The shoes. They were just so … bright.
As the media recently assembled at Michigan’s Player Development Center to meet the men’s basketball team, they were greeted by players wearing highlighter-neon-green shoes and socks. First there was an audible gasp from the press, then disbelieving chuckles.
Yes, times are changing for the Michigan basketball program, and it’s not just the color of the shoes. Head coach John Beilein finds himself with the most talented class of incoming freshmen since he set foot on campus. This team will play in brand-new facilities that rival those of any college hoops program in the country. And they’ve been picked to finish near the top of the Big Ten Conference. (Oh, and just for the record, the players say they have no plans to wear those day-glo shoes during games—for now, they’re just for display.)
For the past few years, Beilein has been building a program whose players were often undersized and under the radar. But he still managed to best more gifted players with a combination of smarts and hustle. His teams experienced success because of hard work and great coaching, not because they were more talented.
With the 2012-2013 season fast approaching, it appears this narrative is about to change.
The Wolverines welcome five incoming freshmen, and three are expected to contribute immediately: 6-foot-7 Glenn Robinson III, 6-foot-10 Mitch McGary, and 6-foot-5 Nik Stauskas. All finished their high school careers ranked in the top 100 players in the 2012 class, according to the popular recruiting website Rivals.com.
Along with these talented newcomers, Michigan has difference-makers returning from last year. The Wolverines return sophomore point guard Trey Burke, a player who emerged as one of the best at his position in the country last year. Tim Hardaway Jr. is back as a combination shooting guard-small forward and is known as a lights-out shooter and an above-average athlete. Both players are regarded as legitimate NBA prospects—in fact, Burke was very close to jumping to the NBA early after last year.
Redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan returns as a reliable two-year starter. He knows Beilein’s pick-and-roll-based offense backwards and front. Senior Matt Vogrich, meanwhile, a 3-point shooting specialist, is likely to see action off the bench as an offensive microwave.
Of course, there are question marks too. Redshirt sophomore and forward Jon Horford was injured most of last season but still showed flashes of talent; redshirt freshman Max Bielfeldt sat out last year but is expected to contribute on post defense and rebounding; he also is known to have a nice outside jumpshot. Senior guard and Ann Arbor native Eso Akunne could provide a steady hand at point guard if Burke goes down or faces foul trouble.
Michigan is poised to take the leap from middling Big Ten team to a perennial power in the conference. This year, they finally have all the tools to compete with the best teams in what is probably the best basketball conference in the country.
Replacing Zack Novak and Stu Douglass
While Michigan appears to have an excellent returning core, they are missing two players who were very significant in developing the program into what it is now: departed seniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass. Both were members of Beilein’s first-ever recruiting class at Michigan, and both embodied the scrappy, relentless, and intelligent nature of Beilein’s first few teams in Ann Arbor. Both players logged major minutes all four years they were on campus and both were instrumental in establishing Michigan’s identity as a viable program, an identity that had a part in attracting the talented new Wolverines to campus.
It’s unclear how the team will react to the absence of two of their most valuable leaders, but Trey Burke is one Wolverine who appears ready to take the reins. He attended several camps run by NBA players this summer and says he noted one recurring theme.
“(The camps) really stressed how important it is for a point guard to be vocal and to lead his team,” Burke says. “I learned a lot from (Chris Paul’s camp). I was able to see a lot of other top talent and pick up on some other guards’ games.”
Tim Hardaway Jr. admits he is feeling the leadership void left by Novak and Douglass. Hardaway could be a mercurial player at times during his freshman and sophomore campaigns, and Novak was constantly mentoring him to ensure his attitude remained consistent, whether Hardaway’s shots were falling or not.
On his own now, Hardaway is aware that as a junior and one of the main scorers on the team, he will be looked to for leadership.
“It’s tough filling those roles that Zack and Stu had,” he says. “Those were people who were big influences on Michigan basketball and the Michigan basketball program. It’s going to be hard, but whoever takes the opportunity of being the captain of this team, it’s an honor and a privilege.”
Meet the freshmen
With so many incoming freshmen likely to make an impact this year, it appears the fate of the Wolverines is tied up with their development as the season progresses. Already dubbed by some as the “Fresh Five,” here are some essentials they bring to the court:
At 6-foot-10, McGary is a mobile player with a diverse skill set. He hails from Novak’s hometown of Chesterton, Ind., and the two share a frenetic, high-energy style of play. McGary knows how to use his big body to score in the post, and he also has above-average court vision that allows him to open opportunities for other players. Ranked as the number-two overall recruit in the country after his junior year, McGary fell to the 20s after his senior year, which he spent at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. It remains to be seen if McGary will be ready to contribute right away, but he has a college-ready body and is very athletic and coordinated for a player his size.
Glenn Robinson III
Robinson and McGary have been good friends for a long time, which makes sense given that Robinson’s hometown of St. John, Ind., is just a few miles from Chesterton. Playing on the same AAU team, McGary has said he and Robinson have a “sort of telepathy-type deal where we always know where we’re at on the court even if we’re not looking.” This ready-made chemistry should help both players adjust to the college game.
Robinson started his high school career low in the rankings but moved up quickly after his commitment to Michigan. At 6-foot-7, he may be the best athlete in the class as far as pure ability, and can score in a variety of ways. He offers Beilein plenty of options on offense, as he could presumably play any position from shooting guard to power forward. Robinson ended his high school career ranked as the number 11 player in his class, according to Rivals.com.
Stauskas originally introduced himself to Michigan fans through a series of YouTube videos in which he knocked down 3-point shots at an alarmingly steady rate. Known as a shooter, Stauskas hails from Mississauga, Ontario. He played high school ball at St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts, a known basketball powerhouse. Stauskas offers Michigan even more versatility because of the combination of his size (6-foot-5) and shooting ability. He also is known as a very capable ballhandler, which the Wolverines may need on the wing if Hardaway’s handle doesn’t improve from last season.
Levert originally was committed to Ohio University but this summer he switched his commitment to the Wolverines. While he enters college as an unranked high school player, at 6-foot-4 Levert has excellent length for a perimeter player and could develop as a defensive force on the outside. He displayed a good jumpshot in high school and while he isn’t expected to play right away, he could develop into a solid contributor at guard for Michigan in the future. Levert is from Pickerington Central High School in Ohio, just outside Burke’s hometown of Columbus.
Also hailing from the apparent basketball hotbed of Chesterton, Albrecht grew up watching his older brother play with Novak. Albrecht is an undersized point guard who wasn’t heavily recruited by high-major programs, but was brought in as a good potential option should Burke choose to leave for the NBA after this season. Albrecht is known as a solid player able to hold his own against high-level competition at Northfield Mt. Hermon prep school in Massachusetts. He is a hard-nosed scrapper in the mold of Novak, which is a welcome addition for any team.
The expectations for this team have a wide range. Some publications rank Michigan as high as third, others don’t rank them at all. But Michigan fans are ready for an unforgettable year. How does the team handle this kind of buildup?
For John Beilein, the answer is simple: Don’t worry about it.
“I don’t even pay any attention to that,” Beilein says. “If people base things off just recruiting, they are probably going to be wrong a lot more than they are right—if you look at it whether it is us or somebody else. Look at people over a long run of what they do. That is how you best find out.”
So despite the obvious outward changes the new season brings, the aim of the man in charge is to maintain the team’s underlying integrity and philosophy. Beilein relishes the role of underdog, especially an underdog that plays with purpose.
“I think John Beilein’s always going to have a chip on his shoulder,” he says. “I’m always trying to find a way to be the best team we can be, in every single fashion … to really work as hard if not harder than anybody. To be smart, if not smarter than other teams. Just keep working at that. That keeps all that other stuff away.”