In the weeks leading up to the 2016-’17 college basketball season, BTPowerhouse will be releasing its preview series breaking down each Big Ten team. These will come in a set of series previewing the overall team, the team’s backcourt, wings, and big men, and the team’s schedule. Each post will take a look at its top in-depth and give predictions on the upcoming season.
This post looks at Michigan’s guards, a unit that featured four players last season but only finished the season with two playing down the stretch due to injuries. One moves on to the NBA, the other to Purdue, but the two remaining players join a talented freshman looking to become one of the best backcourts in the Big Ten by season’s end.
'BTPowerhouse Preview' - Michigan Guards:
2015-16 All-Big Ten Qualifiers: Derrick Walton Jr., Third Team
Key Departures: Caris LeVert, Spike Albrecht
Key Additions: Xavier Simpson
Top Player: Derrick Walton Jr.
With two four-year players departing from Ann Arbor, the backcourt has a similar look but a very different feel to it. Both LeVert and Albrecht were leaders for Michigan, despite both sitting out the second half of the year for Michigan. Both are now officially gone, and the opportunity falls squarely on Derrick Walton Jr., Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Xavier Simpson. How John Beilein chooses to use these three guards interchangeably could be a huge factor in Michigan’s success this upcoming season, as each player has strengths that can pair extremely well with one another, and weaknesses that will be exposes with two similar players on the floor at the same time.
As mentioned above, Michigan is going with old reliable in the backcourt for essentially the third consecutive season. At point guard, Derrick Walton Jr. is ancient in college basketball terms. The fourth year starter has played in 89 games, including 37 his freshman year during Michigan’s magical Elite Eight run in which Walton started 36. His sophomore year saw his numbers increase, but a toe injury saw Walton sit out the final 12 games as the Wolverines stumbled to a disappointing 16-16 record.
Last year, Walton took another jump, as the Detroit native finished the year averaging over 11 points, five rebounds and four assists while playing nearly 34 minutes per game. Safe to say, Michigan desperately needed to give Walton a rest down the stretch, and just simply didn’t have anyone in the backcourt to spell him.
This season though, Walton will look to continue to improve on solid numbers across the board while helping Michigan win even more. The 6’1” guard is a tough-nosed player and has gotten better every year at driving to the basket. He also knocked down 63 3-pointers while shooting 37% from behind the line, making opposing defenses’ keep honest with Walton’s range. He’s the heart and soul of this Michigan team, and I expect him to have a monster year for his final campaign in Ann Arbor.
Alongside Walton is the quieter, bigger Abdur-Rahkman, a player who was was barely recruited but has become one of the best players on Michigan’s roster the last two seasons. After playing minimally or not at all through the first 16 games of his freshman season, MAAR jumped into the rotation in the thick of Big Ten play, starting seventeen of the final 19 games of the season. He was up for the challenge, exploding for monster games against Michigan State (18 points) and Illinois (15 points) despite the team struggling mightily down the stretch.
Last season, Abdur-Rahkaman’s play was far more consistent, as the sophomore played a huge role in the Wolverines’ success. He finished with double figures in eight of the last nine games, including playing 30+ minutes in all these games as well. His averages went up last year to just under nine points, three rebounds and two assists, and with the starting role now his to lose, look for even more offensive production and confidence going forward.
In years past, Michigan generally has had huge depth at the guard position. John Beilein heavily recruits it, but with the huge amount of transfers in the offseason, only one man figures to feature prominently off the bench: Xavier Simpson. The generously listed 6-foot guard hails from Lima, Ohio, and will remind Michigan fans a lot of Walton. Despite his size, he’s an absolute bully going to the basket, and has been described as a floor general amongst coaches and peers.
With Walton and MAAR playing nearly the entire game for a large portion of last season, having someone like Simpson who can tire out opposing defenses will be a real luxury. Simpson appears to be fearless, and having two veterans helping him along through the early part of the season will be extremely beneficial.
Behind Simpson, there’s a small possibility that you’ll see Andrew Dakich for a few minutes next season (cue Michigan fans groaning and yelling at Dan Dakich). Andrew played spot minutes to give Walton and MAAR a rest at times last season, but hopefully Beilein won’t need to use the senior and can just stick to his three guard rotation.
Michigan has three extremely talented guards who can all score 20 points on a given night. While Walton has looked to his outside shot more over the course of his Michigan career, MAAR has become a better attacking player, and we’ll see what kind of player Xavier Simpson becomes. If Simpson can limit the amount of minutes that Walton and MAAR have to play as the season goes on, it’ll go a long way to the postseason, when it was clear that both the aforementioned players were dragging in both the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament.