Every season, experience becomes an increasingly important issue in college basketball. Teams like Wichita State are able to have national relevance year after year because they are able to get players who buy into Gregg Marshall's four-year system. Other teams like Kentucky seem to reload, not rebuild every year, but recruiting elite level talent every year is only possible for the upper echelon of teams in the entire country. Why does any of this matter? Because for the first time since the departure of Darius Morris, Michigan will return both starting guards and the leading reserve guard off the bench. While those three players are commonly known among college basketball circles, a newcomer off the bench might make a splash for John Beilein as well this season.
From last year's Elite Eight team, Michigan returns 21 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists per game. Those are pretty solid numbers for any backcourt, but considering that these were Michigan's second and fourth scoring options in the starting lineup, it's hard to not get excited about the jump that both players can make.
Caris LeVert- LeVert has gone from being a late-recruit, baby-faced freshman that helped complete the "Frosh Five" two seasons ago to one of the best players in the Big Ten. LeVert has improved his game in all areas, and besides his scoring, perhaps his most important task this season will be as a leader and captain of this young but talented Michigan team. Look for LeVert to improve his scoring numbers a little bit, but also increase offensive duties in playing in the point guard area on the floor like Nik Stauskas did at times last season. LeVert will also be counted on locking down the opposition's best scorer at the guard position, including Big Ten stars like Terran Petteway, D'Angelo Russell, Denzel Valentine and others. Much like Stauskas, this team will go as far as LeVert propels them, but I expect him to have a monster season for the Wolverines.
Derrick Walton Jr.- Walton had the mammoth task last season of replacing Trey Burke, the 2013-14 National Player of the Year. While Walton was not one of the main scoring options, he still performed admirably throughout the entire season, having highlight games at Michigan State, Ohio State and hitting a game winner against Nebraska. Not bad for a freshman trying to fill Burke's shoes. This season, with a full 37 game schedule under his belt, look for Walton to improve on averages of 8 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists. Walton is generously listed at 6'0, but like Burke, plays a tough, downhill style of basketball and loves to get his teammates involved. One of John Beilein's main points of emphasis in the offseason was to get Walton more involved in creating his own shot, and working over the summer with Michigan Strength and Conditioning Coach John Sanderson in the weight room should help Walton tremendously. If he can continue to attack the basket with the same ferocity he did last season and remain consistent with his 3-point shot (41% last season), Walton could find himself on an All Big-Ten team and be a star for Michigan.
Last season, Michigan only had one real guard threat off the bench- Spike Albrecht. Often times, Beilein would play three guards, starting Walton, LeVert and Stauskas. I expect to see a more traditional lineup with Zak Irvin starting at the true "3" wing spot, but this means Michigan will need more help off the bench.
Spike Albrecht- Mr. Kate Upton has more unfinished business in Ann Arbor. After exploding onto the college basketball landscape with a 17-point bonanza in the National Championship Game two seasons ago against Louisville, Albrecht had a relatively quiet sophomore season. He only reached double figures once, and while at times he played big minutes (35 against Iowa, 24 against Minnesota), Albrecht scored 7 points in four NCAA tournament games. This could have been a result of Walton having a great end to the season and Beilein electing to play Stauskas and LeVert 35+ minutes each, or Albrecht having a sophomore slump. Whatever the reason, Albrecht is poised for a big role on this Wolverine team. At 22 years old, he has the maturity as one of the older players in the country to lead this team with LeVert, and Beilein could play him and Walton together for extended periods of time against smaller teams. The big key for Albrecht will be the consistency on his three point shot and his ability to create for others. If Albrecht can knock down his jumper with consistency, he will see more minutes as an off-guard to Walton. Albrecht is clearly the third guard on this team, but his leadership and ability to shoot will earn him some minutes this season for Beilein.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakham- One of the most entertaining names in college basketball in a long time, Michigan fans are hoping MAAR has the play to backup his prizefighting name. A late snag for Michigan, he is a bigger guard at 6'4 and has the ability to play both point and shooting guard. While he will likely be used at shooting guard because of Albrecht backing up Walton, it will be a huge advantage for Michigan to have another ball handler who actually has the size to matchup with some of the bigger guards in the Big Ten. MAAR has an old school game, with the ability the basket with under control and draw a ton of fouls as he did on Michigan's summer trip in Italy. His basketball IQ as a freshman will allow Michigan to give LeVert a break for 5 or 10 minutes a game, and Beilein could even elect to play MAAR at small forward for stretches as well. Michigan has a knack the past few seasons for recruiting lesser-known players and turning them into stars, and Beilein has already been singing the praises of both MAAR and fellow late-signee Aubrey Dawkins. It is unclear how much MAAR will actually be able to give Michigan this season, but if he able to be a sparkplug off the bench much like Zak Irvin was last season, Michigan will be grateful to have such a talented player as the fourth guard in the backcourt.
Overall Grade: A-
The three returnees clearly help this grade, but the versatility and uncertainty of MAAR make him an intriguing fourth piece. I expect Walton and LeVert to have huge season, and Albrecht could ultimately become a key player for Michigan as well. Expect excitement, poise and a ton of big time plays from these Michigan guards this season.