Brooklyn, NY. As the final buzzer sounded at the Barclays Center Michigan looked stunned. Notre Dame had just turned a 12-point halftime deficit into a seven-point victory, and Michigan’s players and fans could do little but stare in disbelief at what had just transpired over the previous 20 minutes. The excitement that had built up over the course of the first half was sucked out of the building as quickly as it was injected.
In reality it should not have been all that surprising to see the Irish come back the way they did. After the Wolverines took a 12-point lead into halftime there was no question that Notre Dame would come out of halftime poised to make a comeback. The question was, how would the Wolverines respond?
Unfortunately for Michigan the problems that had plagued the Wolverines all season long were readily apparent throughout the second half. Poor defense, stagnant offense, lackluster rebounding, and even questionable coaching decisions at times spurred the Irish’s run and at the same time faded the Wolverines hopes of victory.
Yet, despite the loss, there was a sense of optimism among Michigan fans in Brooklyn that did not exist just a few weeks ago. Michigan offered its fans that made the trip a glimpse of what they could be. Michigan’s offense was crisp and fluid, with sound ball movement leading to open three-pointers for Michigan’s lethal shooters. Guards Derrick Walton and Mohammed Ali-Abdul Rahkman penetrated Notre Dame’s defense effectively, leading to points in the paint. Freshman forward Mo Wagner was the beneficiary of the penetration, finishing at the rim multiple times to help give the Wolverines their halftime advantage.
Defensively the Wolverines were active and aggressive. Michigan forced sixteen Notre Dame turnovers that led to easy baskets on the other end, frustrating the Irish and head coach Mike Brey. No one would ever mistake this Michigan team for a defensive juggernaut, but Michigan’s defense in the first half was more than good enough to win a tournament game.
The first half effort by the Wolverines is exactly why Michigan fans should look forward to next season optimistically. Next season Michigan loses none of its major contributors from this season, as senior captains Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert missed the majority of the season. Their starting lineup, which featured three sophomores and two juniors, gains another year of experience. Sophomore Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman showed signs that he could be a star. And the Wolverines started to look like they were piecing it together towards the end of the year, especially in the first half versus Notre Dame and in wins against Tulsa and Indiana.
The Wolverines will also receive a boost from their incoming freshmen class, headlined by Xavier Simpson. Simpson, ranked the 45th overall recruit and 8th best point guard by ESPN, should provide the Wolverines with a scoring guard who can get to the rim consistently, something they have lacked since the departures of Trey Burke and Nik Stauskus to the NBA. Simpson has torn up Ohio high school basketball, scoring 60 points multiple times and leading his Lima team to the state championship.
Fellow recruits Ibi Watson, Austin Davis, and Jon Teske should provide the Wolverines with solid depth. Watson, a 6-5 point guard, will provide Michigan with another guard off the bench. Davis (6-10) and Teske (6-11) are big forwards who will certainly add size and depth to a small and thin Michigan frontcourt. Though these three players all have the potential to contribute next year, it would not be a surprise if Beilein redshirted one two of them.
Michigan’s 2015-2016 season will be marked by “what-ifs.” What if LeVert and Albrecht had stayed healthy? What if the Wolverines pulled out a victory against Notre Dame and faced mid-major Stephen F. Austin with a chance to go to the Sweet Sixteen? What if the Wolverines hit their stride earlier in the season? These are valid questions, but I advise Michigan fans to not dwell on these questions, but instead to look forward to the future.
The Wolverines indeed have much to look forward to next season. Their starting lineup gains another year of experience in a league where experience is extremely important. Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s development from an unheralded recruit into a solid player and potential star should only continue. Michigan’s recruiting class, in particular dynamic guard Xavier Simpson, should contribute immediately. And most of all, the Wolverines will be coached by John Beilein. And if I have learned anything in my years following college basketball it is that is never wise to bet against John Beilein. Never.
Thank you Team 100 for an exciting season and, as always, Go Blue.