With the news that Spike Albrecht will be transferring for his fifth-year senior season, the last member of the “Fresh Five” departs Ann Arbor. The 2012 recruiting class – Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson, Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert, Spike – were all rotation players as freshmen in March and made it to the national title game: for a brief stretch, they were all on the floor together in the Georgia Dome as Michigan raced out to a first half lead over Louisville. Mitch, who was so impactful in that tournament run, was lost to injury as a sophomore; with Nik, Caris, and GRIII leading the charge, Michigan won the Big Ten and made it to the Elite Eight.
In those two seasons, the Wolverines won 59 games, posting a 27-9 record in Big Ten play and going 8-2 in the NCAA Tournament. The three-year span from 2012 (when the Fresh Five were seniors in high school) to 2014 (their sophomore year) will probably be considered the apex of the Beilein era – the ‘13 and ‘14 teams were the best offensively in all of college basketball and true national title contenders. As far as recruiting classes – and five-man lineups – go, Albrecht / LeVert / Stauskas / Robinson / McGary is about as good as you’ll get in college basketball.
Mitch thrived after he lost weight and, with the help of Trey Burke, became one of the best players in the country in March as a freshman – physical, energetic, and lethal in the pick-and-roll. Nik blew up as a sophomore, won Big Ten POY, and was drafted in the lottery after excelling as the team’s sharpshooting alpha dog. GRIII started and played big minutes in a complementary role for two excellent teams before leaving for the NBA (and sticking with a team). Caris was a phenomenal second banana as a sophomore and developed into an very intriguing NBA prospect in his own right. Spike was always a good backup point guard, an offensive sparkplug and a stable rotation cog – and developed into a capable starter as a junior.
Depending on LeVert’s health, there could be four of the Fresh Five in the NBA next season. Hopefully we’ll get to see Spike play well at his next stop and light up somebody in the NCAA Tournament a year from now. Because talent is so fleeting in college basketball, the window for these guys at Michigan was pretty small – just two seasons. Beilein made the most of those two seasons though and the Fresh Five helped elevate Michigan to a level of success it hadn’t seen since the Fab Five while playing a brilliant kind of offensive basketball – elite shooting, pick-and-roll mastery, and GRIII thunder-dunks.
Unfortunately, fate was cruel to Mitch, Caris, and Spike.
[sadness, but also happiness after THE JUMP]
There were fourteen player seasons between the Fresh Five (out of a possible twenty), and four were derailed by injury: Mitch’s back (‘14), Caris’s foot (‘15 and ‘16), and Spike’s hips (‘16) cut their respective seasons short. Because of the NCAA’s reefer madness, McGary was forced to leave before his junior year (‘15) and was deprived of another season. Stauskas and Robinson made it through Ann Arbor unscathed, but left early for the NBA. It’s hard not to wonder what could have been. McGary and LeVert were All-American-level players at times, and both suffered misfortune – a lot of it – to cut their U of M careers short. Key backcourt injuries torpedoed Michigan each of the last two years. It’s been one thing after another for Michigan basketball since Aaron Harrison hit the 3 to end the careers of three of the Fresh Five, right down to Spike’s decision to spend a 5th year very likely somewhere else after unexpectedly taking a medical redshirt during his senior year.
* * *
All of that sucks, but now that it’s all over – we won’t catch glimpses of Caris and Spike in street clothes on the bench or lurking on the periphery of huddles during timeouts. And now, I guess, it’s easier to remember the good times. Nik, Mitch, and Glenn are in the NBA, and if healthy, Caris will be. Spike will hopefully be given a chance to start at a tournament-quality program, and Michigan will enter its first offseason without any of them in the program.
RIP to the Fresh Five era, which was really damn fun.
An incomplete list (that winds up getting kinda long) of the best things about it:
- I loved Mitch McGary’s game – he was clearly an elite energy big while in shape and healthy. But it’s the unconventional attributes that made him so entertaining: Mitch was a great passing big man (tallying six assists against Syracuse in the Final Four), he loved to run the break, making elegant coast-to-coast runs, and he was even a lefty. He was a strong, physical rebounder and set great screens too. Beilein’s best recruiting win at Michigan paid off: McGary was a star, if just briefly.
- Still, that March [Izzo] Madness run: 13 points and 9 boards against South Dakota State, 21 and 14 against VCU, 25 and 14 against Kansas, 11 and 9 against Florida. In those four games, he totaled 11 steals. Against Syracuse, he had 10, 12, and 6 assists. Even with a less-impactful game against Louisville, it was a phenomenal tournament: Mitch averaged 14.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 2 steals over six games.
- Even while injured, Mitch elevated the bench mob – he and Andrew Dakich had All-American celebrations for the highlight reels during Michigan’s domination of the Big Ten during the brutally cold January and February of 2014.
- The key run during that Big Ten title season? Michigan played @ Wisconsin, vs. Iowa, and @ Michigan State during an eight day span and all three were ranked in the top ten of Kenpom at the time (and Wisconsin / MSU finished as top ten teams). The Wolverines won all three games. At the Kohl Center, Caris and Nik combined for 43 points (Glenn chipped in 14) and 8 assists – and Stauskas emphatically closed the door on what would have been a brutal Badger comeback.
- Against Iowa, Derrick Walton was extremely limited by injury: Stauskas went nuclear in the first half en route to 26-5-5; Glenn had 14 points and 9 rebounds; Spike played 35 minutes and had 7 points and 7 assists. That Iowa team imploded down the stretch but did hand Michigan its worst loss that year in Iowa City.
- Then there was the Michigan State win at the Breslin – immortalized by Stauskas’s kisses towards the Izzone in the waning moments. It was a phenomenal game between two elite teams (UMHoops’s five key plays is a great resource). Nik and Derrick Walton(!) led Michigan with 19 points each, and Caris added 17. They combined for 11 assists.
- MSU won the final game in the Big Ten Tournament, but U of M still took 2 of 3 from State that year. Even though the Spartans were a 4-seed in the tournament, most pundits picked them to win it all and, like Michigan, lost in the Elite Eight. It was certainly de rigueur in the Mitten State to pick the two to advance to the Final Four and meet for a much-anticipated / –feared fourth time. That didn’t come to pass, so Michigan finished 2-1. In Ann Arbor, U of M eventually pulled away down the stretch as Nik, Caris, and Glenn combined for 63 points. Predictably, Stauskas stole the show with hot shooting over smaller defenders in the second half (and threw a near-impossible alley-oop to GRIII, who somehow levitated from behind the backboard to slam it home). The Big Ten was the best conference in the country that season, and the state of Michigan had two of its best teams.
- Speaking of great GRIII dunks (many of which are gif’d by Ace here), my favorite was the GR360 in front of a stunned Minnesota student section his freshman year. The Gophers were extremely overrated, but Michigan went into the Barn early in Big Ten season and handled Minnesota. It was capped off by a beautiful 360 from Glenn, who had apparently heard that the 360 was Gopher senior Rodney Williams’s signature dunk. That he jumped a lazy pass well into a blowout and unleashed that – the best. Of course, it’s very hard to have a wrong opinion on the best GRIII dunk.
- Glenn Robinson came in as a five star and never emerged as a primary scoring option, but he played big minutes out of position for two straight years and had many unsung performances battling on defense or the boards. That he was a Petwayesque high-flyer who complemented a bunch of great shooters was just a bonus. An awesome, awesome bonus.
- I’m not really sure how I haven’t waxed poetic about Nik Stauskas yet, but I guess I should fix that. Nik was a badass. Replacing Trey Burke should have been way harder than it wound up being, and that’s because of Stauskas – he was a killer as a first offensive option, and was comfortable enough to score with or without the ball as the situation dictated. Obviously the progression in his pick-and-roll game before his sophomore season was huge, but he became better at many other things as well, most notably his shooting off the dribble and his floor vision. The best pure shooter (so far) of the Beilein era was Nik, a jocular, swaggering white boy with a slight Jesse Pinkman quality to him who threw down shockingly authoritative two-hand dunks. He was a deserving Big Ten Player of the Year and an incredibly entertaining star to follow, both with his play and his attitude. I’m sure we all recall him torching Illinois, enduring some light taunting from the student section, hitting a parking-lot buzzer-beater to end the half, and staring those kids down.
- And for how good he was as a sophomore, let’s not forget that he was pretty good as a freshman – and he lit up a great Florida team in the Elite Eight, going six for six on threes.
- The ultimate role player breakout game was – of course – Spike’s 17-point half against Louisville in the national championship game. I was on the floor of the Georgia Dome behind the basket with the rest of the students and watching that little floppy-haired guy pour in a quick flurry of threes in an 80,000-seat stadium was one of the most surreal sports things I’ve ever seen. Even though Michigan lost that game, Spike will be forever remembered by Wolverine fans for that microwave performance from the unlikeliest of sources. While Spike was usually capable at worst, he was rarely exceptional – and his best performance came in the biggest game of his life.
- There was that one time in Ann Arbor when he outplayed eventual #2 pick D’Angelo Russell and beat Ohio State – maybe the only highlight of a brutal 2015 season.
- Caris’s career ended quite disappointingly through no fault of his own; after an injury shortened his junior campaign, he finally morphed into the true star that Michigan needed post-Stauskas, but because of inexperience around him, the Wolverines had a rough non-conference season and LeVert was injured shortly after. Caris had been playing at an All-American level before going down – he put in 29 in a losing effort against a great Xavier team and his assist numbers were ridiculous right before his injury. LeVert somehow drew insane criticism from Michigan fans after his injury, but to come back to school twice and wind up getting injured twice… it doesn’t get much tougher than that. Hopefully he can stay healthy and make it into the league, because he has a great shot of being Beilein’s best pro.
Favorite Fresh Five things? Discuss in the comments.