November 12, 2015

(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,'' said Beilein, who last week had his contract extended another two years that now lasts through the 2020-21 season. ''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 25th-ranked Wolverines open against Northern Michigan on Friday night, returning 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.

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.

Irvin, though, is not expected to play the opener as he works his way back into game shape.

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.

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.

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 6-1 Walton on the court at the same time - a potential problem at the defensive end. The 6-6 Dawkins and 6-4 Abdur-Rahkman can give the Wolverines more size on the perimeter.

Kameron Chatman, a 6-8 swingman, started 15 games last season but shot only 26.3 percent from 3-point range. He can become a more effective part of Beilein's offense if he improves his outside shooting.

If everyone is healthy, the Wolverines could be right back in the mix for the Big Ten title. It's an experienced, deep team that went through plenty of growing pains last season and is now ready to reap the benefits.

Michigan eases into things with a matchup against Northern Michigan, which is picked to finish eighth in the North Division in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletics Conference. This will be an exhibition game for the Division II Wildcats, who went 9-19 a season ago.

Northern Michigan had an exhibition game last week against No. 13 Michigan State and trailed by just five points at halftime before getting blown out in the second half and falling 94-53.

"It was a great experience for our players," coach Bill Sall told the school's official website. "From a game perspective, we competed really well in the first half and did some great things.

"In the first five minutes of the second half, they really took it to us, and we didn't respond. But there were both many positives and negatives in this game. We're going to get in the film room to get ready for Michigan."

Although it's a favorable matchup for the Wolverines, Beilein's team also hosted overmatched opponents last December in NJIT and Eastern Michigan - and lost both and that was with LeVert and Walton still playing.

This will be Michigan's first meeting with Northern Michigan since a 97-50 win in 2009.

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