Previously: Early Outlook, The Rotation Part I, The Rotation Part II, Big Ten Outlook
"Bright youth passes swiftly as a thought." — Theognis
There is no "next year."
Not in today's college basketball, where Kentucky wins a national championship starting three freshmen and two sophomores, the NBA draft age limit creates a one-year holding pen for the sport's brightest young stars, and no graduating senior was selected in this year's lottery. It's not a new reality—as Michigan, home of the Fab Five, should well know—but one that's reaching its apex in the Age of Calipari.
This year's Michigan squad is no exception. The star of the show is sophomore point guard Trey Burke, who nearly exited for the pro ranks in April and, if all goes well, won't be back the next time around. A pair of precocious freshmen, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, will start and hopefully star—three more newcomers should play prominent roles. The grizzled veteran of the team's core, junior swingman Tim Hardaway Jr., is still unable to legally imbibe.
John Beilein is building for the future, and a bright future it is. After sharing a Big Ten title last season, however, and then pulling in Michigan's finest recruiting class since the Ed Martin era, the Wolverines carry a top-five preseason ranking and expectations to win now. While the hype may be slightly overblown, anything less than the program's first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1994 would be considered a disappointment.
How the team reaches that point is still very much in question. Hardaway, plagued by a balky jumper, ceded the role of lead dog to Burke as the season wore on in 2011-12; if he regains his stroke, he could emerge as the top scoring option. The presence of Jordan Morgan, McGary, and a healthy Jon Horford up front gives Beilein new-found depth and versatility with his lineup—Beilein spoke at media day of an offseason spent studying NBA film to see how the pros utilize two post players, a luxury he hasn't been afforded during his time in Ann Arbor. For their part, McGary and Robinson must live up to sky-high recruiting hype if this team hopes to deliver on their potential.
The extent to which the Wolverines miss Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, and Even Smotrycz depends largely on another freshman, Nik Stauskas, and his ability to connect from the outside. Yet another freshman, Spike Albrecht, will be called upon to replace "timeout" as Burke's backup. One more first-year guard, Caris LeVert, has earned rave reviews in practice and could provide scoring punch off the bench.
Despite the inexperience and uncertainty, this team represents Beilein's surest bet to take this program to the next level, and could very well be his best shot for a long time. That may sound rash, but the Wolverines have been close to the leap before, only to fall back: the Amaker tenure crumbled despite early promise, the 2009-10 squad faltered despite making the tournament with the same nucleus the year before, and even last year's team tripped up against 13-seed Ohio in the Big Dance. Trey Burke probably isn't walking through that door next year. There's no guarantee Tim Hardaway Jr. will, either. For that matter, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III have one-and-done potential if all goes well (too well, perhaps).
As the season tips off tonight in a refurbished Crisler Center, there's a distinct sense of urgency—not just to prove that this program is going places, but that they've already arrived. If the season goes according to plan, there won't be need for talk of next year, and that will truly signal the new age of Michigan basketball.