With the regular season approaching quickly, the University of Michigan men's basketball team is already starting to take shape during its second full week of practice.
While position battles will be among the topics of great interest to the Maize and Blue faithful, four other factors will make or break the Wolverines' 2013-14 campaign.
One of those factors pertains to the ongoing fight at point guard in the starting lineup, although winning the job will not matter as much as overall efficiency at the position.
Another factor has to do with an area Michigan struggled in last season, while the final two factors focus on the production of two returning stars.
If the Wolverines manage to excel in the following areas, a second straight trip to the Final Four is within their reach. The same applies to Michigan's Big Ten conference title hopes. Don't forget, the Maize and Blue won a share of the title in 2012 and were inches away from repeating last season.
Enough with the introductions, though. Let's examine what will determine whether or not the Wolverines are contenders or pretenders this season.
Mitch McGary's Health
Head coach John Beilein revealed that McGary had struggled with his condition since the beginning of fall, although details beyond that were scarce. McGary's "day-to-day" status did not do much to ease any concerns.
Monday afternoon brought great news, though. According to Jeff Goodman of ESPN.com, McGary is not very concerned about the issue and insists the measures being taken are simply precautionary.
"We're just being cautious," McGary said. "I'm hoping to get back on the court in the next couple of weeks, but we're not rushing anything."
Another source, according to Goodman, believes the injury "has become worrisome and that it could wind up being an issue this season." This essentially means nothing has changed, despite what the 6'10", 260-pounder told reporters. None of his concerns have been alleviated.
If McGary is slowed by back problems, the Wolverines' frontcourt will take a devastating blow. A healthy McGary proved to be the key factor to Michigan's run to the national championship game. Losing him for any period of time would bring unwanted changes to the team's personnel and significantly lower expectations.
The Maize and Blue would be forced to utilize a smaller lineup once again with Glenn Robinson III playing out of position at power forward. Michigan got away with this last season because it had Trey Burke. This season's starting point guard will need Robinson to be a small forward and create offense rather than simply finishing plays.
Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford would be solid at the 5 position, but neither can match the offensive output of McGary. The two combined did not even match the rising sophomore's season scoring average in 2012-13.
For the Wolverines to contend nationally and in the Big Ten, McGary has to stay healthy.
Efficiency at Point Guard
Derrick Walton and Spike Albrecht are vying to replace All-American Trey Burke at the point. Both are going to see time at the 1. Expect a 30-10, or 25-15 split in minutes between the two.
Whichever player winds up starting does not mean as much as will taking care of the basketball.
Michigan led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio last season and has to be among the top teams to do so again in order to continue to thrive. There will be plenty of weapons around Albrecht and Walton to make that possible. Robinson and McGary are both potential NBA lottery picks, Nik Stauskas is a perimeter threat and Zak Irvin is going to be a sharpshooter off the bench.
Neither has to be the scorer Burke was either because the aforementioned players will take care of just about all of that. Being facilitators and avoiding turnovers are the top priorities for Walton and Albrecht.
Nik Stauskas Making Threes in Important Games
In all eight of Michigan's losses last season, Stauskas shot just 29 percent from beyond the arc and made less than three triples in each. His games against the top five Big Ten teams and in the NCAA tournament were equally as bad, as Stauskas went just 18-of-54 (33 percent) from three-point range in those contests.
That will not cut it in 2013-14.
Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. made 149 treys a season ago and are now on NBA rosters. That means Stauskas' ability to hit threes will be vital to Michigan's success, especially in this season's marquee games.
Unless the Canadian shooting guard can show up for the Wolverines when it matters most, they will fall out of contention in the Big Ten. An early exit in the NCAA tournament would also be more likely without production from Stauskas drilling key three-pointers.
Effectiveness in the Half-Court
Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin combined to go 4-2 against Michigan last season. Each team managed to take the Wolverines out of their comfort zone and forced them to operate strictly out of the half-court offense. The Maize and Blue have to overcome that deficiency in order to capture a second Big Ten title in three years.
There is no doubt that the Wolverines will be able to run, especially with Walton running the show.
Robinson, McGary and Stauskas all thrive in transition. Not many teams have three players with the size and athleticism that the trio possesses. Beilein and Michigan will use this to its advantage and ignite plenty of fast-breaks.
Creating more scoring opportunities in the half-court sets are a must for the Wolverines. The Spartans, Buckeyes and Badgers will be Michigan's top competition in the conference, so posting a more respectable record against them than the Wolverines did last season will be crucial.
Transition scoring will once again be the main source of offense for the Wolverines, who will also have to be effective when they are not running, too.
Follow me on Twitter @Zach_Dirlam.
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