2013-2014 Preview: Michigan Backcourt

Andy Lyons

Can the Wolverines replace the production of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., or will they struggle a year after they defied expectations?

The NCAA Division 1 runners-up were a rather good basketball team, although their backcourt got poached by the NBA Draft, with All-American Trey Burke and All-Big Ten Tim Hardaway, Jr. leaving the school. How will the new freshmen and returning players fill their absence?

Starters

Nik Stauskas is a lock for a starting position. From everything that's happened, it seems that Stauskas will likely play the 2 position, although occasional appearances at the 3 are probable as well. Last year, Stauskas was used on 16.2% of Michigan's offensive possessions while on the court, one of three different role players for Michigan last year (all stats via kenpom.com). He played in over 75% of Michigan's minutes, so obviously he was important to the team last year. He looks to improve in several areas, although his strengths lie on the charity stripe and behind the arc, as he posted team-best numbers for both free throw percentage and three-point percentage (85.1% and 44%, respectively). Interestingly, out of qualified players last year (played 40% of team's minutes), he only committed .9 fouls per 40 minutes, second-fewest in the country. He's a lethal weapon that doesn't get himself taken out of games, and should look to be a primary weapon this year.

The other starting position is more up for grabs. Spike Albrecht, he of the unconscious three-point shooting in the first half of the NCAA Tournament Finals, is poised to take the other starting guard role this year as a sophomore. However, wonder child Derrick Walton Jr. is also looking to make his impact known. Considering how the two men have played in their exhibition games, though, it's likely that Albrecht will start the season on the court. Of the nine men that saw regular playing time last year, Albrecht was eighth, only seeing the court slightly over 20% of the time. Even then, he was only a part of 13.8% of the possessions while on the court, fewest on the team. His strength lies in his three-point shooting; he shot 54.5% from three last year (18-33), and only 38.5% from two (10-26). One might look to his extremely high turnover rate (21.4%, highest on the team) and point to that as a skill he needs to improve on, and since he was such a spot shooter, it is vital that he turns it over less if he ever wants to see the ball in a significant amount of possessions. I look to Albrecht as someone who could be extremely effective this winter for Michigan, but worry about how his numbers will translate with increased minutes.

Bench

The backups for Stauskas and Albrecht are, shall I say, young. The most likely options to come off the bench this year are the aforementioned Walton, Zak Irvin, a former five-star recruit out of Indiana, and sophomore Caris LeVert. With regards to Walton, it's important to note that his handling of the ball is crucial; considering the other options, he will need to keep his turnovers to a minimum if he expects to break the starting rotation.

Zak Irvin was a top-30 recruit, with an ability to score both on and off the dribble. He's also strong and athletic enough to be a force defensively. Interestingly enough, he was recruited as a guard, but that hasn't stopped people from thinking (or wishing) that Irvin might move to forward during his time in Ann Arbor. A former Indiana Mr. Basketball, Irvin will likely garner minutes this season, and will be a good source of support off the bench.

Lastly, Caris LeVert is a sophomore that looks to be a valuable role player yet again. He played only slightly more than Albrecht, clocking in at 22.6% of Michigan's minutes last year, but he shot poorly and fouled often (38.8% eFG and 4.4 fouls/40 minutes). He did keep his turnover rate low (11.5%, second only to Glenn Robinson), but it didn't matter much if he couldn't do anything with the ball. LeVert doesn't seem like he will provide significant support this year, and I hesitate to think what would happen if he was forced into a primary role in backcourt.

Biggest Question: Who will step up next to Stauskas?

This is likely the most important question regarding the Michigan guards, as Albrecht and Walton seen as the two that are going to be battling for that starting spot this year. It would be interesting to see of Irvin impresses early on and steals minutes from these two, but I believe this is Albrecht's spot to lose. Albrecht has the shooting prowess to thrive in Michigan's offense, although I do worry about his high turnover percentage. Ball handling is certainly the x-factor for this position battle, and I would be surprised if Beilein doesn't have his answer by B1G play.

Overall

It's extremely hard to be successful a year after you lose two all-conference players who accounted for over 40% of both Michigan's shots and points last year. They were both extremely important to the Michigan offense, as they were used in more possessions than any other Wolverine last season (28.3% for Burke, 24.2% for Hardaway). Replacing those minutes will be a challenge (over 30% of the team's minutes between the two of them), and so on and so on. Michigan certainly has a lot of talent on their roster, and the dearth of young talent will be interesting to watch. Something to note though: the biggest talent jump is typically from freshman to sophomore. Will these second-year players make up for the incoming freshman's lack of experience? I think the backcourt for the Wolverines will be the difference between a middling B1G record and early tournament exit and a conference title and a Final Four appearance. The talent is there, it's just a matter of execution.

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