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Surprising success leaves Michigan with high hopes

SHARE Surprising success leaves Michigan with high hopes

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Moments after Darius Morris' last-ditch floater bounced agonizingly off the rim, the Michigan Wolverines began looking ahead to next season.

"I don't think I have to remind them to stay hungry. I think they want it real bad," junior Stu Douglass said. "These guys, they've got a taste for it. You don't have to tell them much to get them motivated."

There will be serious expectations in Ann Arbor when these Wolverines take the court in 2011-12 — and that alone is a welcome change for a program that as recently as a couple months ago seemed stuck near the bottom of the Big Ten.

After starting 1-6 in conference play, Michigan became one of the nation's biggest surprises down the stretch. The Wolverines swept Michigan State, earned a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament and then routed Tennessee in the first round.

Without a single senior on the roster, Michigan then pushed defending champion Duke to the limit, outplaying the Blue Devils in the final minutes before losing 73-71 when Morris just missed a shot that would have tied the game.

"I think there was a gradual process of them gaining more and more of an appreciation of what teamwork could accomplish, what hard work could accomplish," coach John Beilein said.

This was Beilein's fourth season at Michigan and his second NCAA tournament appearance with the Wolverines. Michigan went 21-14, and that record could have been even better if not for several close losses against formidable opponents. The Wolverines lost by three to Syracuse, in overtime to Kansas, by four to Ohio State, by one to Wisconsin — then fell just short against Duke.

Leading the way for Michigan was Morris, the point guard who averaged 15 points and 6.7 assists a game. Freshman Tim Hardaway Jr. came on strong toward the end of the season, finishing at 13.9 points per game. Jordan Morgan emerged in the post to shoot 63 percent from the field, while Douglass and fellow junior Zack Novak provided support from 3-point range.

The question now is whether Michigan can avoid a letdown. The Wolverines also made the NCAA tournament in 2009, and they won their first-round game that year too. They followed that up with a disappointing 15-17 campaign that was a big reason why so little was expected of this season's team.

"Because we witnessed it two years ago, it will help a great deal," Beilein said.

The fiery Novak agrees.

"I think the fact that it happened should be enough to make sure that it doesn't happen again," he said. "We've already started to make the guys fully aware of exactly what transpired, how disappointed we were with that season. It was the longest season I've ever been through."

Like many of Beilein's teams, this season's Wolverines were dangerous from beyond the 3-point line and kept turnovers to a minimum. Morris added a different dimension with his ability to drive to the basket, and 6-foot-9 Evan Smotrycz created matchup problems with his perimeter shooting.

There's still room for improvement, though. The Wolverines were undersized, especially if Morgan was in foul trouble. They allowed 10 costly offensive rebounds against Duke, which might have ended up costing Michigan the upset.

The 6-foot-8 Morgan made great strides as a redshirt freshman, and if 6-foot-9 Jon Horford can progress in similar fashion, Michigan will have a bit more depth.

For a while this season, Michigan appeared headed for the NIT at best, but once the Wolverines began to click, the improvement was rapid, and there's no telling what this team might be capable of with another year of experience.

"It's a group that never gave up," Novak said. "We're going to need that same resilience going into next year."