Could This Year's Michigan Be Last Year's Indiana? Big Ten Champs To No Postseason?

Michigan will need key returners Caris LeVert & Derrick Walton to improve for next season. - Andy Lyons

Indiana's slide from 2012-13 Big Ten Champions to missing the NIT in 2013-14 has been well detailed, but is 2014-15 Michigan on the track to repeat the Hoosiers' struggles?

Every once in awhile, an article grabs my attention.  As the manager of a Big Ten basketball site, I read through a lot of content on a daily basis, mainly attempting to remain fresh with the various teams from around the conference.  Aside from writing needs, I also just enjoy keeping tabs on the conference.  It's really become a past time for me.

Running across so many articles from so many different sites will give you many different perspectives.  You will see articles that seem overly optimistic about a team's chances and articles that seem overly negative about a team's chances.  What's always been interesting is that the mix will often come from a team's own sites.  Fans and writers aren't always as positive as many would like to think.

Late last week, I came across an article that grabbed my attention.  During the offseason, perhaps the most frequented topics relate to "power rankings" or general preseason predictions for teams, conferences, and the nation as a whole.  With so much turnover in college sports, it's almost impossible to predict where a team might go from season-to-season.  When the summer starts, projections run all over, but as time goes on, they often generally start to take shape and most have a general consensus on what is going to happen, for better or worse.

The article that caught my eye came from SBNation's Crimson Quarry, which is SBNation's Indiana based site.  The site opted to run a typical Big Ten power rankings post, but the surprising parts were the picks.  Not necessarily at the top, but lower down and especially at #10.  At #10 were the Michigan Wolverines.  Remember, Michigan will be coming off its first outright Big Ten title (winning by 3 games) in nearly 3 decades.  Just hearing that would make you assume Michigan would be higher than #10, but there they were.

Maybe I am biased (Michigan alum) and maybe I'm not (Big Ten manager), but regardless, that #10 projection grabbed my attention.  No matter your opinion on Michigan's team next year, you will be hard pressed to find many writers, sites, or fans that have the Wolverines projected that low.  Our own BTP offseason Power Rankings had Michigan #3 for next season, a long way from where the Crimson Quarry had the Wolverines.

In response to the article, I actually left a few comments questioning some of the reasoning and thoughts behind the site's #10 projection.  The author responded in what led to an interesting exchange of ideas, opinions, and projections for next season.  At the end of the day, nobody is "right" when it comes to preseason projections.  Even Wisconsin - who is almost unanimously regarded as the #1 preseason team in the Big Ten - is not a lock to win the conference.  Anything can happen, which is what makes it fun.

Originally, I had thought about debating the positioning of Michigan on the list, but ultimately, I decided to go in a different direction with this article.  Instead of comparing Michigan to the teams in this year's Big Ten, I decided to take a look at how Michigan compared to last year's Indiana team.

Setting The Table

In 2013, Indiana won the Big Ten title after beating Michigan (conveniently) in the regular season finale.  Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, they followed that up with a lackluster 2013-14 season that ended in no postseason bid and an unimpressive 9th place finish.  That's one heck of a drop.  How did this happen?  For those that remember, the factor leading to this drop is pretty simple: off season losses.  Not only did Indiana lose 2 players to the NBA Draft (both Top 5 picks), but they also lost 2 starters to graduation.  When all was said and done, the team lost 57% of its minutes, 66% of its scoring, 60% of its rebounding, and 70% of its blocks.  In advanced numbers, the team lost 68.5% of its total win shares.  In terms of raw production, you are literally talking about bringing back about a 1/3 (or less) of your team.  In hindsight, it's not very hard to see why IU struggled last season.  However, we can't forget that Indiana was ranked in the Top 25 entering 2013-14.  Even though the signs were there, people did not see Indiana's drop coming.

This brings us back to Michigan.  Over the off season, Michigan has seen a boatload of departures for a variety of reasons (NBA, graduation, transfer).  All in all, they have seen 5 players depart in one form or another, including the Big Ten Player of the Year, 2 players that earned All-Big Ten honors this season, a Preseason All-American, and another player that made the All-Big Ten Defensive team in the past.  The team loses 52.7% of its minutes, 57.2% of its scoring, 58.1% of its rebounding, 79.5% of its blocks, and 60% of its win shares.  Michigan may feel like they are in a different situation than Indiana was coming off their Big Ten title, but when you look at things this way, they might not be that far off.  I have included a chart comparing some of those numbers below:

2013-14 Indiana & 2014-15 Michigan Offseason Losses

2013-14 Indiana 2014-15 Michigan
Lost Mins 57.0% 52.7%
Lost Pts 66.0% 57.2%
Lost Rebs 60.0% 58.1%
Lost Blks 70.0% 79.5%
Lost Win Shares 68.5% 60.0%

(Stats via Sports Reference.)

Just from the basic numbers, you can already start to see the similarities between 2013-14 Indiana and 2014-15 Michigan.  You're largely talking about variations below 10% between the two teams in the "lost" categories and in the case of lost blocks, Michigan is actually losing more.  Overall, Indiana's offseason losses coming into 2013-14 look more severe than what Michigan had this season,but it's certainly not by that much.

For Michigan fans, those have to be some startling numbers not only because those are big losses, but also considering that we already know what happened to Indiana.  Remember, the Hoosiers won the Big Ten - which was stacked in 2012-13 - and were a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.  In the postseason, Indiana made the Sweet Sixteen, which some say was underachieving, but still was a good accomplishment.  It's not often that you say a team that made it to the second weekend in the NCAA Tournament underachieved.  However, Indiana didn't even make the postseason in 2013-14.  Michigan may have won the Big Ten more convincingly in 2013-14 than Indiana did in 2012-13, but if they follow the same trajectory, it could be a rough year in Ann Arbor.

The Teams Themselves

Of course, as any person will tell you, stats don't always tell the full story.  Perhaps you lose a key guy at one spot, but have a replacement at the ready.  In order to get a deeper understanding of the comparison between these Indiana and Michigan teams, I have assembled the scholarship players below.  What I have done is order them according to win shares.  If a player was a freshman, they were ordered by their 247Composite rating.  Here is how the two teams compared:

2013-14 Indiana & 2014-15 Michigan Roster Comparisons:

2013-14 Indiana

Win Shares/Recruiting Rankings

2014-15 Michigan

Win Shares/Recruiting Rankings

Will Sheehey

4.0

Caris LeVert

4.4

Kevin Ferrell

3.3

Derrick Walton

2.9

Jeremy Hollowell

0.8

Spike Albrecht

1.9

Hanner Mosquera-Perea

0.3

Zak Irvin

1.9

Austin Etherington

0.2

Max Bielfeldt

0.1

Peter Jurkin

0.0

Mark Donnal*

4*

Noah Vonleh

5*

Kameron Chatman

4*

Troy Williams

4*

D.J. Wilson

4*

Stanford Robinson

4*

Ricky Doyle

3*

Luke Fischer

4*

Aubrey Dawkins

3*

Devin Davis

3*

Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman

2*

Collin Hartman

3*

Austin Hatch

N/A

(Stats via SportsReference.com247Sports.com)

Once again, for Michigan fans, this is not something they are going to like to see.  The top two slots are eerily similar with Caris LeVert-Will Sheehey and Derrick Walton-Yogi Ferrell.  In fact, if you add them together, the two top two returners from both teams are dead even at 7.3 win shares a piece.  Obviously, circumstances differ between the two teams and perhaps potential differs with LeVert being a year younger than Sheehey was at this point, but in terms of contributions, the top two slots aren't that much different.

In terms of the rest of the returners, Michigan definitely has an advantage.  Hollowell was 3rd in returning win shares for Indiana at 0.8.  Both Spike and Irvin came in at 1.9, which is double what Hollowell had coming into last season.  Regardless of your opinion of Spike and Irvin, when you are looking for guys to step up into starting roles after playing off the bench, you would much rather have a 1.9 in win shares than 0.8.  Hollowell played far fewer minutes than Spike and Irvin, but the two Michigan players were also more efficient at above 0.13 win shares per 40 minutes, while Hollowell was at 0.096.  Of course, there were a few more returners besides these players, but when you are debating guys with 0.3 and 0.1 win shares over a season, it's kind of a pointless exercise.  Essentially, the players listed above at the only noteworthy returners.  Overall,  it's pretty clear that 2014-15 Michigan had an edge in returning players over 2013-14 Indiana.

Unsurprisingly, the tables are flipped in recruiting.  Indiana brought in four players with at least 4* status and brought in one player (Noah Vonleh), who most deemed as an instant starter.  Many players are believed to be good enough to start early, but very few are labeled as instant starters.  Vonleh was one.  Michigan's best prospect is Kameron Chatman, who most feel is good enough to start early and contribute, but he's far from Vonleh-level.  Plus, as you move down, you end up comparing 3* recruits to 4* recruits and 2* recruits to 3* recruits.  It's hard not to lean Hoosiers in terms of recruiting in this comparison.

However, there are two things worth noting about recruiting here.  First, as we all know, Fischer never made it through the season as a Hoosier.  This is of course hindsight bias, but mid-season transfers from Big Ten schools don't happen everyday.  If one of Michigan's freshmen transferred during the year, I would be pretty surprised.  It's just not something you expect to happen.  Indiana still probably gets the edge, even if you take Fischer out of the discussion, but the gap at least closes in recruiting.

The other thing worth noting is Mark Donnal.  Donnal was a 4* recruit for Michigan in 2013, but redshirted all of last season.  We got to see him a bit in exhibition play, but the fact remains that nobody knows for sure what Michigan will have in Donnal until next season starts.  Donnal might not be the equivalent of a 5* with that redshirt year, but considering big men usually improve the most with experience, he's certainly not your typical first year big man, at least on paper.  Again, probably not enough to get Michigan the edge in recruiting over Indiana, but it certainly does close that gap.

Perspectives on 2014-15 Michigan

The bottom-line here, of course, is that we have no specific way of balancing out these questions and determining which areas are more valuable to a team and what a few extra win shares can do to a roster.  Considering this, I decided I would use some of the information we have gathered here to give a bit of "spin" in support of Michigan repeating 2013-14 Indiana and against Michigan repeating 2013-14 Indiana.  Here we go:

Why 2014-15 Michigan Will Be The Next 2013-14 Indiana

Though many are going to spin things one way or another, the one thing that people can't ignore is the fact that the numbers Michigan is returning are eerily similar to what Indiana had coming back.  Both teams also returned a highly touted freshman point guard and a quality wing player.  Sure, Michigan might have a few extra bench pieces, but that's all they are, bench pieces.  Assuming bench guys can step into starting roles is a big leap, especially as the team loses depth all around them.

The other thing here is that Michigan's recruiting is nowhere near what Indiana had coming in last season.  Talk all you want about developing talent, but Michigan has several "project" recruits in this class that could take years to really start contributing.  Indiana didn't have that last year and still struggled to replace the top-end talent that left.  Michigan not only has to replace the same type of talent, but they have to do it with less.  They've been lucky with guys like Trey Burke, Caris LeVert, and Nik Stauskas, but you can't just expect that to happen every year.

The final thing here is that Michigan is going to be desperately looking for answers upfront.  Sure, they have the mysterious Mark Donnal and a highly touted true freshman in Kameron Chatman, but even if those two can play, the team's frontcourt depth is a huge question mark.  Max Bielfeldt, Ricky Doyle, and DJ Wilson are far from guarantees and if guys start getting into foul trouble, Michigan is going to have to lean on them.

Michigan has potential and will probably progress a lot during the season, but ultimately, the similarities are just too striking with 2013-14 Indiana.  The Wolverines will try mightily to replicate what they've done the last few years, but losing that much in one off season is simply too much to overcome.

Why 2014-15 Michigan Will Not Be The Next 2013-14 Indiana

Next year's Michigan team has similar numbers to last year's Indiana team, but that's the thing, they're similar, not exactly the same.  No two teams are identical and even if you admit these numbers are similar, Michigan appears to be on the "right" side of the mix.  As shown above, 2014-15 Michigan is going to return more than 2013-14 Indiana and that includes several players who could potentially take a great leap forward next season.  The main four returners are: Spike Albrecht; Zak Irvin; Caris LeVert; and Derrick Walton.  Albrecht and LeVert are coming off their sophomore seasons and Irvin and Walton were just freshmen last year.  Plus, if you add in that LeVert is pretty young for his eligibility status and that both Irvin and Walton were very highly rated coming out of high school, it's not crazy to think that all three take big leaps forward.  Plus, even if they don't take big leaps for next year, the numbers say that all three should at least be solid, if not better.  At minimum that should be 3 starting roles locked down with a quality point guard backup.

Beyond them, there are some questions, but it's important to recognize what was noted in the recruiting section above.  Mark Donnal (former 4* recruit) is coming off a redshirt season, Kameron Chatman is literally a spot away from becoming a 5* recruit, and it's pretty unlikely Michigan loses a member of its freshman class halfway through the year.  My point here is that on paper Donnal and Chatman don't look like your runaway guys, but they're probably better than many give them credit for right now.  Along with this, Indiana fans will agree with this, but that Hoosier team would have been much more dangerous if they had Fischer continuing to improve all season, especially considering Vonleh's late injury issues.  If they have him, maybe they can snag that Michigan or Illinois game late in the year and maybe they at least sneak into the NIT.  Michigan doesn't have Fischer on its roster obviously, but the point is that if they keep all their prospects at a position of need in the frontcourt, the team should continue to grow and avoid at least some of the problems Indiana had last year.  It could very well be the extra boost needed to take 2014-15 Michigan from no postseason to the NIT or from the NIT to the NCAA.  There's no equation for rating these boosts to recruiting, but it definitely is an advantage over 2013-14 Indiana's situation.

The last thing that deserves recognition here is that Beilein has shown he can get a lot out of young players.  Part of this is utilizing skills that easily translate to the college level like shooting, but other parts are Michigan's great strength and conditioning program and the program's emphasis on skill development.  If it happens once or twice, it isn't a big deal, but by now, it's clear that Michigan is simply good at getting young guys in there and contributing early.  If you go back the last few years, it's quite a list with Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Zak Irvin, Caris LeVert, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, and Derrick Walton all making an impact as freshmen.  Plus, Spike Albrecht was decent as a freshmen and guys like Darius Morris took leaps into their second year.  Beilein has done an excellent job with young players and though Michigan loses a lot this season, they have plenty of options to rotate guys into the lineup.

Michigan is in no way guaranteed to avoid the slide 2013-14 Indiana suffered, but there are plenty of signs to guess that the Wolverines should at least be better than Indiana's team last season.  If the Wolverines can utilize their returning talent and get a few freshmen to step up, 2014-15 Michigan will not become 2013-14 Indiana.

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