[Left and right: Patrick Barron; middle: Eric Upchurch]
Nik Stauskas, with his ability to make almost any shot a good one, made the game look easy. Trey Burke, with his varied and lethal methods for creating offense, made the game look easy, not to mention beautiful.
Nothing about this season's iteration of Michigan basketball felt easy. It's shown in the pictures, in which seemingly every layup attempt required a Herculean feat of strength and body control just to get the ball on the backboard. It's shown in the statistics; according to KenPom, 10.3% of Michigan's two-point attempts were blocked, a mark worse than all but 13 major-conference programs. It's shown in the despairing comments as the offense ground to a halt against Notre Dame before VJ Beachem delivered the coup de grâce to 2015-16 Michigan.
And that's on the good side of the court. Stopping the opponent has never seemed simple under John Beilein, especially the last few years. The flaws on defense have only been magnified as the offense has gone from historically great to merely good. Every flailing layup attempt swatted into photographers' row didn't just serve as a painful reminder of the team's scoring limitations, but also what they lacked on the other end.
[Hit THE JUMP for feelingsball.]
College basketball is played on a razor's edge. This opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament stands as testament. Seasons ended on a fallaway corner three, a halfcourt shot, a third-chance tip-in, a series of botched inbounds plays, even a waved-off buzzer-beating dunk.
Even in this frustrating season, Michigan was a couple shots and one blown charging call away from facing a 14-seed for the chance to make their third Sweet Sixteen in four years. While that sounds great, it doesn't indicate how little this team resembled the other two.
The Wolverines were also one improbable Kam Chatman corner three away from missing the tournament entirely for the second straight year. That doesn't sound great at all, but it lacks the important context of injuries to star players plaguing the team in both of those seasons.
It's impossible to shake the feeling that this program is at a crossroads. Michigan is slated to return everyone who contributed down the stretch this season. They'll add reinforcements that include Ohio's Mr. Basketball, Xavier Simpson, who'll fill the critical second point guard spot that Michigan once again manned with a walk-on after injury struck. A year of good health and nominal improvement across the board could see the Wolverines once again on a path deep into the tourney.
Before that happens, however, many questions must be addressed. Should John Beilein shake up his coaching staff after a third straight season in which the defense ranked below 100th? Can Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton, or Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman play the role of lead dog with efficiency? Will the center position be something besides an abject disaster?
There's hope in here that's not too hard to find. We've seen what Irvin and Walton are capable of doing, and it's much more than what's reflected in their season stat lines. MAAR improved every facet of his game this season and emerged as the team's best shot creator—if he can maintain his play while taking on more possessions, Michigan may not need Irvin or Walton to be the top option, and instead they can settle into more suitable roles. Duncan Robinson has Stauskas' outside shooting ability and is beginning to round out the other aspects of his game. Moe Wagner played so well at the end of the season we all wondered why he'd been glued to the bench in favor of Mark Donnal and (especially) Ricky Doyle. There's still a pile of young guys with untapped potential.
There's also the flip side. Irvin and Walton have faltered the last two years when asked to lead the charge; whether that's due to injury, limitations in their games, or both—and it's been both—it's hard not to feel trepidation heading into another season with them as the most experienced options. We're not sure how close MAAR (a 21-year-old sophomore) and Robinson (a D-III transfer) are to their respective ceilings. Wagner follows Doyle and Donnal as the latest new hope at center; for him to succeed where the others have so far failed, he has to start with one of the most basic aspects of the game—playing in control enough to stay on the court.
Next season will mark a turning point one way or the other. Beilein can lean on the team's experience to get the offense back to top-ten level, patch up the leaky defense, and make basketball look easy again while cementing Michigan's (health-permitting) return to the basketball elite. Or the team can look much the same, leaning on stars that aren't quite stars on one end and failing to address their myriad issues on the other, and it'll become more clear that a once-in-a-generation conflagration of talent and coaching is unlikely to be replicated here in the immediate future.
Something needs to click, if only so this basketball team is at least fun to watch again. The last two years have felt like karmic comeuppance for experiencing the joys of the Burke and Stauskas squads; if they were, fair enough, and I hope the debt is paid.