Healthier Wolverines eye return to contention in Big Ten

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Just when it seemed John Beilein's program at Michigan was immune to all the roadblocks top teams face nowadays, the Wolverines were stopped in their tracks last season.

Losing three more standouts to the NBA might have been manageable, but when two of the top returning players went down with injuries, Michigan had little chance in the Big Ten.

''Last year was heartbreaking for us all,'' Beilein said. ''I think that is going to certainly breed hunger. I do think we see that from our team.''

After missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010, the Wolverines return this year with a deep, experienced roster that - if healthy - should be good enough to contend in the Big Ten. Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton were both out from January on with injuries, but now they're back.

In fact, Michigan returns its top six scorers from 2014-15, a luxury Beilein hasn't had in recent seasons. The list of players lost early to the NBA is substantial. Manny Harris, Darius Morris, Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all made the jump. The last three did it before last season, leaving the Wolverines unable to deal with the injury problems that followed.

Now Michigan can field a lineup with two seniors (LeVert and Spike Albrecht) and two juniors (Walton and Zak Irvin), and while there are still questions about the team's defense and strength around the basket, the Wolverines are in good position to improve significantly on last season's 16-16 showing.

Here are a few things to know about the 2015-16 Wolverines:

HEALTH

LeVert and Walton are back from their foot and toe problems, and Albrecht is back from offseason hip surgery. The starter who is most limited right now is Irvin, who needed back surgery, but he's been working his way back and did some light shooting during a portion of practice that was open to reporters on Michigan's media day.

OPTIONS

With LeVert and Walton sidelined for much of the Big Ten season, the Wolverines had to turn to some younger players for major minutes. Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman started 13 games apiece. Those two showed flashes of talent as freshmen and may be even more effective as role players.

INSIDE

Ricky Doyle played the most minutes of the Michigan big men last season and started 19 games. Mark Donnal and D.J. Wilson can also provide size, although the Wolverines will likely look elsewhere for offense.

SCHEDULE

The first sign that Michigan might be in for a long season came last December, when the Wolverines lost consecutive games to NJIT and Eastern Michigan - and that was with LeVert and Walton still playing. Neither of those teams is on this season's schedule. The Wolverines will have a tough nonconference stretch that begins with a game against Xavier on Nov. 20 and then includes a tournament in the Bahamas. Michigan also plays at North Carolina State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

The conference schedule includes only one game against Michigan State, and it's at home.

BALANCE

Although Beilein may be tempted to play the experienced foursome of LeVert, Albrecht, Walton and Irvin together, that would leave the 5-foot-11 Albrecht and 6-foot-1 Walton on the court at the same time - a potential problem at the defensive end. The 6-foot-6 Dawkins and 6-foot-4 Abdur-Rahkman can give the Wolverines more size on the perimeter.

Kameron Chatman, a 6-foot-8 swingman, started 15 games last season but shot only 26 percent from 3-point range. He can become a more effective part of Beilein's offense if he improves his outside shooting.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.