Team preview: Michigan

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Having completed the long, arduous climb from probationary outcasts through consistent mediocrity and at last respectability, the Michigan Wolverines are expecting to complete their journey this season and finally get back to the NCAA Tournament.

The Wolverines haven't been a part of March Madness since 1998, but if last year's NIT runners-up can build on the momentum gained by that run to New York City, coach Tommy Amaker will finally be able to say he has met the expectations thrust upon him when he left Seton Hall for Ann Arbor five years ago. All he's got to do is take a team that's knocking on the door and help it take the last steps across the threshold.

"We try not to use the word 'expectations' a lot, but I think it's obvious where we are right now and what our next step will be," Amaker said. "Our next step is to make the NCAA Tournament. That's certainly a driving force for us and for our program.

" … For us right now, overall, looking at our program, I think it's very healthy. When you look at the graduation of our seniors, when you look at how competitive we've been and even our recruiting, we feel like we have our program built. Now it's a matter of us continually pushing the program to the heights where we think we deserve to be. The next logical, realistic step is to become an NCAA Tournament-caliber team."

Of course, the Wolverines have been in this position before, including two years ago when they won the NIT, then were wracked by injuries the following year and sputtered through a disappointing season. Last year, the injury bug again bit Michigan hard -- several players missed a combined total of 86 games and Amaker had to deploy 16 different starting lineups.

Amaker didn't have his full squad healthy for any game last year, but the Wolverines managed a number of steps in the right direction anyway, including a 72-64 victory over No. 8 Illinois, their first victory over a top-10 team in eight seasons and Amaker's first win against the Illini in 13 games. They also beat ranked opponents back-to-back for the first time since 1994 with victories over Wisconsin and Michigan State in January, and the Wolverines themselves cracked the national top 25 for the first time since 1998, peaking at No. 21 in the AP poll.

But that success didn't last, as Michigan lost six of its final eight regular-season games, then fell to Minnesota -- a team it had twice beaten handily earlier in the year -- in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, effectively killing any chances of reaching the NCAA tourney.

Now, Amaker has to hope he can rally his team past that disappointment and find a way to jumpstart the veterans' confidence while showing the ropes to a large contingent of new recruits and still-untested underclassmen.

"It seems like every year, we go into the season talking about how deep our roster is going to be, and every year, we end up with some guys out of the mix for whatever reason," Amaker said. "I try to stay away from that kind of talk now. If we can have competitive, spirited practices for those guys that are competing for those minutes, it's only going to make us better."

Michigan brings back a handful of experienced players in key roles, but must replace a pair of three-year starters. Guard Daniel Horton (17.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 5.3 apg) turned in career highs in scoring and a .901 mark from the free-throw line, the second-best performance from the line in Michigan history, and was a first-team All-Big Ten pick by the media.

Forward Graham Brown (5.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.2 apg) led the team in rebounding last year, cracking double figures on the boards 10 times in the process, including an Assembly Hall record 21 rebounds against Indiana on Jan. 3.

The Wolverines also lost reserve centers Chris Hunter (7.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 0.9 bpg).