With Max Bielfeldt as the only player on the roster departing, Michigan's makeup is very similar from last season. The definition of key player shifts significantly as player's roles increase throughout the season. For Michigan last season this shifting definition was more important than almost any other team in the country. Injuries forced players to step up that were expected to have minor roles, and this allowed them to prepared for a full season of high level Division I basketball.
In this key player list, the one omission that most fans would argue is the most valuable player is Caris LeVert. My argument for not including LeVert is that he was the most key player last season, and his level of production was steady throughout. Therefore, this list includes players that need to improve in one area or another to truly demonstrate their value. Here are the three most key players for Michigan in 2015-16:
Aubrey Dawkins (6'6", Sophomore, Guard/Forward)
I absolutely love watch Dawkins play for Michigan. The way he runs the floor, his great size for a guard along with his ability to knock down 3's and guard multiple positions makes him the ultimate Beilein player. This versatility allowed him to thrive in the latter part of the season, including his 31-point outburst against Rutgers. The biggest key for Dawkins this season will be consistency. There were games where Dawkins was consistently able to knock down the long ball, including his first breakout game where he scored 20 points against Illinois. But other times he went quiet, almost shying away from the spotlight and not finding his shot. At times, Dawkins was the most talented player on the floor last season when Zak Irvin was on the bench and LeVert and Derrick Walton, Jr. were injured. Having those three plus a reliable big man will allow Dawkins more shot opportunities as defenders have to worry about those three making plays at any time.
Dawkins' biggest key could be his defensive length and effort. Dawkins has the type of athleticism to jump out of the gym, and has channeled this on multiple plays above the rim. If he can take this athletic prowess and turn it into a defensive weapon, he makes Michigan that much tougher on defense. This defensive versatility allows Irvin to guard small forwards, and means that Dawkins is going to be undersized guarding power forwards down low. His toughness, length and athleticism all allow him to stay on the floor guarding these players, and if he can do it consistently, Dawkins can turn into one of the best players in the Big Ten.
Zak Irvin (6'6", Junior, Guard/Forward)
While Dawkins is more of a smooth operator, Irvin has the ability to lull a defender to sleep before knocking down 3's in the blink of an eye. Irvin is more of a true small forward, but still has areas of his game that he needs to improve to become a phenomenal all-around player. In his freshman season, nearly 75% of Irvin's shot attempts were 3-pointers, as John Beilein used Irvin as a pure shooter off the bench. Irvin played a major role in Michigan's run to the Elite Eight, but with the departures of players like Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, Irvin's role needed to increase. Last season, Irvin only attempted 53% of his shots from 3, but also added other dimensions to his game. His 5 rebounds per game were a major improvement from just over 1 rebound per game his freshman year, showing that Irvin had plans to expand his game. When LeVert and Walton went down, Irvin was forced to take more shots, but finished the year at a solid 40% on field goals.
The biggest keys for Irvin this year will be twofold: shot selection and defense. For shot selection, Irvin has to know when to take a good shot vs. when to pass to a teammate for a better shot. His freshman year he was absolutely horrific at this, and he got better as last year went on. A big part of this could be Irvin's continued effort to dribble the ball more, whether on drives to the basket or pull-up jumpers. Either way, look for Irvin to be more diverse in his way to get points.
Defensively, Irvin has to act more engaged. Part of this last season was that Irvin was at times on the floor with significantly weaker defenders, including walk-ons Andrew Dakich and Sean Lonergan at the same time. Irvin is a weak on-ball defender and a better help defender, but having guys like LeVert and Dawkins should help ease this pressure. If Irvin can improve in both of these areas, look for him to have a sensational junior year.
Spike Albrecht (5'11", Senior, Guard)
Three years ago, no one thought Albrecht would have any more of an impact than walk-ons and benchwarmers. Fast forward to today, and Albrecht's play has gotten consistently better each season. College basketball fans remember the National Championship Game from 2013, where Spike pretended to be Trey Burke for a half and tried to woo Kate Upton via Twitter. Instead of taking bad shots and being flashy, Albrecht has since turned into a fantastic game manager, making phenomenal passes for easy buckets for his teammates and being a pest on the defensive end despite being an undersized guard in the Big Ten.
This season, Albrecht's role is pretty clear: Be the backup point guard, and find ways to keep the offense flowing for the tremendous talent around him. Spike played a whopping 32 minutes per game last season given all of Michigan's injuries, and while I don't see that number repeating itself, look for Spike to get about 20 minutes per game to run the floor. One of the most interesting lineups for Beilein last season was Spike and Walton together, as two point guards with great ball handling and shooting on the floor together posed a problem. They were undersized defensively, but both play man-to-man defense extremely well and Spike is excellent at reading the passing lane.
Spike will need to look for his shot more this season, as he only attempted 193 shots in 991 minutes, or one shot per five minutes. His craftiness going toward the basket will allow for easy layups and make defenders lay off for open 3's, and Spike should take advantage of them. As a senior, Albrecht has more than earned respect from the Michigan players, coaching staff and opponents around the Big Ten. Look for Spike to have a great final season, and for the cockiness and confidence of Albrecht to instill fear around the Big Ten.