It was a roller coaster ride for John Beilein’s group last season, no question. They had a non conference performance which was less than overwhelming, though perhaps not as bad as it appeared at the time, given that losses to South Carolina and VaTech weren’t embarrassing come March. They also were blown out in the second half by UCLA, so they ended up with 3 losses prior to Big Ten games kicking in. Then the roller coaster really hit a dip. After a homecourt loss to OSU, the Wolverines stood at 4-6 in the league and looked to be on the ropes for any kind of NCAA Tournament hopes. At that point, Derrick Walton was able to elevate his play and become perhaps the best point guard in the league and among the best in the nation over the final 4 weeks and Michigan won 6 of their final 8 games to finish 10-8 in the conference. They backed that up by winning the BTT after a runway incident with their plane flying them out to DC for the event. Then once in the NCAA Tournament, M beat Oklahoma State in a thriller before upsetting Louisville in a Round of 32 game. Oregon then ended Michigan’s season in the Sweet Sixteen by a single point. Despite the inconsistent nature of the team, by virtue of the way Michigan ended their year, it was their most successful campaign since the Big Ten champs and Elite Eight group of 13-14.
Derrick Walton – As mentioned above, in late January or thereabouts, Walton elevated his game from solid senior guard to perhaps the best backcourt player in the conference. HIs season stats were impressive…15.5ppg on 44/42% shooting, 4.97 assists per game with a great ratio to TOs, and 4.8 rpg, second on his team. In conference games, he was even a little bit better, with that scoring average ticking up to 16.1 ppg on similar shooting numbers. Walton showed great promise as a freshman and then suffered injuries and inconsistency for much of the next two seasons, but he left M fans with a fantastic closing memory of him by virtue of his senior season. I compared his year and really his career overall to Travis Trice’s at MSU, though one could argue that Walton was even more impactful for his team than was Trav. The arc of the careers was very similar however, saving the best for last.
Zak Irvin – Hard to know what to make of Irvin. He was even more impressive in some ways as a freshman than was Walton, and big things were expected of Gary Harris’ HS teammate. However, his perimeter shooting touch, a big part of his game, never quite found the consistency he needed in order to take a step forward as an elite collegiate player. Irvin averaged 13 ppg but only hit 34% of his 3s, and his numbers took a big dive in conference play to 40/27%. He was never a great rebounder and he often struggled defensively, so when his shot wasn’t falling, Irvin wasn’t contributing a lot to the cause. Yet, it should be noted that he too came up with some big games late in his career to help M’s post season cause. Overall, probably a disappointing career but he had some big moments as well.
DJ Wilson – When Wilson opted to stay in the NBA Draft, it reduced preseason expectations for Michigan this coming season, a sentence few would have believed 9 months earlier. Wilson had redshirted and then had a mostly quiet freshman season before exploding on the scene last year as a 6’10” 4 with 37% shooting from three, a team best 5.3 rpg and a solid rim protection element to the defense with a team high 57 blocked shots. Wilson was far from perfect…he still lacked strength which showed up at times when he would get outmuscled on either end. Shot selection was an occasional issue (I think back to the game at Breslin when he was terrible in that regard) and he had an overall inconsistency which could be maddening, given how high the upside was that he flashed. Yet, the feeling is that as he matures, he’ll grow in those areas and he would have made Michigan a legitimate Big Ten title and Final Four threat had he returned, IMO. The biggest impact is in the grit areas, rebounding and defense. I’m not sure M has a way to adequately replace what he gave them there.
Mark Donnal – Donnal was essentially forced to move on as a grad transfer, heading to Clemson for next season. The 6’9″ veteran had one brief burst as a redshirt sophomore where it looked like he might emerge as a consistent interior force but he wasn’t able to sustain it, and with the development of guys like Wilson and Wagner, he saw his role reduced last season, averaging just 3.9ppg and 2 rpg in 12 minutes per contest.
Mortiz Wagner – It wasn’t all bad news at the Draft deadline for Michigan, as the 6’11” junior Wagner elected to return. Like Wilson, his game took some big steps forward as a sophomore. Wagner averaged 12.1 ppg and 4.2 rpg, and did it while shooting 56/39.5%. As an offensive player, he’s one of the tougher covers in the conference. Despite his size, he’s lacking in the post but he makes up for that with a great face up game. He’s a confident and effective jump shooter from deep range (particularly deadly in the pick and pop game with a good point guard) and showed a consistent ability to take defenders off the dribble and finish at the rim. He has clear NBA potential but he needs to improve as a rebounder and defender, both of which are areas in which he’s often ineffective. There’s no excuse for Wagner being bullied on the blocks, the way Nick Ward did to him in the first MSU game last season. He has enough size that IMO it comes down mostly to mentality. He needs to learn to, if not relish contact, at least accept that it’s something he has to do defensively. I expect continued development from him. I’m not sure he can ever get to be beyond passable in his weak areas but I expect his scoring to move northward as a junior.
Muhammad Ali Abdur Rahkman – “MAAR,” as he’s known, is a 6’4″ senior who started all but one game last season for Michigan on the wing. He’s developed into a solid, versatile player on the perimeter for the Wolverines, scoring 9.1 ppg on 46/38% shooting. He’s become a reliable jump shooter yet also has shown an ability at times to get to the rim and finish or draw fouls (he was third on the team in FTA behind Walton and Wagner). He was also probably the most reliable perimeter defender among the guys who played heavy minutes. I don’t expect great strides to come from him as a senior but more of the same would be just fine, given his role.
Duncan Robinson – The 6’8″ senior does essentially one thing well for this team, shoot the 3. With around 70% of his attempts coming from deep, his 42% success rate mattered. To me, he’s a guy who gives you diminishing returns past a certain amount of playing time. He saw his minutes reduced by about 9 per game over the previous season and I think Michigan definitely benefitted from that defensively. Trouble is that with Wilson now gone, it seems Robinson might be set to see his minutes and role move back up as a senior. I’m not sure that’s going to be beneficial for Michigan’s bottom line. He’s a non factor as a rebounder (and when you say that about a power forward, that’s troubling) and he might be among the two or three worst individual defenders I’ve seen in about 40 years of paying attention to the Big Ten. Still, Beilein’s offense needs guys who stretch the floor and create space, and that’s one thing Robinson does very, very well, so he’s likely going to play a significant role.
Xavier Simpson – I was very firmly in the camp that any attempt to make Simpson a “1A” choice vis a vis Cassius Winston in the 2016 recruiting class was misguided, and I think last season demonstrated why in pretty unambiguous fashion. Simpson just simply isn’t a Big Ten caliber point guard on the offensive end yet. He did a decent job from an A/TO perspective in limited minutes but his shooting is an issue and while he’s a good defender, I don’t think he’s good enough to warrant large minutes in a Beilein system. He also doesn’t impact the transition game the way a guy like Tum Tum Nairn does, so his shooting really doesn’t get mitigated by anything offensively. Beilein essentially has demonstrated he agrees with me on this. He brought in a grad transfer who’s set to start most likely, and he added point guards in the incoming ’17 class as well as the ’18 class. Simpson probably will once again be the backup but I won’t be surprised to see him transfer out of the program at some point, because it sure has the look of a situation where M has already decided he’s probably not the answer at that position.
Ibi Watson – Watson is another sophomore who seems to be quickly heading toward an inflection point in terms of his Michigan career. The 6’5″ wing only played in 19 games and really struggled shooting the ball when he did see the floor. Watson never struck me as great at any one thing but I thought he could eventually be a Big Ten role player as a versatile, jack of all trades type who’s decent at pretty much everything. However, if he can’t break into a more significant role this season, he might be another guy headed for a departure.
Jon Teske – Teske is a 7 footer who could be headed for an uptick in minutes as a sophomore. He played sparingly as a freshman but they see him as a guy who could eventually be an impactful defender, given his size, length and timing as a shotblocker. He’s also got at least the potential to be a pick and pop guy on offense, though he showed almost nothing that way in his limited minutes last season. Michigan will need depth inside and Teske should be in the mix to provide minutes behind Wagner.
Charles Matthews – Matthews sat out last season after transferring in from Kentucky. The 6’5″ wing was seen as an elite recruit when he committed to UK as a junior in HS, but by the time he arrived on campus he’d seen his ranking slide to the 50s, mostly because he hadn’t added a reliable shot to his admittedly impressive athleticism. That struggle continued at Kentucky during his freshman year, as he only averaged 10mpg and 1.7 ppg during the season, in which he only attempted 1 3 pointer. He also needed to add some strength as well. Michigan seems to expect him to emerge as a starter on the wing and a key player for next year. I think he might be the best individual defender Beilein’s ever had in Ann Arbor, and his athleticism and improved strength should help him be at least a decent perimeter rebounder and transition weapon on offense. However, I’m very skeptical about his being a “star” as some M media have suggested, at least not until I see that he’s made serious strides as an all around offensive player. He’s unlike pretty much anyone we’ve seen Beilein add to this team at his position, and so I think said skepticism is warranted. I think he’ll play a good amount and probably even start, but if he’s not hitting shots I really have to wonder about Beilein sticking with him in the kind of role most M types are envisioning. We’ll see…
Jaaron Simmons – The 6’1 point guard grad transfer from Ohio was a major addition to this team, solving what could have been a serious problem after Walton’s graduation. Simmons was a first team All MAC choice and might have been preseason POY in that conference had he remained in Athens. He averaged 15.9ppg on 43/35% shooting from the floor. He’s a dynamic, high usage player who averaged a lot of assists (6.5) and TOs (4) per game last season. He also has a reputation as being very effective in the pick and roll game, getting to the line with decent frequency (4.6 FTA per game). Beilein seems to be very enthused about Simmons as a person and in terms of the leadership he’ll provide. It can be tough for grad transfers to fully fit in during their one year in a program but I’m betting Simmons is at least good this season for M. I don’t think he’ll play at the level Walton did over the second half of the season, but I think he’ll probably be able to run their offense reasonably well (if perhaps make more mistakes than is usual for an M point guard), give them some scoring from deep and at the rim, and play adequate defense. I’m much more convinced that he’ll be an impact guy than I am with Matthews, because he’s actually done it at the D1 level.
Austin Davis – Davis redshirted last year but in February, Beilein started talking about how good Davis had been in practice and there was a suggestion that he might have been the better choice to get freshman minutes over Teske as an interior reserve. The 6’10” post player will get his chance to earn a rotation spot this season. He’s strong and solid physically…Michigan really hasn’t had anyone like him in that way since Jordan Morgan. I was never impressed with his athleticism as a HS player, so he’ll probably struggle on the defensive end at times, but at least he should be able to provide physical resistance in the post. He had a rudimentarily effective post game as a high schooler but given that Beilein so rarely uses that in his offense, I suspect his contribution on that end will come via pick and roll, and I can imagine his becoming a good screener. If I had to bet, I’d probably lean toward Davis beating out Teske for the lion’s share of reserve minutes at the 5.
Isaiah Livers – Livers, a 6’8″ forward from Kalamazoo Central, won Mr. Basketball in the state last year. He also represented a landmark in recruiting for Beilein, as he was the first player with a Michigan State offer to pick the Wolverines since Beilein has been in Ann Arbor. He’s got a lot of potential as a stretch 4, as he’s a good shooter and has some dribble drive elements to his game already. Those things should continue to improve under Beilein’s tutelage. However, where he has to make real strides is in the grit and toughness areas. He’s never been the rebounder his body suggests he could or should be and that needs to change…even his coach, a guy never known to emphasize that area of the game, has mentioned this. He also needs to become a reliable defender. With Wilson now gone, I think a rotation spot is there to be had for Livers as a freshman. If he can get his mindset changed and get dirty at times, he could really help this team as it would mean that they could reduce Robinson’s minutes, something which is definitely a good idea IMO.
Jordan Poole – Poole is a 6’4″ wing who played alongside Jaren Jackson for prep school national champions La Lumiere. He comes to Ann Arbor with a reputation as a major league jumpshooter and in seeing him play a few times this winter, that seemed to be borne out. The thinking is that he needs to add strength to be more effective at both ends, but I’m guessing his shooting will get him some minutes as a freshman.
Eli Brooks – Brooks is a 6’1″ guard who projects mostly as a point. He’s an interesting case. He wasn’t highly ranked and didn’t play in high profile AAU competition, and his HS league was considered fairly weak, but he had offers from Villanova, OSU and NC State in addition to Michigan. He might push Simpson for backup point minutes, as his ball skills are reportedly the best part of his game.
Michigan should clearly be a Tournament team this season. Wagner gives them a real scoring weapon at the 5, MAAR is a reliable wing veteran and I think Simmons should be effective for them at the point. What could elevate them beyond where I have them picked is if they somehow figure out solutions at the 4 and at the wing opposite MAAR. I’m not sure how likely either of those questions are to be resolved in a totally positive direction, because I have questions about most of the guys likely to be involved, but even if they aren’t, this will still be a dangerous team if not quite a title contender.