In three of the last four offseasons the Michigan basketball program has been faced with the need to account for the early departure of at least one critical player. Following the 2010-11 season point guard Darius Morris left for the NBA, resulting in Trey Burke needing to grab the reins upon his arrival on campus in 2011. Two years later both Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. left after helping to lead the Wolverines to the national title game, leaving another void that some young players needed to account for.
The result in 2013-14: players such as Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Caris LeVert stepped forward lead Michigan to an outright Big Ten regular season title and a spot in the Elite Eight.
The common bond: head coach John Beilein and his staff had players not only capable of stepping forward when their number was called, but just as importantly they took advantage of the summer months in order to make sure they were prepared to do so. With Stauskas, Robinson III and Mitch McGary all having entered the 2014 NBA Draft, that will be key for LeVert (who made major strides last offseason) and rising sophomores Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin.
This is an especially important offseason for Irvin, who averaged 6.7 points per game as a freshman with shooting percentages of 43.4% from the field and 42.5% from beyond the arc. With Michigan having lost two of its top three scorers, the opportunity for the highly-regarded 2013 recruit to step forward will be there.
“Right now [Zak] becomes very core to the future of Michigan basketball,” assistant coach Jeff Meyer said recently on WTKA’s “Michigan Insider” radio show, featuring all three assistants.
“With Zak, the development piece will be similar to what we’ve seen with Glenn and what we’ve seen with Tim — the ability to improve his ball-handling so that he can not only use the perimeter jumper as an offensive weapon, but be able to keep balancing and attacking the rim, using ball screens and finding success in his midrange game.”
Irvin reached double figures in five Big Ten games last season, including a stretch of three consecutive games in early February. Due to the presence of Stauskas, Robinson III and LeVert he was able to easy into a supplementary role last season, but that clearly won’t be the case in 2014-15.
With six freshmen (not to mention redshirt forward Mark Donnal) joining the fold, the production and leadership of the returnees will be important factors for Michigan. But even with the questions that will come as a result of their major personnel losses, Michigan’s recent track record in similar situations should be taken into consideration. With that being the case, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Irvin winds up being one of the most improved players in the Big Ten next season.