- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) - For a few fleeting moments, the path to the Sweet 16 seemed to be opening up for Michigan.

The Wolverines weren’t quite good enough to take advantage.

A frustrating season for the Wolverines came to an end Friday night when Michigan lost 70-63 to Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament. Third-seeded West Virginia had already lost, so if Michigan had made it to the round of 32, the Wolverines would have faced Stephen F. Austin instead. But there would be no extended run for coach John Beilein’s team in a season when just making the tournament was a struggle.

“The depth that we had, that we expected to have going into the season is sitting on the bench with Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert,” Beilein said after the loss to Notre Dame. “We’ll always wonder with those two.”

Albrecht and LeVert, two seniors who were expected to lead the team on and off the court, were lost to season-ending injuries, the second straight season Michigan was significantly hampered by health problems. The Wolverines slipped into the NCAA field and edged Tulsa in the First Four, and when they took a 12-point halftime lead against Notre Dame, it looked like a potential upset that could make up for a lot of previous angst. The advantage slipped away, however, and Michigan had to settle for another season that was a far cry from what it produced from 2012-14.

During that three-year stretch, the Wolverines won two Big Ten titles and reached a Final Four. They also lost several players to the NBA, and the program has struggled to deal with some bad injury luck since then. Michigan missed the NCAA Tournament last year.

This season seemed to have a lot of potential, with a more experienced group than Michigan had in previous years, but the injuries - particularly LeVert’s - took a toll. Fatigue may have been a factor against Notre Dame, since the Wolverines played a First Four game while other teams were able to rest, but point guard Derrick Walton wasn’t using that as an excuse.

“I’m pretty sure that everybody at this time of the year is pretty tired,” he said. “We know that within the game there’s some things we could have done to control our fate. We just weren’t able to capitalize on that.”

Walton and Zak Irvin will be seniors next season. They’ve been steady contributors for the Wolverines, but they haven’t had the same impact that NBA-bound stars like Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary did when Michigan was contending for national titles.

If the Wolverines are going to return to that level, they may need more production from their big men. Mark Donnal averaged 7.8 points a game and made 25 starts - and he occasionally looked capable of more. Moritz Wagner showed flashes of ability as a freshman.

Even during those seasons when Michigan was winning big under Beilein, the Wolverines were vulnerable on defense, and this season, they had more trouble making up for that at the offensive end. LeVert and Albrecht were the only two seniors on the roster, and the Wolverines are already used to playing without them, but there’s plenty of room for improvement among the players who are coming back.

Defense was an issue in the loss to Notre Dame as well. The Fighting Irish shot 58 percent from the field.

“We’ve been up and down all year with this,” Beilein said. “Whether it’s schematic, whether it’s personnel, we’ve got to figure it out because you can’t give up a 58-percent percentage in the NCAA Tournament and expect to win.”


Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister

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