Wolverines hoping for another banner season

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — John Beilein hopes his team has learned the right lessons from last season’s NCAA tournament run, when Michigan came within a few points of a national title.

“The harder thing is making us all recall — including the coaching staff — how focused we were as we went down the stretch, with all the atmosphere, the environment,” Beilein said. “How do we get to that point? There was incredible focus. Well, do we have that again? That’s the most challenging thing. I don’t see anything different than that, but I’m with them four hours a day.”

Beilein is entering his seventh season as Michigan’s coach, and the Wolverines are coming off their first Final Four appearance since 1993. They now face some obvious challenges. National player of the year Trey Burke left for the NBA along with backcourt mate Tim Hardaway Jr.

Michigan opens the season Nov. 8 against UMass-Lowell, and the main question right now is the status of big man Mitch McGary. One of the breakout stars of last season’s tournament, McGary has been dealing with a back issue, and it’s not clear how long that problem might linger.

McGary and Glenn Robinson III both decided to return after impressive freshman seasons, and the Wolverines also welcome back sharpshooting Nik Stauskas.

Michigan lost 82-76 to Louisville in the NCAA final. If healthy, the Wolverines can expect to be in the mix for the Big Ten title again, and they’ll be tested in the nonconference portion of the schedule with a visit to Duke on Dec. 3. Michigan also hosts Arizona on Dec. 14 and plays in a Puerto Rico tournament in November.

Here are five issues to keep an eye on as Michigan tries to return to the Final Four:

McGARY’S HEALTH: The 6-foot-10 McGary averaged 7.5 points per game last season, but in the NCAA tournament he averaged 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds. That late surge had him weighing his pro options, but he decided to stay at Michigan. If McGary is healthy, Michigan could again grow into one of the nation’s top teams, but if his back remains a problem, the Wolverines might slip. Michigan can turn to Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford inside, but those two would be hard pressed to match McGary’s energy and athleticism.

WALTON TAKES OVER: With Burke gone, highly regarded freshman Derrick Walton has a chance to take over as the new point guard. “I really don’t feel any pressure,” Walton said. “My job is not to replace Trey. It’s just to keep the team at a high level and do what I do best.” Michigan went through a similar transition two years ago, when Burke took over after Darius Morris departed, but every newcomer adjusts differently to the college game. “I’ve seen great decision making by Derrick, which is really good — which I’ve seen in very few freshmen,” Beilein said.

ROBINSON’S ROLE: The 6-foot-6 Robinson averaged 11 points last season, and it felt like Michigan never really had to run any plays for the athletic forward. He helped the Wolverines become a more dangerous team in transition. This year he might have to be more aggressive offensively. In Michigan’s first exhibition game Tuesday night, Robinson scored 33 points on 12-of-15 shooting.

IMPROVED DEFENSE?: Michigan’s NCAA tournament run was a bit of a surprise after the team looked worn down toward the end of the Big Ten season. The Wolverines did not look like an elite defensive team — although McGary’s emergence helped Michigan toughen up a bit around the basket. It will be interesting to see if Michigan is at all improved defensively, now that Stauskas and Robinson are a year older. Walton’s development in that regard could also be crucial. “You could put a defensive team out there that is really good,” Beilein said. “We can put four or five guys out there that can really guard people.”

BACKCOURT DEPTH: Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert were able to give the Wolverines quality minutes off the bench toward the end of last season. They’re both sophomores now. Albrecht became a Final Four sensation when he scored 17 points in the first half of the national title game.

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