Imagine a scenario where a team boasts the Big Ten Player of the Year in consecutive seasons, only to watch both leave for the NBA in consecutive seasons. Now imagine that team losing about 50 points per game from last season's team. How inclined would you be to expect a drop-off the following season?
That is exactly what is facing John Beilein and Michigan as it looks to defend its Big Ten regular season title next season. The Wolverines, who a season ago lost National Player of the Year Trey Burke to the NBA, will be moving forward into the future without the reigning top man in the conference, Nik Stauskas, who opted to go pro after averaging 17.5 points per game and shooting 44.4 percent from three-point range. Last season was just the third time in Big Ten history that the conference's player of the year came from the same school in back-to-back years, and the first to see it awarded to two different players.
Joining Stauskas in making the jump to the NBA are Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. Robinson was the team's second-leading scorer behind Stauskas at 13.1 points per game, and McGary was a preseason All-American a year ago. Also gone next season will be center Jordan Morgan (graduation) and fellow big man Jon Horford (transferred to Florida). In all, the Wolverines will be missing significant scoring and rebounding production when they take the floor in the fall.
The loss of five key contributors led to the Wolverines falling to third place in the latest BT Powerhouse B1G Power Rankings, as Beilein must find a way to replace his entire starting frontcourt.
Easing the transition in Ann Arbor is the return of a young and talented starting backcourt. Caris LeVert becomes the top dog for Michigan, after averaging 12.9 a game as a sophomore, adding 4.3 rebounds and 3 assists per contest, and shooting over 40 percent from long range. Joining LeVert will be point guard Derrick Walton, Jr., a Big Ten All-Freshman team performer a season ago. Walton averaged 7.9 points, 3 boards, and 3 assists per game, shooting 41 percent from the three-point line.
Providing depth behind LeVert and Walton is junior Spike Albrecht, who has appeared in every game for Beilein in his two seasons, displaying dependable ball-handling and boasting a 44 percent career three-point shooting percentage.
Replacing the scoring and athleticism of the front line will go a long towards determining if Michigan can remain near the top of the conference. The only returning player with any significant experience is sophomore Zak Irvin, who averaged 6.7 points per game off the bench as a freshman. Mark Donnal, who was a four-star recruit and took a redshirt last season is likely to fill one of the holes. The 6'9" Donnal sat behind Morgan and Horford a year ago, and is projected to start at center for the Wolverines.
Beilein also brings in BT Powerhouse's fifth-ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten, highlighted by a pair of players likely to see significant minutes in their rookie campaigns. Four-star Kameron Chatman will push for the starting power forward spot immediately. As we wrote of Chatman:
Chatman, a lefty, has a smooth, high-arching jumper that's pretty to watch. The ball he shoots often seems allergic to touching anything but net. However, he has battled through bouts of inconsistency in his shot, and it will be key for him to get off to a good start outside of conference play so he can enter the torturous B1G schedule with some built-in confidence.
Making up for the loss of Robinson's elite athleticism will be three-star D.J. Wilson, a lanky 6'8" small forward who runs the floor well and can step out to knock down shots from distance. It is unlikely Wilson cracks the starting lineup for Michigan as a freshman, but he should be a part of the regular rotation off the bench.
As Michigan transitions after the losses of Stauskas, Robinson, McGary, and Morgan, questions abound as to how far the team may drop after winning the conference regular season title and making a run to the Elite Eight in March. With an experienced backcourt in a conference known for outstanding guard play, the Wolverines hope that an inexperienced front line can come of age quickly. If highly-regarded youngsters like Donnal, Chatman, and Irvin prove they can fill the shoes of the standouts who came before them, Beilein may be able to navigate the rough-and-tumble Big Ten without any significant drop-off in performance.