into this year.
For Robinson: can he take on a more assertive role in the offense and be successful with the ball in his hands? For McGary: can he sustain the high level of play he displayed during the NCAA tournament for a whole season. Both could have gone pro. Both have returned to answer these questions.
When it comes to Robinson, Beilein sees his progression as a player in the way he has been able to translate instruction into improvement at a rapid rate.
“Absolutely (we want him to be more assertive),” Beilein said. “I think the sweet spot he’s learning that I talk about all the time is the difference between running a play and being a player. He’s just got to continue to look for these bubbles we call them, his areas, where he can just do what he does. But you can’t force that, it can’t be ‘I haven’t shot in a while, I’m just going to take this shot.’ He has to look for those and he’ll learn little by little. That’s the part of his game that really is developing. We’ll coach him through it, but he’s a guy who has always picked things up quickly, so I don’t have any doubts that he’ll be able to do it.”
While Robinson’s former AAU teammate McGary entered last season out of shape and battling a nagging foot injury, Beilein said Michigan’s premiere big man looks in shape and seems focused this offseason.
“He has not worked out yet, this summer he looked very good. He is scheduled for this week, but he looked in really good shape. In the summer he looked very good.
“Mitch is a very bright young man, and he’s looking at the game differently every day as to how he can best improve his talent,” Beilein said. “He really will enjoy the little things other people may not enjoy, and then at the same time, there are going to be times when he comes down and he’s going to make plays that everyone will notice. I like that about him. He’s learning the difference between a great play and a whole bunch of good plays. If he can learn that — I love his attitude toward being a more complete player, defensively, foul trouble, throwing the ball away, I really like his attitude right now.”
The other three sophomores, all (presumed) not potential lottery picks, have shown their share of improvement, as well. Nik Stauskas released a video showing he has gained six inches on his vertical leap over the offseason.
Beilein has noticed a change in the sophomore’s body, and he attributed the change to Stauskas’ dedication in the weight room.
“He really dedicated himself over the summer and spent his entire summer here,” Beilein said. “Both summer sessions. You’ll all see quite a difference in his body.”
Caris LeVert has been injured a few times this summer, limiting the time Beilein has had to see him play, but Beilein said he liked “the way his body looks.” As for Spike Albrecht: “You can see what a year of weight training has done.”
But at the end of the day, it’s widely anticipated that the Wolverines will go as far as their dynamic sophomore duo of Robinson and McGary will take them. Beilein remembered having a conversation with Burke last offseason about the media attention the point guard was set to receive, and what Beilein expected from his captain as far as dedication that coming season.
Beilein said he’s had a similar talk with Robinson and McGary.
“Trey had the immediate attention,” Beilein said. “So we sat and talked with Trey last year, and he and I got together some goals for this season, and he and I made some goals for the season and darn it, we made most of those goals. And they weren’t about basketball– they were about focus and attention and keeping distractions away and I had a similar talk with these two.”