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Michigan Basketball: Wolverines Settling into Their Roles As Conference Play Nears

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John Beilein's 2015-16 team is as healthy as it can be and they feel like it is rounding into form.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan closed out its non-conference slate of games on Wednesday night with a 96-60 victory over Bryant University.

The last few opponents may not have been of the greatest quality, but it provided this team a chance to find itself and gain confidence heading into Big Ten Conference play, which starts next week.

"I think we saw a lot of progress in our non-conference," head coach John Beilein said. "Now we just need to carry it over to the conference season. One of the progresses was that I didn’t think we had a very good passing team about a month ago. Now, we put up 50-some assists in the last two games and we’re starting to sort of feel it enough.

"We’re excited to be through the non-conference. I do not like…as much as you look at a 30-point game, these are tough days trying to keep your guys focused. I want to get on with the Big Ten and play. It’s going to be very challenging and we’re going to be as ready as we can be."

Caris LeVert was expected to be the straw that stirred the drink for the Wolverines this season and has done just that. Following Wednesday's game, he shed some light on what he has learned about his team after non-conference play.

"We took some tough losses early on and we learned from them," LeVert said. "We learned we have got to get tougher. We learned we have to play better defense with a more consistent effort for a full 40 minutes and I’m interested to see how we bounce back going into Big Ten play."

Michigan had been plagued with injuries to start this season. Zak Irvin missed some time early on while rehabbing from back surgery and it took some time to get back into the swing of things. Wednesday's game was a return to form for him, scoring 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting and hit a pair of shots from beyond the arc.

Point guard Derrick Walton Jr. knows how important it was to get him back on track.

"I said a couple of days ago that he was a game away," he said. "He kind of jumped the bullet on that and hit some shots tonight, but I knew that the work he was putting in outside of the gym and outside of practice was going to pay off and I’m just happy to see him hitting shots again."

There may not be much for fans and observers to learn from non-conference games against cupcake teams, but what it has done is help Beilein and company find where everyone fits best.

Michigan came into this year with as deep a team as its ever had, but roles were uncertain and it remained to be seen who was going to contribute where and just how much.

Based on the last few games, the starting lineup of Walton, LeVert,  Duncan Robinson, Irvin and Ricky Doyle seems pretty locked in. Aubrey Dawkins will be one of the first guys off the bench, along with Moritz Wagner, Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Mark Donnal.

It is still a work in progress, but Beilein and the team feel as if they are rounding into form.

"The feeling is I know a little more who we are," Beilein said. "If Aubrey can embrace this sixth-man role. If Muhammad can come in and give us good, quality minutes as a defender and that’s another guy where you can see the growth in his shot. That he was 30-something, 20-something last year. That’s good growth.

"Now, with the big man situation, it’s working itself out. But we’ve got enough guys there to make up a difference. Pretty soon we’ve got to decide with D.J....is it D.J. or Kam that’s going to come off the bench when Zak needs a rest? We’ve got to decide that."

Irvin says that the coaching staff has stressed being "a star in your role" and the team has taken that to heart.

"Everyone by now knows what their role is after we finished non-conference season and we just have got to be able to take that to the next level when we go to the Big Ten," he said.

The Wolverines know they still have much work to do, but their point guard feels that if they keep working hard and carving out their niches, they will be in good shape as conference play hits.

"We’re going to get better each and every day," Walton said. "We’re not going to take a day off. With that approach, we can accomplish some special things down the road. So, mostly that guys are not going to settle and take a day off. The attention to detail that this team has is really important for us."

Michigan's next game will be at Illinois on Dec. 30, which is the team's Big Ten opener.