NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — The knock on Michigan’s basketball team — that it relies too much on finesse and lacks toughness — only resonates when the Wolverines aren’t contending for conference titles.
From 2012-14, Michigan won two Big Ten championships and reached the national title game in 2013. Then the Wolverines missed the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and barely made it last season, and suddenly, the critics were out in force.
“Somehow, we’ve won championships. We’ve went to the Final Four, we’ve went to the final two, right? And people still think we play like wimps,” coach John Beilein said. “If we can win two championships in the Big Ten every five years, I’ll take it, and they can call us as wimpy as we want.”
The challenge for the Wolverines is returning to those heights where they can be one of the league’s top contenders. There are areas to improve. Defense is an obvious one, and if Michigan does take a step forward at that end of the court, the Wolverines have enough skillful offensive players returning that they could quickly climb back toward the top of the conference.
Caris LeVert is gone after his senior season was shortened by injury, and Spike Albrecht is playing his final season of eligibility at Purdue. But neither of those players was able to make a full contribution anyway in 2015-16, and the Wolverines return several who did, including Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson.
Michigan’s hope is that new assistant Billy Donlon, who came to the Wolverines after six seasons as Wright State’s head coach, can give the defense some much-needed tweaks, if not a complete overhaul.
Michigan reached the NCAA Tournament last season and beat Tulsa in the First Four before falling to Notre Dame 70-63 . The Wolverines led the Irish by 13 in the first half and were up double digits at halftime before being outscored 41-22 the rest of the way.
Beilein called it “an awful second-half performance” and said it would not be acceptable.
Here are a few more things to watch for Michigan:
Injuries have devastated Michigan over the past couple seasons, with Walton, Irvin, LeVert and Albrecht all limited to some degree. Beilein is hopeful that run of poor luck has ended.
“We’re as healthy as we have been in a long, long, long time,” he said. “We deserve one of those years right now.”
The Wolverines had success relying on younger stars like Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas when they won Big Ten titles in 2012 and 2014. LeVert and Albrecht looked like they could be long-awaited senior standouts last season, but injury issues prevented that. Now it’s Walton and Irvin who are seniors.
Michigan’s freshman class is highlighted by guard Xavier Simpson, who was ranked as the nation’s No. 57 prospect by Scout.com. Of the four freshmen on the roster, three are from Ohio, including Simpson.
Walton, a guard, led the Wolverines at 5.4 rebounds a game. Mark Donnal started 25 games last season, averaging 7.8 points but only 3.7 rebounds. Donnal had a couple breakout games offensively, including a 25-point showing at Maryland, but Michigan could use more consistency from the 6-foot-9 forward.
Donlon and Saddi Washington are new assistants on Beilein’s staff. Washington was on the staff at Oakland University over the past decade. Michigan was in the market for new assistants after Bacari Alexander (Detroit) and LaVall Jordan (Milwaukee) received head coaching jobs.
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