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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – After winning the Big Ten and nearly reaching a second straight Final Four, John Beilein's Michigan team lost a few early entrants to the NBA draft.
That's become common for the Wolverines, but the departures — Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary — may be a bit harder to deal with this season.
"That is going to be really difficult to replace, and I know it's the same thing I said last year," said Beilein, who is entering his eighth season in Ann Arbor. "When you have young players, we refer to them as growing players. We don't want to get into using that as an excuse. They're growing. I like what I've seen."
The Wolverines have withstood some significant departures in the past. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. left after taking Michigan to the Final Four in 2013, yet the Wolverines still made it back to the Elite Eight last season.
But Michigan lost more than just Stauskas, Robinson and McGary; Jordan Morgan was a senior, and solid role player Jon Horford transferred.
Returning is talented guard Caris LeVert, who averaged 12.9 points per game as a sophomore. Spike Albrecht, Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin also have been solid on the perimeter, giving the Wolverines an experienced core to build around.
"I think everyone just buys into the system and does what's needed to win," Walton said. "Roles will play out in time, but for now everyone is just contributing wherever they can."
Michigan opens its season Nov. 15 against Hillsdale College. Here are a few things to watch in the coming months:
LEVERT'S HEALTH: LeVert's improvement was crucial to Michigan's success last season, and he's probably the player with the most immediate star potential on this team, but he had surgery in May for a stress fracture in his foot. He was able to start playing again in early August, so it doesn't look like the injury will be a major problem once the season starts.
SIZING IT UP: Of all the departures Michigan must deal with, McGary's may be felt the most because it leaves the Wolverines without any significant experience inside. Max Bielfeldt is back as the roster's lone senior, but he's only 6-foot-7. Redshirt freshman Mark Donnal and freshman Ricky Doyle — both 6-foot-9 — may be asked to play significant roles.
OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY: When Michigan is shooting well from the perimeter — which was the case for most of the last two seasons — the Wolverines might be the toughest team in the country to guard. Beilein has produced well-coached, unselfish teams that have become increasingly talented as Michigan's recruiting has picked up.
The development of Stauskas and LeVert helped the Wolverines avoid any significant slide last season, and Michigan will be hoping for similar progress now from sophomores Walton and Irvin, both of whom played plenty in 2013-14.
AT THE OTHER END: It's fair to say Michigan recently has been a finesse team — and one that isn't all that tough at the defensive end. If the Wolverines are going to repeat as Big Ten champions, the offense will probably need to keep functioning at a high level.
INSPIRATION: The Wolverines welcome freshman Austin Hatch, who has had to overcome the physical and emotional trauma of a 2011 plane crash that killed his father and stepmother and left him in a coma for about eight weeks.
It was second plane crash Hatch has survived. He grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but he moved to Southern California last year to live with his uncle. He went to Los Angeles' Loyola High School, finally appearing in a game in January for the first time in nearly three years.