Runs to the national championship game rarely end without several key players leaving the team. And Michigan is no exception.
The Wolverines were national runners up a year ago, and that dream season resulted in the departures of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., both of whom were first-round picks on NBA draft night. Three other seniors left as well. But make no mistake, the Wolverines are not completely depleted. There are players ready to keep last year's success going, ready to step into the shoes of Burke and Hardaway. In fact, Michigan's got quite a few of them.
Now it's just a matter of stepping up.
"We have a lot of things to replace," Michigan head coach John Beilein said at Big Ten basketball media day on Halloween. "We have five seniors that graduated last year that were incredible leaders for our team and sacrificed so much for the other guys. Now you lose two guys to the first round of the NBA. There's obviously some replacement to do. At the same time, there's 25 or 30 shots out there. There's another 80 minutes out there. I think our guys are embracing the opportunities that they have in front of them."
The job of replacement Beilein speaks of will fall to Michigan's returning big guns, a trio of sophomores in Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas. And though the departures of Burke and Hardaway are a big challenge for the Wolverines, it's not like they'll have to look far to find experience. Robinson started all 39 games as a freshman last season, Stauskas started all but six and McGary — despite starting in only eight — is the lone Big Ten selection of the AP's preseason All-America team.
Robinson, for one, is ready to take on a bigger role.
"I'm definitely ready," he said. "I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to step up, being more aggressive. I have great confidence in myself from the work that I put in during the summer."
Plus, all three of those players were instrumental in Michigan's run to the championship game. McGary broke out during the tournament, averaging 14.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per game, as did Robinson, who averaged 12.7 points in the Big Dance.
The loss in the final game hurt, so much that Robinson hasn't watched it yet. But that type of loss can sometimes provide the best kind of motivation, something Robinson said is the case.
"It's definitely a motivator," Robinson said. "Someone asked me earlier if I've watched the national championship game. I haven't watched it. I don't want to watch it, not for a couple years. I want to get back there, and I want to win. And that's ultimately our goal."
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Michigan posted a dream season a year ago, finishing 26-7 with a 12-6 Big Ten record. But it was the march to the championship game of the NCAA tournament that defined things, with the Wolverines eventually losing to Louisville by six. The campaign kicked off with 16 straight wins, and that tourney run included wins over Kansas, Florida and Syracuse.
At the helm
John Beilein is in his seventh year as the head coach at Michigan, with last season's run to the championship game the obvious highlight. But Beilein has turned in three very successful seasons in a row now, with the 2011-12 regular season — which saw the Wolverines win the Big Ten regular season title — actually going better than last year's. Each of the last three campaigns have seen Michigan finish in the top four of the conference, but last year was the only time under Beilein that the Wolverines advanced past the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament.
Departed and returned
Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. were Michigan's two leading scorers last season and a pair of the best players in the Big Ten. They averaged more than 33 points per game. They now play in the NBA. The task of replacing their output belongs to three sophomores: Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas, who all had their own solid seasons a year ago. Robinson and McGary's outbursts in the NCAA tournament should have fans confident they can get the job done.
Getting to the national title game will do wonders for recruiting, as Michigan found out. Beilein brings in an excellent freshman class, which includes three members of Rivals' top 150 rankings. The dual headliners are guard Zakarie Irvin, ranked No. 24, and guard Derrick Walton, ranked No. 37. Plus, there's 6-foot-9 forward Mark Donnal, who ranked No. 111, making this a recruiting class to get very excited about.
There are several challenges scattered throughout Michigan's schedule. A road game at Iowa State and a trip to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (featuring teams like Florida State and VCU, a team Michigan beat in last year's tourney) look like nothing compared to the Dec. 3 matchup at Duke (part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge) and the Dec. 14 game against Arizona. Michigan also plays Stanford in Brooklyn in its second-to-last non-conference game.
Coming off that championship-game defeat will surely provide motivation for the Wolverines. Robinson slipped in and out of cliche mode, talking about focusing on the games in front of them rather than the one behind. But he did let slip just how hungry this team is to get back to the final game and this time win it.
"Something that we're doing is we're looking forward to this season. We're not looking back at last season, we kind of want to forget about it," Robinson said. "Knowing that to do what we did last year, we have to step up. I have to be more of a leader along with Mitch and the seniors we have. We want to get back to that stage, but we're taking it day by day."
This is the ninth in a series of 2013-14 Big Ten basketball previews, which CSNChicago.com will be rolling out over the next few days as the college basketball season gets into full swing. Be sure to check out all the previews to get ready for your favorite Big Ten team's upcoming season.