It’s been said that with greater expectations comes greater disappointment, and in many ways, that was the case for the University of Michigan basketball team last season. Led by senior Derrick Walton Jr, Michigan finished the season strong, capturing the Big Ten tournament championship (beating the number one, two and four seeds in the process) and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. After a rough start to the season, the Wolverines rallied to play their best basketball since their NCAA tourney run in 2013, winning 12 of their final 15 games and coming to within a point of an Elite Eight appearance. However, despite the strong finish to the season and the conference tournament championship, coming a defensive rebound away from advancing to the Elite Eight nonetheless cast a pall over the season.
And in a sense, that's how the 2017-18 campaign started, when DJ Wilson somewhat unexpectedly left Ann Arbor for the greener pastures of the NBA. Suddenly a team that was already replacing a pair of four-year starters in Walton and Zak Irvin, was also looking for answers inside. Michigan, which returns a solid core of Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson and Mo Wagner, will draw on a number of new faces to fill the gaps. Faces that include incoming freshmen, redshirt freshmen and transfers. But who are these new faces? And how far can they carry the Wolverines in 2017-18?
A young team (again), Michigan will rely heavily on upperclassmen Abdur-Rahkman, Robinson and Wagner. The Wolverines will lean on Abdur-Rahkman, not just for his scoring, but also for his leadership and defensive intensity. Robinson and Wagner will also play key roles for the Wolverines, but with the early exit of Wilson, each will be forced to play, defend at least, out of position (something that seems to be somewhat of a staple with John Beilein’s Wolverine squads). Robinson and Wagner will get their shots, and their points, but their ability to defend, rather than score, will be key.
Michigan welcomes a host of new faces this season, the most eagerly anticipated of which being transfers Charles Matthews and Jaaron Simmons. A transfer from Kentucky, Matthews practiced with the Wolverines last season and drew rave reviews for his play. Now in his second year in Beilein’s system, the 6’6” wing, who could be one of the Wolverines’ most athletic players, will be counted on to contribute immediately. Simmons comes to Michigan having averaged 17.2 points and 6.5 assists per game in the MAC last season. Michigan isn’t looking for Simmons to put up similar scoring numbers, but does hope that the senior will provide stability and leadership for the young Wolverines.
A trio of true freshmen will vie for playing time this season, in the form of forward Isaiah Livers (reigning Michigan Mr. Basketball) and guards Jordan Poole and Eli Brooks. Livers is the most likely to contribute early, but each of the freshmen could play a role for Michigan this season. Even more important, however, is whether sophomore big men Jon Teske (7’1”) or Austin Davis (6’10”) can contribute.
Wagner took a big step forward last season, increasing his scoring from 2.9 to 12.1 points per game, while often serving as Michigan’s first option on offense. If there was a coming out moment for Wagner, it was in the NCAA tournament, when in the second half of Michigan’s second round match-up against Louisville, the big German was unguardable, scoring a career-high 26 points and leading the Wolverines into the Sweet Sixteen. A prototypical Beilein big, Wagner returned to Michigan for his junior season after testing the NBA waters ,and looks to play an even larger role for Michigan this season.
In the words of its head coach, the Michigan basketball team faces a quarterback competition of sorts, as the Wolverines look to replace last season’s team MVP Walton. Sophomore Zavier Simpson saw some time at point as a true freshmen last season and is one of three competing for the starting point guard position, along with Simmons and Brooks. A graduate transfer, Simmons was expected to step into the starting line-up and run the point for the Wolverines, but Beilein has said that the position is not yet settled. Whether it’s Simpson, Simmons or Brooks, whoever wrests away the starting spot, and how well they perform in that role, will be one of the keys to Michigan’s season.
Perhaps as important as finding its point guard is finding depth inside. True, Wagner is a seven-footer, but he doesn't exactly live in the paint, and interior defense is not his strength. Interior defense seems to be an issue with most Beilien teams, and will be again this season with the early departure of Wilson. Two players hoping to provide inside help inside are the afrementioned sophomores Teske and Davis. Reports from the offseason are promising, but neither has yet to see the court. While it’s unlikely that either will play a significant role this season, finding someone to provide even a few quality minutes off the bench is critical for Michigan.
Despite the departures, Michigan is still in line to have a successful season. Just don't expect a repeat of last year. If everything comes together, Michigan could be an upper-division team that spends the majority of the season on the NCAA tournament bubble. And if more questions are answered positively than negatively, if Michigan finds its point guard and some inside help for Wagner, the Wolverines should end up on the right side of that bubble.