Canadians, back problems, marijuana, subs. Last season was crazy! Michigan exceeded most "expert" expectations last season, finishing the year 28-9, including an outrageous 15-3 in the Big Ten despite preseason All-American Mitch McGary being sidelined with a nagging back issue and an outdated rule suspending him for the entire 2014-15 season. Like any sensible college kid would do, McGary bolted for the NBA, and Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III went with him. Gone too is stalwart center Jordan Morgan, finishing his illustrious Michigan career in the top five of appearances. Also departing is now Senior/Grad student Jon Horford, who took his immediate eligibility to Florida despite Michigan having no true experienced center. When all the dust settled, Michigan lost seven players, including the five mentioned above and walk-ons Cole McConnell and Brad Anlauf, as they gave way to more talented players. While a ton of pieces are gone, John Beilein's Michigan teams have been known to reload, not rebuild, and this year should be no different in Ann Arbor.
Projected Starting Lineup
Derrick Walton Jr. (6'0", 185 lbs., Soph.)- Detroit, Michigan
Caris LeVert- (6'7", 200 lbs., Jr)- Pickerington, Ohio
Zak Irvin- (6'6", 215 lbs., Soph.)- Fishers, Indiana
Kameron Chatman (6'7", 210 lbs., Fr)- Portland, Oregon
Mark Donnal (6'9", 240 lbs., Fr.)- Monclova, Ohio
What To Watch For
Michigan's season starts off with some marquee non-conference games, as Coach Beilein continues to challenge his players to prepare them for the grind of the Big Ten. Highlights include Syracuse coming to Ann Arbor for the ACC/Big Ten challenge, SMU visiting a few weeks later (though a little less exciting with the departure of Emmanuel Mudiay), and Michigan's early season trip to Brooklyn to play in the Legends Classic at Barclays Center against Oregon and then either VCU or Villanova.
But the one game that stands out on the schedule is Arizona. The Wildcats travelled across the country last season to beat Michigan despite a sluggish start given the 9:00 AM Arizona tip time. The Cats will again be up there with the best teams in the entire country despite Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson heading to the NBA. If you're looking for two future NBA players duking it out in the backcourt, look no further than the inevitable matchup between Stanley Johnson and Caris LeVert. Both stand at about 6'7, can drive and shoot with some of the best players in the country, and are two of the most important pieces for their respective teams. If Michigan can get a win in the desert, or at least keep it competitive for the majority of the game, this could go a long way for improving confidence heading into Big Ten play, much like the Duke game at Cameroon Indoor did last season for the young Wolverines.
Who To Watch For
Freshmen. And more freshmen. Michigan has so many freshmen on this squad that I would be shocked if they're not in the bottom 15 or 20 again for the youngest rotations in the entire country. Not that it bothers John Beilein, but it just means younger players will have to step up. It seems that both the power forward and center position will be littered with freshmen. Right now, I have Chatman and Donnal pegged into those two positions, but it's anyone's guess as to whether they'll remain there for the entire season. Chatman is being challenged by Aubrey Dawkins and D.J. Wilson for the four spot, both extremely talented players in their own right, while Donnal is being closely chased by Ricky Doyle for the center spot. Having five freshmen looking to play 80 minutes a game at these two forward positions is always a huge ask, but these freshmen all offer a different skill set that makes them versatile. Whether Beilein chooses to go small and includes 3 of them in the lineup at the same time is something that only time will tell, but he'll have plenty of options for his rotations in the frontcourt.
Besides for freshmen, the one other player I am extremely intrigued to watch throughout the season is Spike Albrecht. Anyone following Michigan basketball for the last two years remembers his heroics from the National Championship Game, and his "superstar" status that continued on the Michigan campus in the coming weeks. But Albrecht can actually ball, playing the role as the consummate backup to a tee last season with a phenomenal extended cameo against Iowa (35 minutes) to boast that. Michigan is becoming a national power, however, and smaller point guards have a tendency to get lost in the fold. Albrecht showed he still has the talent to earn between 10 and 15 minutes in the backcourt with LeVert or Walton, but Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakham, a 6'4 combo guard from Philadelphia, will be on his tail all season competing for minutes. Will Albrecht rise to the occasion or will another freshman see serious rotation minutes for this Wolverine team?
Out of Conference
Michigan has a challenging but manageable out of conference schedule yet again. Division II Hillsdale College should be the perfect game for Beilein and co. to get their feet wet before Bucknell and Detroit travel to Crisler. Following three very winnable games, Michigan travels to Brooklyn to take on Oregon and either VCU or Villanova, two challenging games but games that Michigan should expect to win. Following this, the slate doesn't get too much easier, as Michigan should breeze by Nicholls State but has a sneaky-good Syracuse game following. Michigan has very reasonable games against Nicholls State, NJIT, Eastern Michigan and Coppin State on the schedule, but Arizona and SMU provide two tough challenges in mid-to-late December. I see Michigan winning all of these games besides for a brutal trip to Tucson, which should leave them at 12-1 in nonconference play.
The Big Ten continues to be the best conference in all of college basketball. All things considered, Michigan has a pretty favorable schedule, with their toughest games being at Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana (The Hoosiers at home always give Michigan trouble.) Let's say Michigan wins one of these, and drops two of the games they will be favored to win, like home against Wisconsin or on the road at Maryland, that will leave them at 14-4 in conference and 26-5(!!!) overall. While this is optimistic, remember that Michigan won at Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin last season with a similar roster. Michigan has the players to win these games, and I think anything below 12-6 in the Big Ten with this schedule would be a bit disappointing for Coach Beilein.
While I expect Michigan to have a tremendous regular season again, the big question is who will be Michigan's closer. Last season Nik Stauskas took that role by storm, including this ridiculous shot to beat Wisconsin. But John Beilein isn't afraid to call other players' numbers down the stretch. Derrick Walton had a game winning shot at Nebraska, and Glenn Robinson III had a buzzer-beater at Purdue to beat his father's alma mater. Michigan will need someone to win the game down the stretch, but it will be interesting to see if Beilein is consistent with who that player is. Another big key for Michigan will be avoiding injuries. They had veterans like Morgan and Horford to step up when McGary went down for the season, but there are no veterans sitting on the end of the bench next to Beilein. The 9 or 10 man rotation will be pretty tight, and not overusing freshmen too early on will be key. In the end, I see Michigan as a team with Final Four offensive talent, but a Sweet Sixteen is a more realistic goal. If they end up as a 4 or a 5 seed, which I predict they will, do they have the firepower to beat a team like Arizona, Wisconsin or Kentucky on a neutral floor? Right now the answer is no, but if the freshmen continue to develop and Caris LeVert is able to take the next step to becoming Michigan's star, the Wolverines could be one of the best teams in the country, and might have just enough to be dancing all the way to Indianapolis.