LAST SEASON – Michigan once again had to play most of the season without their best talent, Caris Levert. Yet, unlike the year prior, the Wolverines had better overall health and when some younger players stepped up, they were able to carve out a 23-13/10-8 season and earn an NCAA berth. Given the circumstances, that was a reasonable result for a team which did have some offensive talent but was fundamentally flawed in some other ways.

The entire program is going through a bit of a reset, with two assistant’s leaving for head coaching jobs, two new guys coming in, and a bunch of players transfering out of the program. Yet, the core of the team that played last year returns mostly intact, which should make for a solid season in Ann Arbor.

THIS SEASON – Derrick Walton had such a strong freshman season that many believed he was set to be on a similar path to that of his two predecessors at the point at Michigan, Trey Burke and Darius Morris. Instead, injuries and some regression in play have led to two solid but unspectacular seasons. Now Walton enters his final campaign and for MIchigan to be good, he has to be better. Walton did some things well to be sure…his A/TO ratio was nearly 4:1, he shot 38% from deep and he continued to be an outstanding rebounder for a guy his size (5.4 per game, which led Michigan). However, his overall field goal percentage was only 37% and the lack of capable pick and roll partners has limited how dynamic he can be running the offense. He’s also not played up to his potential defensively. Walton is a guy with the ability to be one of the best PG in the conference, but he has to stay healthy and actualy play with that kind of confidence.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was a late recruit two years ago, a guy who was very much under the radar. He showed some occasional flashes as a freshman but last year really began to develop into a reliable and versatile offensive player. He shot 46/37% and had a better than 2:1 A/TO ratio, showing he’s even capable of playing some spot minutes on the ball. What I like about him most is that he seems to have a different mentality than most of his teammates. MAAR is willing to take contact to get to the rim and he seems to at least want to try to play something resembling actual defense. I think he’ll be a starter and a solid one.

Duncan Robinson is 6’8″ but is really a wing. He set the world on fire from three against non conference opponents but found the sledding tougher once he got into league play (45% from three on the whole season but only 35% in league games). Still, his size and quick release makes him a serious weapon as a shooter, even if that’s essentially the only thing he gives MIchigan. My own belief is that he’s better if he’s a situational player. Beilein played him almost 29 mpg and that’s about 7 or 8 higher than I personally ever would, given what he gives up on the defensive end. There will be no sterner test of the supposedly renewed emphasis on defense and the influence of new assistant Billy Donlon than the role Robinson plays, IMO.

Michigan graduated or lost to transfer its other scholarship guards, so depth will come in the form of a couple of recruits. Xavier Simpson is the marquee guy in the class, a top 100 PG out of Lima, OH. He was seen as the consolation prize in the Cassius Winston recruitment. I’ve seen him play some live and while I think he’s a good player, a lot of the hype I’ve seen from Michigan sources seems way out of proportion to his actual game. Simpson is a smaller guard, probably about 5’10”. Yet, contrary to some of what you might hear from biased sources, he’s not really a blazer. He’s not slow but he’s nowhere near a Tum Tum Nairn kind of quickness. Simpson is effective based on physical and mental toughness and a good skill set. He’s a good jump shooter and a solid playmaker (not in Winston’s class, however…he doesn’t feel the game anywhere near the way Cash does, IMO). I think he’ll play a lot and he might even start in a two PG alignment. Again, I think he’ll be good, but I don’t see greatness in him. The other perimeter recruit is Ibi Watson, a 6’5″ guard from Pickerington, OH. This one cuts the other way, as I’ve seen many Michigan sources seem to discount him, thinking him a project, etc. When I saw him last May I couldn’t believe he didn’t have any Big Ten offers at that point (M and IU eventually got involved). He’s not a standout in any one area but I thought he showed a pretty solid all around game. He’s not a point guard but his handle and vision didn’t look bad. Not a deadeye shooter but capable. Not a top tier athlete but better than average for the position. I think he can play at least spot minutes immediately but we’ll see how that goes.

Inside, things begin with 6’7″ senior “PF” (and that’s in quotes because he really doesn’t play like one at all, even in this era) Zak Irvin. He’s M’s leading returning scorer at 11.8ppg. He’s expanded his all around game some…he’s now a guy who can go off the dribble a bit, he creates more for teammates than he had in the past, and he’s at least a semi respectable rebounder. Yet, his formerly aces perimeter shot has sunk…he only hit 30% from deep last season. If he can bring that back up to at least the high 30s, he’ll be a major impact guy for this team because he has rounded off some rough edges offensively.

At center, it’ll be interesting to see who wins out. 6’9″ junior Mark Donnal had a bit of a breakthrough season, averaging 7.8 ppg and finally giving M at least a semi respectable option on the pick and roll game, which is really where M centers generate almost all their offense, since Beilein simply doesn’t run much post action. Donnal can also shoot from range a bit. However, he’s limited athletically and I don’t know if he has much upside from what he showed last season. 6’10” soph Moritz Wagner may have more of that, though he might once again be more inconsistent as well. He had some strong moments offensively but never seemed to figure things out at the other end. If he can become passable on D, they can play him large numbers of minutes and I think he’ll be better than Donnal offensively because he moves better and has a better activity rate.

Off the bench, only 6’9″ soph DJ Wilson returns. Wilson is a very big wing, essentially…he’s shown no ability or desire to play inside at either end. He’ll get minutes because he can run the floor some and he has the length to alter or block the occasional shot, but I don’t think he’s anything more than a reserve.

M added a pair of 7 footers in their recruiting class. Jon Teske is a rail thin big man who primarily has a reputation as a shot blocker, though he can also shoot from range a bit. He needs a serious infusion of strength and I don’t know whether he’ll get enough under his belt to play this year. Austin Davis is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He had to lose weight and improve his conditioning and he did make noticable progress in his last year of HS in those areas. The thing is, when I’ve seen him he’s primarily operated out of the low post and as we know, Beilein doesn’t run post plays. I personally think he’s in a bad spot for a guy with his game but we’ll see. The slappies believe he has the hands to be effective in pick and roll…I haven’t seen it myself because you just don’t see that run very much or very well in AAU or HS play.

BOTTOM LINE – If Michigan stays healthy, I think they can take a slight step up this year. I don’t see a true star on that team but I do see lots of offensive potential. If Simpson can be worthy of say 25 good minutes per game, that’ll be significant because it’ll lengthen their rotation.

I have them here ahead of Maryland and OSU because their core has more experience than those teams and I also expect Wagner to take a step forward and be a more effective player, which could give them a big boost over the last couple of seasons, where their big man play has been mostly substandard. I’m not buying into the emphasis on defense at this point for a variety of reasons, but any improvement will likely be for the good. This is a good team, but probably not one capable of winning a conference title.