LAST SEASON – John Beilein wasn’t likely expecting his run of four straight NCAA appearances to end last season. While he’d lost a bunch of key players for the second year in a row, losing three underclassmen to the NBA and veterans in Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford, most believed he had enough returning and coming into Ann Arbor to keep the Wolverines in the Big Ten mix and earn another bid in March.

Things never seemed to get on track for Michigan. They were beaten early on by the likes of Eastern Michigan and NJIT, and then once they hit conference play, injuries hit. Both Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton missed much of the conference campaign and with two of their three best offensive players out of action it was going to be a huge struggle to score enough points to win. However, Beilein managed to find a way to keep his depleted team competitive and given the circumstances with such a limited roster, an 8-10 Big Ten mark was a pretty nice accomplishment. Truth be told, based on “talent” as is commonly understood, Michigan was probably 2 or 3 games worse than that.

The good news is that players are expected to be healthy for the most part and LeVert is back after flirting with the idea of going to the NBA. Michigan is still actively recruiting a couple of guys, one of whom would likely impact this prediction a bit if he were to opt to play in Ann Arbor. As it stands though, even with the roster as it appears to currently exist, expect vast improvement in terms of the record for this team over 14-15.

RETURNING PLAYERS

Caris LeVert is a 6’6″ senior guard who made Michigan’s ceiling move up a level just by his opting to return for his final year of eligibility rather than bolt for the NBA. He played in just over half of Michigan’s games last season, leading the team in scoring at 14.9 ppg and rebounding at 4.9 per game. He’s also a good passer and the best of a generall bad defensive bunch on the perimeter. It was a strange year for LeVert even before he reinjured the same foot he’d hurt in the summer…his numbers were good, he shot well, etc. but he didn’t always look comfortable playing the role of Option 1. There were some hero ball attempts in tight games which didn’t work outa and that may be because it’s not in his nature to be that guy. He’s a talented player, no doubt about it. He’s likely to be in the conversation for Big Ten POY if he can remain healthy (foot injuries are often problematic, though). At this point, it’s more a question of how things take shape around him and in combination with him.

Derrick Walton is a 6’1″ junior point guard who also struggled with foot trouble, though his was of the turf toe variety and thus may carry a little less concern going forward than LeVert’s issues. Walton wasn’t as effective as in his first year but truthfully, he may not have been near 100% for more than a handful of the 19 games he actually played in. He’s shown that he’s a good shooter…I’m not sure he’s quite as good as he shot in his freshman year but he’s at least a high 30s kind of three point shooter. He runs the offense efficiently and can get into the lane off the dribble. I expect a bounce back year from him.

Zak Irvin is a 6’7″ junior forward who sort of swings between the 3 and 4 for Beilein. Irvin ended up averaging 14.3 ppg as a soph and though his shooting percentages declined from his freshman season, I think as things went along he actually became a better offensive player. Previously, he was essentially a catch and shoot guy and not much else, but as the year unfolded he started to show some off the dribble game and he finally started to find people off drive and kicks. He may see fewer shots, as the talent around him will be far better than it was for the final 10 games or so last season when he was often the only major offensive threat, but I think he’s continuing to develop as an offensive player. Defensively…well, as with most Beilein players, he’s not all that good.

Spike Albrecht is a 6 foot senior point guard who put in yeoman’s work once the injuries hit. He’s a limited player and the more minutes he sees, the more his weaknesses (defense, primarily) get exposed but he was tough and gave Michigan everything he had,made even more impressive by the disclosure after the season ended that he’d need surgery on BOTH hips. He’s had one of those already and the second is soon to follow. Michigan is saying they expect him to be fine for fall practice but I think it’s at least a little bit of a question mark. If he’s healthy, he gives M a fine option as a back up point guard, a guy who will be more efficient and effective in 15-18 mpg instead of the 32 he played last season.

Aubrey Dawkins is a 6’6″ sophomore who was one of two freshmen to put together what was essentially two entirely different seasons. Early on, Dawkins couldn’t even earn consistent minutes despite his team desperately looking for rotation options. Once conference play arrived, though, the light seemed to switch on for the son of the Stanford coach and former Duke great Johnny Dawkins and he gave Michigan a huge boost by providing perimeter offense, averaging 7 ppg on 40 plus shooting both overall and from deep. Dawkins is also an outstanding athlete and in Michigan’s system, he’s big enough and athletic enough to potentially play some 4 in addition to earning wing minutes. Progress would be measured by improvement defensively and in finding other ways to score beyond the three pointer, something Irvin managed to do last season.

M-A Abdur Rahkman or “MAAR” for short, is a 6’4″ sophomore guard who also had something of an awakening when Michigan’s injuries hit. MSU fans may recall that he had a great offensive game against the Spartans at Breslin, playing a major role in taking that game into OT for MIchigan by using his size and touch to score effectively in the midrange. He’s not yet a reliable deep shooter but his size and versatility should allow him to continue to hold onto a rotation spot. If Albrecht were to be unable to play, he might well be the primary point guard backup to Walton. Long term, his size and versatility give him a shot to be a productive player in Michigan’s system.

Kameron Chatman is a 6’8″ sophomore forward whom Michigan thought might be able to step in immediately and claim a starting spot at the 4 position and he did manage to start 15 games. However, his minutes played were a better reflection of the kind of season he had, as he averaged only 15mpg. Chatman struggled mightily with his shot, something a Beilein 4 needs to be able to do. He showed flashes of giving M a rebounding presence as well but as the most hyped of Michigan’s incoming freshman, his year was a bit of a disappointment. This is a big year for him. For the most part under Beilein, guys who succeed tend to do so pretty quickly…there haven’t been a ton of examples of players who just started to become effective as juniors and seniors. So, it would seem this season might be fish or cut bait time for Chatman. Beilein makes most of his personnel decisions based upon offensive output, so the bottom line is he has to prove capable of hitting the corner 3 the power forward spot seems to get often in Michigan’s offense. Without improvement there, I can’t see him continuing to play a major role on a deeper roster.

Ricky Doyle is a big 6’11” 260lbs sophomore who has some limitations but also showed enough to provide reason for optimism about his long term prognosis. He scored 6.1 ppg and did it by shooting better than 60% from the floor so he proved to be a good finisher. He has great size, obviously, but his athleticism is limited. He also struggled in the pick and roll game, which has been a huge part of Michigan’s offense in recent seasons. I expect to see improvement from him as he goes forward and you have to love his energy and passion…that’ll help him as well. What I don’t have a firm opinion on yet is where his ceiling lies. His athletic limitations are real and that means that Michigan can be exploited because of it on defense. For as questionable as recent Beilein teams have been on that end, Morgan and even Horford and McGary gave them at least respectable interior defense. If Doyle can’t improve in that area somehow, it creates a problem.

Mark Donnal is a 6’9″ sophomore power forward who seemed like a natural fit for Beilein’s system but he really struggled last season. He actually shot well in limited attempts, hitting 52/37% from the floor, but he was exploited defensively and often seemed lost and out of sync, which limited his playing time to just over 10 mpg. LIke Chatman, I think he’s at something of an early crossroads in his Michigan career. He’s shown flashes of the kind of offensive game his coach tends to reward but it wasn’t consistent enough, and his weaknesses may be serious enough to even override those strengths.

DJ Wilson is a 6’9″ redshirt freshman who couldn’t get healthy last season and ended up sitting out after playing in 5 games early on. Wilson has length and athleticism as a 5 man and that might make him a good tag team partner inside for Doyle if he’s healthy and strong enough to hang inside at the Big Ten level. He’s reportedly got a face up game on offense as well, but to me it all comes down to his health and his strength. If he can withstand the physical play at this level he can probably help this team, perhaps in a similar way to what Jon Horford did in recent years (Wilson may have more offensive upside long term than Horford had but I’m talking short term here). Michigan can definitely use another big man option, given Max Bielfeldt’s departure. I don’t think Doyle is a 30 mpg guy at this point, so 15 solid minutes from Wilson would come in handy.