Following last season's extremely disappointing campaign in Ann Arbor, Michigan fans are craving a much better season with a slew of players coming back and a few new faces joining. With the new season a few months away, we tackle a few questions about the rotation, Caris LeVert, and realistic expectations for this team.
Q: Michigan lacked depth last season with both Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton, Jr. going down with injuries? What should we expect the rotation to look like this season?
A: This is the most difficult and fun offseason question to answer, simply because anyone's prediction will most likely not include a player or two who exceeds expectations and a player who disappointingly underwhelms. As of now, the penciled-in starters for game one would be Walton, LeVert, Zak Irvin, Aubrey Dawkins and Ricky Doyle. All five players had a significant impact for Michigan last season, and provide the team with shooting, length and a strong defensive presence. This lineup is subject to change throughout the year, as we saw with this past season's team, but this is who should start and earn the bulk of the minutes.
Looking past the starters, it's reasonable for John Beilein to play 9 or 10 given the impact that so many bench guys can have for a spark of 3 or 4 minutes at a time. At the backup point guard position, Spike Albrecht will earn a good chunk of the minutes here. Albrecht is now entering his fourth year in the program, and could very likely play alongside Walton for stretches as he did last season. At shooting guard, I'm looking at Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to snatch up the remaining guard minutes, despite few being left. MAAR was brilliant in flashes for Michigan last season, and will really challenge Spike for those third guard minutes.
At the wing position, look for Duncan Robinson to play some minutes behind Irvin. Robinson is too good of a shooter to keep off of the floor, and even if his defense is not great in his first season, his offensive IQ keeps him on the floor to earn about 10-15 minutes a game. Behind Dawkins, look for Moritz Wagner and Kam Chatman to battle for these minutes, with Wagner ultimately taking more minutes than Chatman. Wagner has great size and shooting at 6'9, and having played in Europe his entire career makes him an expert at floor spacing which will be crucial in Beilein's offense. Lastly, look for D.J. Wilson, who bulked up 20 pounds in the offseason, to steal the center minutes from Mark Donnal. It's clear that the coaching staff projects Wilson as a rangy center long term and encouraged Wilson's offseason weight gain, so look for Wilson to be far more equipped to battle centers in the Big Ten than he was last season (which led to a redshirt after a few games of non-conference play).
Q: What can we expect out of Caris LeVert?
A: After answering the previous question about depth, it seems pretty clear that LeVert will play about 34-38 minutes a game, alternating between shooting guard and small forward and running the Michigan offense. When LeVert is firing on all cylinders, his combination of passing, shooting, attacking the basket and defensive length make him arguably one of the top 10 or 15 players in the entire country. Before his injury, LeVert led the Wolverines in every major statistical category. I don't expect LeVert to have to shoulder the load as much as he did last season, especially given the experience and improvement of every player on Michigan's roster. Look for LeVert to average around 16 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists, but to have the largest impact on controlling the game and allowing Michigan's other players to get open shots. If guys like Dawkins, Robinson and Irvin are given space to knock down open 3's, it opens up the driving lane for LeVert, Spike and MAAR to attack the basket. LeVert's impact cannot be understated, and his value will largely determine Michigan's fate throughout the season.
Q: What is a realistic ceiling for this year's Michigan team?
A: The end of LeVert's answer leads right into this question, and it's true that LeVert will have a big impact. But Michigan's biggest Achilles last season was its inability to stop the opposing team from making large runs while being unable to score. Two examples that come to mind are the Michigan State game in East Lansing, when the Wolverines were held scoreless for overtime and the Illinois game in Champaign, when Illinois ended the game on a 20-0 run before Michigan made a free throw with 30 seconds left in overtime. Michigan had a chance to win both these games, especially against Illinois, and were left with incredibly demoralizing losses. Both these losses occurred without LeVert, so expect his senior leadership to ensure these types of meltdowns do not occur next season.
Given the talent that Michigan returns from last season, and the sheer size and length with 8 guys 6'8 or taller, this is arguably John Beilein's most impressive roster top to bottom (the 2011-12 roster has five guys in the NBA, but that team was pretty pathetic after the top 8 players). There might be some growing pains given LeVert and Walton returning to playing a full season, but expect this team to have big expectations given last season's flop. I project this team to be ranked right around #15 when the season begins, and the Sweet Sixteen is a realistic goal and a fantastic accomplishment. However, if Michigan can get consistent production from Dawkins, Irvin and a few guys off the bench, this team could be really special. How many teams are pretty confident in their first 10 guys?! If this team can shoot well, rebound and most importantly defend the paint, a huge problem last season, they have a shot to make a deep run in March. Until then, it's back to the weight room and practice court to make those dreams a reality.