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Michigan Basketball: 2020-21 Roster Takes Shape

After months of uncertainty, Michigan’s roster for next season is finally taking shape, but not in the way many in Ann Arbor envisioned … or hoped.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

It was an up-and-down season for Michigan in Juwan Howard’s first year as head coach. The Wolverines went from unranked to the top five in the polls in a week. They lost six of seven conference games before winning seven of eight. They lost to intrastate rival Michigan State by 18 on the road and returned the favor by winning by nine at home. Michigan ultimately finished an even 10-10 in Big Ten play. A fitting record, one might say, for such an up-and-down campaign.

But Michigan fans had more on their minds than just the ebbs and flows of this season, they also had an eye toward the future. What would next year’s team look like? Along with the usual uncertainty surrounding potential early exits to the NBA, Howard was putting together an intriguing inaugural recruiting class. One that was both talented and deep. But was it too deep?

With only Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske graduating and Austin Davis returning for a fifth year, an incoming freshman class of four (and potentially five) looked to put the Wolverines over the scholarship limit. Granted, an overabundance of talent is a good problem to have, but it can be a problem, nonetheless.

How was Michigan going to find room for everybody? It was a quandary that led to much conjecture and speculation. Would the Wolverines be stung by early exits to the NBA (again)? Would one or more underclassmen transfer out of the program? Would Michigan retain its entire recruiting class? Questions were many. Answers were few.

Last week, after months of speculation, the answers started coming.

The first move was incoming freshman Jace Howard reclassifying as a preferred walk-on. If Howard’s name looks familiar, it should, as he’s the son of Michigan’s rookie head coach. The younger Howard is not strictly a legacy, however. He’s been on Michigan’s radar for years, having been initially recruited by former coach John Beilien. With Howard now a preferred walk-on, a scholarship was freed up. The move, and its timing, seemed to indicate that Michigan would need all of its allotted scholarships.

Howard’s reclassification wasn’t completely unforeseen. In fact, the possibility of such a move had long been bandied about. Few could say they anticipated what came next, though, as just days later, juniors-to-be David DeJulius and Colin Castleton announced their intentions to transfer. It wasn’t just the fan base that was caught off guard, either. The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn reported that Michigan’s coaching staff was also, “somewhat surprised by the decisions.”

The decisions were as surprising as they were, largely because each player seemed to be in line to assume a larger role next season. This was especially true of DeJulius, who was the odds-on favorite to take the reins at point guard. The dual departures were more than just surprising, they were also a blow to a program that was already losing a lot of experience with the graduation of Simpson and Teske.

Michigan replaced some of that experience the following day, when Columbia point guard Mike Smith announced he was transferring to Michigan, choosing the Wolverines over the likes of Gonzaga, Seton Hall and Arizona. While Smith won’t necessarily fill the same role that DeJulius would have, he is expected to take some of his minutes, minimizing the sting of DeJulius’s departure.

It was an eventful few days to be sure. And not lost in the flurry of personnel moves was the fact that a Wolverine team that just days ago was over the scholarship limit, suddenly had room for additional players.

This sudden surfeit of scholarships fueled confidence that Michigan would not only keep incoming freshman Isaiah Todd (who verbally committed to Michigan during the early signing period but had yet to sign his national letter of intent) but also add Josh Christopher (who had yet to announce his college choice). Both Todd and Christopher are five-star recruits, each ranked among the top 15 players in the country (according to Rivals). And it was starting to look like both might find their way to Ann Arbor.

Or so it seemed.

On Wednesday, Christopher shocked the recruiting world by signing not with Michigan, but rather Arizona State. The Sun Devils were always a viable option, as Christopher’s older brother plays for Arizona State, but the recruiting “experts” were nearly unanimous in their belief that Christopher would ultimately go blue. Not so, it turned out.

The next day brought more bad news, as Todd decommitted from the Wolverines, choosing to jump directly to the NBA’s developmental G-League (the same path taken by Jalen Green, the second highest ranked prospect in the country). Todd’s departure wasn’t a shock, as there were concerns all winter that he was considering playing overseas rather than attending college. But shocking or not, losing Christopher (although in all fairness, Michigan never had Christopher) and Todd cast a serious pall on the Wolverines’ future.

Michigan fans, as fans are wont to do, predictably overreacted. From celebrating that Michigan finally had a coach who could attract five-star talent one day, to calling the prospect of even pursuing elite players a fool’s errand the next. Howard will continue to seek out elite prospects, and he’ll land his share, but that won’t help next year’s team.

So where does all of this leave Michigan?

Unexpected transfers and signing day disappointments aside, Michigan will not just survive, but could thrive. The Wolverines have a core of talented returning players and have a solid, if not spectacular, freshmen class on its way, with three top 100 players along with the younger Howard. The biggest question for Michigan, and it was the biggest question all along, is whether its best all-around player, Isaiah Livers, returns for his senior season. A gifted offensive player and team leader, Michigan is a different team when he’s on the court.

Livers has officially entered his name in the upcoming NBA draft, but maintains that he could still return to Ann Arbor, depending on the feedback he receives from the league. That decision, more than anything, will determine what kind of team Michigan has next season.

That is, of course, if there is a season.