Another successful season is on the horizon for the Michigan basketball program.
Expectations are rising, and anticipation is boiling over as the Michigan basketball team wraps up the offseason and finally tips off the 2013-14 campaign on Friday night against UMass-Lowell. The Wolverines have rolled through a pair of exhibition games and showed their depth in the process.
Head coach John Beilein has one of the most versatile groups in the nation, which has undoubtedly kept him working long hours for all the right reasons. There are endless lineup possibilities for the offensive mastermind to utilize.
Here is a look at what Beilein and Co. will be working with this season as they make a run at a Big Ten Conference title.
Derrick Walton is a newcomer ready to make an impact.
The top two newcomers for the Michigan Wolverines are none other than shooting guard Zak Irvin and point guard Derrick Walton. The duo is going to make an immediate impact and help give John Beilein more depth than ever before.
No one will ever be Trey Burke. Walton knows this and so should everyone else in Ann Arbor. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though. Burke was a scorer playing point, whereas Walton looks to set up teammates and distribute rather than put the entire team on his back. Given the array of shooters surrounding the Detroit native, there is nothing wrong with being a pass-first point.
He can certainly shoot it when called upon, though. In Michigan's exhibition opener, he converted 4-of-7 attempts, including 2-of-4 from beyond the arc. Walton's scoring will be a bit sporadic, but plenty of others will make up for the lack of consistency.
As for Irvin, the 5-star prospect is going to be a valuable asset off the bench. He would start for most Big Ten teams. For the Wolverines, however, he will serve as a dead-eye shooter, lockdown defender and a sixth man.
The numbers speak for themselves in terms of Irvin's potential. Through two exhibition games, he is 9-of-15 from the field and 4-of-7 from three-point range.
Expect to hear plenty about these freshmen in 2013-14.
Nik Stauskas is already showing off the improvements he made in the offseason.
Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary are undoubtedly the top returners for the 2013-14 team.
However, Nik Stauskas being back in Ann Arbor is equally important. It has shown through the first two exhibition contests. The Canadian shooting guard has been more aggressive and much stronger going to the basket. He added 16 pounds of muscle during the offseason, which has allowed him to be even more assertive than he was as a freshman.
There is no reason why Stauskas cannot match the 11.0 points per game he put up in 2012-13 given his improvements.
Robinson and McGary are going to be the horses for this year's bunch. Both are potential lottery picks in the NBA draft and will handle the bulk of the scoring load.
Improved ball skills have enabled Robinson to create more opportunities on his own. It remains to be seen whether or not his jump shot will be more consistent, but his mechanics look smoother than they did in April.
For McGary, the key to this season will be health. The preseason All-American is dealing with a "lower back condition" that could be an issue all year long. If he is at full strength, Michigan has enough talent to win the Big Ten. The 6'10", 255-pounder is a walking double-double, and he proved it by averaging 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds during Michigan's NCAA tournament run.
Without McGary, the Wolverines will be too weak on the interior to challenge Michigan State for the conference crown.
What will Michigan's lineup look like this season?
Projected Lineup: Derrick Walton (Fr., PG), Nik Stauskas (So., SG), Glenn Robinson III (So., SF), Mitch McGary (So., PF), Jordan Morgan (RS Sr., C)
Projected Lineup without McGary: Walton (Fr., PG), Stauskas (So., SG), Caris LeVert (So., SF), Robinson III (So., SF), Morgan (RS Sr., C)
Remainder of Roster: Spike Albrecht (So., PG), Andrew Dakich (Fr., G), Cole McConnell (Fr., G), Jon Horford (RS Jr., PF), Sean Lonergan (Fr., F), Zak Irvin (Fr., SG/SF), Mark Donnal (Fr., F), Max Bielfeldt (So., F)
By no means will these starting lineups necessarily represent the five players who will see the most action on a given night. With the depth Michigan has, John Beilein now has the ability to ride hot hands and play several players at more than one, or even two, positions throughout the course of a game.
Derrick Walton Jr. has looked like the best point guard for this team, despite some struggles early on in the Wolverines' exhibition contest against Wayne State.
With a healthy Mitch McGary, Michigan will likely go big to start most games. This gives the Wolverines the best chance to be physical on the interior and stand up to the bigger lineups they will face in Big Ten play. Minus McGary, the Maize and Blue are far better off playing a smaller group.
Caris LeVert appears to have confidence at the offensive end, which is a pleasant surprise. Meanwhile, the offense looked completely out of sync with Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford sharing the floor. Given the fact neither is much of a scorer, Michigan would be far better off spreading the floor and letting its shooters go to work, much like it did in 2012-13.
To view the roster in its entirety, click here.
Caris LeVert will be an X-Factor for Michigan this season.
The two biggest X-factors for the Michigan Wolverines this season will be none other than Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert.
Although Stauskas had an impressive freshman campaign, he struggled in big games. In Michigan's eight losses, he failed to hit more than two triples. When the Wolverines faced the top five Big Ten teams, or an NCAA tournament game, he was just 18-of-54 (33 percent) from beyond the arc. Those numbers cannot be the same in 2013-14, if the Maize and Blue hope to be a legitimate conference title contender.
The 6'6", 205-pounder will be much better going to the basket this season. This will enable him to maintain his scoring average (11.0 points per game). Still, three-point shooting remains Stauskas' greatest strength. Knocking down treys in marquee matchups is going to be critical this season.
Click here for a more detailed breakdown of why Stauskas is the biggest X-factor for Michigan.
LeVert was the exact opposite last season. Outstanding defender, but not very comfortable offensively. Fans have seen a much different version of the sophomore through two exhibition games.
He has been aggressive. The bulk he added during the offseason will help him finish at the rim this year. More confidence should lead to much better shooting performances as well.
Look for LeVert to be much more than just the defensive quarterback for these Wolverines. He looks ready to make an impact at both ends of the floor.
What is the best-case scenario for Michigan in 2013-14?
Best-Case Scenario: Mitch McGary stays healthy, Michigan wins the Big Ten title and advances to a second straight Final Four.
Neither of the aforementioned goals are possible without a healthy Mitch McGary. Sure, Michigan can be one of the top four or five teams in the league even without the sophomore power forward. To challenge Michigan State, the clear-cut favorite to win the Big Ten, the Wolverines need everything McGary brings to the table. Scoring, rebounding, steals on defense and his uncanny ability to run the floor.
Assuming he is able to overcome the "lower back condition" that has hampered him since the summer, Michigan needs to be taken seriously in league and nationally.
Despite the losses of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., there is more depth on this year's team. The roster is loaded with scorers and plenty of players who can get them the rock.
Here's the big thing; we have a really good passing team, John Beilein said in a post-game press conference, according to Andy Reid of The Wolverine. We had some really good looks to each other (against Wayne State). And the shooters, Glenn (Robinson III) and Nik (Stauskas), are two of our better passers. They're finding people. With Zak (Irvin), whether he's spotting up in the corner or on the wing, people will find him.
As long as Derrick Walton can avoid turnovers, set up teammates and keep the Wolverines' offense operating at a high level, the potential for this year's group is limitless.
Worst-Case Scenario: McGary is in and out of the lineup, Michigan finishes between third and fifth in the Big Ten and is bounced out of the NCAA tournament before the Sweet 16
Without McGary, the Wolverines will not have the game-changer they need to top a veteran Michigan State team in the Big Ten. Even finishing higher than Ohio State would be a stretch without him.
Another thing that could factor into this worst-case scenario is point guard struggles. If Walton and Spike Albrecht struggle with turnovers, or simply are not making enough plays, Michigan is just another team in the Big Ten.
The NCAA tournament is hard to project, but it is hard to envision the Wolverines advancing past the round of 32 with lackluster point guard play and a dynamic big man.
Michigan basketball is relevant again, and it is great for the national landscape.
All of these predictions are dependent upon so many things, but on paper, this is a team that will challenge Michigan State for the Big Ten title. A second-place finish is the most likely outcome, though, if a few bounces go Michigan's way, there is no reason it cannot trump the Spartans.
Things will be a bit rocky in non-conference play. Thankfully, all of it will help harden this team by the time league play rolls around in January. Trips to Iowa State, Duke and Puerto Rico will be challenges for the Wolverines given their youth at point guard and the fact no one knows what the deal is with McGary's back.
A home game against Arizona will not be easy, either. The environment in the Crisler Center will be one of the best in quite some time. However, without McGary battling the Wildcats' formidable big men—Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski—Michigan will be in trouble.
Glenn Robinson III is going to show off a much better handle. If an improved jump shot comes along with that, there is no way Robinson returns to Ann Arbor for a junior campaign. Do not fret, though, Michigan fans. This kind of a season for the sophomore small forward would likely result in a lot of wins for the Wolverines.
Look for Michigan to be anywhere from a No. 1 to a No. 5 seed depending on how things shake out in the Big Ten. Personally, my best guess is a No. 2 seed, since I see Michigan finishing second in the Big Ten. I also see the Wolverines taking down Arizona at home and taking at least two games in Puerto Rico.
A second straight Final Four is within reach. Forced to pick today, I'd take Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Duke. Again, this is all subject to change once the brackets actually come out.
It will be another season worth cherishing for the Maize and Blue.