Fresh off their first Big Ten title since 1986, Michigan's basketball program finally has enough pieces in place to strive for a much loftier goal this season: make a run at the national title.
Of course, after bowing out of last year's NCAA Tournament in disappointing fashion, the No. 5 squad in the Coaches' Preseason Top 25 has a lot to prove in order to stake their claim as one of the country's top teams.
Trey Burke's decision to pass up a chance at the NBA in favor of donning the Maize and Blue for at least one more season provides the lineup with one of the top talents in all of college basketball. Juniors Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jordan Morgan add two years of experience apiece, and all three are primed to step into leadership roles vacated by graduating seniors Stu Douglass and Zack Novak.
Toss in one of the country's better recruiting classes, featuring three freshman who ranked in the ESPN Top 100, and suddenly a trip to the Final Four for the school from Ann Arbor doesn't sound so far-fetched.
Go ahead, indulge yourself with the following seven reasons the Michigan Wolverines are poised to shake up the national title picture in 2012-13.
John Beilein enters his sixth season as head coach of Michigan's basketball program.
The upcoming season could very well end up being the most fun Beilein has ever had as a men's basketball coach.
With redshirt sophomore Jon Horford returning from injury and highly-touted 6'10", 225-pound true freshman Mitch McGary joining Morgan in the front court, Beilein now has plenty of depth at the power forward and center positions.
This being Burke's second year running the offense, Beilein may be more inclined to stray from his usual slow-paced approach on occasion and let his talented point guard utilize the insane amount of athleticism his fellow teammates possess.
Glenn Robinson III, the top-ranked freshman in Michigan's incoming class (No. 18 in the ESPNU Top 100), is a freakishly athletic scoring threat with long arms who can do just about anything he pleases on the court.
Michigan's much-needed size boost will help create matchup nightmares for the opposition and allow Burke to create quick-scoring opportunities, by blocking shots and disrupting passing lanes.
Slowing the tempo has been key to Beilein's success in Ann Arbor and he's not going to change up his offensive attack overnight. But that doesn't mean he'll be able to resist implementing a few new wrinkles to help this team take the next step.
Despite struggling from beyond the arc much of the year, Hardaway became a much more efficient mid-range shooter throughout the 2011-12 season.
The athletic, 6'6", 205-pound junior saw a considerable drop in three-point percentage from his freshman season (37 percent) to his sophomore year (28 percent), but was still able to maintain his overall field goal percentage (.420 in 2010-11 to .418 in 2011-12) as he learned to use his explosiveness to create scoring opportunities closer to the bucket.
What makes Hardaway so dangerous is the ability to take over a game at any time. He's known to disappear for long stretches, too, but when he turns it on he can really flip the script in a hurry.
Hardaway can pile up points in chunks, seemingly before the opponent even realizes what he's up to, and it injects a substantial jolt of energy into the rest of the Wolverines when he does.
With all the talent now surrounding him, Hardaway can afford to lurk in the shadows, play sound defense and strike when his team needs him most.
Prepare to see Beilein send a wide array of lineups out to the floor this season.
When you have athleticism like Michigan does, you have options. Hardaway has proven he can handle the wing, but with GRIII on campus, he may spend a considerable amount of time as the 2-guard as well.
As previously mentioned, the Wolverines now have ample depth down low and can utilize that size to match up with some of the over-sized Big Ten lineups they'll encounter in conference play.
Like many are used to seeing from Michigan's height-deprived rosters of recent past, there is also the opportunity to play small and raise the tempo with an extra guard on the court. With senior Matt Vogrich and true freshman Nick Stauskas at his disposal, Beilein can mix and match in many ways, replacing a big man with an experienced presence in Vogrich or instead opting for the young sharpshooter in Stauskas (No. 76 ESPNU Top 100).
Beilein loves to have options. This year, he'll have no shortage of them.
The ability to provide help for Morgan down low will work wonders for the Wolverines' rebounding totals.
For three straight years, Michigan has finished ninth or worse in the Big Ten in total rebounds. They've come in ranking last in offensive rebounds per game for two seasons in a row.
Not having to run the 6'4" Zack Novak at power forward should help just as much as it sounds like it would. Novak was a trooper, but certainly not an ideal fit for the position. The Wolverines did have 6'9", 235-pound Evan Smotrycz, but severe inconsistencies prevented him from cracking the starting lineup and he eventually became one of three players to leave the program back in March.
Each standing at 6'10", McGary and Horford will help significantly in scooping up loose balls. The rangy GRIII, son of NBA great Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, will be able to contribute in this area as well.
Wolverines fans across the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief when Burke announced his intentions to return for a second season. Despite being a true freshman last year, the 6'0", 190-pound point guard led Michigan in minutes, points, assists, blocks and steals per game.
Needless to say, his emergence was crucial to the Wolverines continued development as a program.
With no other true point guard to run the offense, Beilein ran Burke ragged game in and game out. He averaged 36.1 minutes per game last season and will likely be leaned on heavily again this time around.
Burke's court vision is off the charts, and if he catches the defense blinking he can manufacture points in a heartbeat. The Wolverines offense is well off with the ball in Burke's hands, but he's a natural passer and is now equipped with a team full of scorers that'll help him pile up the assists.
CBS Sports listed Burke at No. 3 in their list of the Top 50 point guards in college basketball. High expectations for sure, but ones that the sophomore can not only live up to, but even exceed. If he can cut down on turnovers and continue to run an efficient offense, the results will speak for themselves.
Indiana enters the season ranked No. 1 in the coaches' preseason Top 25.
With five teams in the preseason Top 25 and three ranked No. 5 or higher, the Big Ten is stocked full of talented squads in 2012-13.
Led by sophomore center Cody Zellar, the Indiana Hoosiers have been pegged as the team to beat in not just the Big Ten, but the entire nation. Head coach Tom Crean has brought this program a long way in a short time, and they'll return all five starters from a squad that carried the Hoosiers to a 25-8 record just one year after finishing 12-20 overall and 3-15 in conference play.
The Wolverines draw Indiana twice, along with perennial powerhouses Ohio State (No. 4 in preseason Top 25) and Michigan State (No. 14). Don't forget the Wisconsin Badgers (No. 21), who finished a game shy of joining the three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings at the conclusion of the regular season a year ago.
Michigan faces a grueling four-game stretch in February in which they'll see the Hoosiers, Buckeyes, Badgers and Spartans—in that order. This string of games will undoubtedly make or break the Wolverines' chances of a second straight Big Ten title and prepare them for deep runs in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, too.
Handed a well-deserved No. 4 seed entering the NCAA Tournament this past March, Burke and the Wolverines were poised to leave a disheartening Big Ten Tournament Semifinal loss in the dust and cruise into the Sweet 16—perhaps even further.
But the Maize and Blue fell to the No. 13 seeded Ohio Bobcats and were forced to experience the harsh reality that it only takes one off night to send you home early when it comes to March Madness.
Trey Burke, the kid from Columbus, Ohio who spurned his home state for a chance to become a part of U-M Basketball, had been defeated by two schools from Ohio in the span of a week. Burke shot a combined 6 for 26 in those defeats, including 2 for 16 from three-point range.
It just couldn't end like that.
And so Burke returns, ready to step up as a leader (h/t Nick Baumgardner of AnnArbor.com) to ensure this talent-laden roster doesn't suffer a similar fate.
Hardaway and Morgan fell short of expectations in those losses as well, and they'll be able to use the experience to remember that every basket counts when you're playing basketball in March.
This season's squad may be young, but the potential is undeniable. Beilein finally has the pieces in place to run his operation free of limitations. The tough opposition from within the conference should help the team gel for a deep postseason run as well.
It's been some time since this could be said in Ann Arbor, but these Wolverines have what it takes to make a serious run at a National Championship.
Now they've just got to go out and get it done.