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 wings, a unit that has four players vying for minutes: one senior, one junior, one sophomore and one freshman. While Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson lead this group, the play of the two bench players, D.J. Wilson and Ibi Watson, could ultimately be more crucial to this team’s overall success.
BTPowerhouse Preview' - Michigan Wings :
2015-16 All-Big Ten Qualifiers: Zak Irvin, Honorable Mention
Key Departures: Aubrey Dawkins, Kam Chatman
Key Additions: Ibi Watson
Top Player: Zak Irvin
Most teams would be ecstatic that both starting wings are returning, but Michigan’s biggest concern at these two positions is depth. Late-game hero Kam Chatman has moved on to Detroit to play for former assistant Bacari Alexander, while Aubrey Dawkins departs to play for his father at Central Florida. Chatman’s move was somewhat expected, but it felt like Dawkins just began to find his footing as Michigan’s go-to backup wing at either spot. Regardless, Michigan starts from scratch off the bench, and is hoping that both their starters can improve on their solid but unspectacular 2015-16 season.
At one wing position, Zak Irvin enters his fourth and final Michigan season with something to prove. Irvin has been in three totally different roles in his first three years in Ann Arbor. Irvin played the role of gunner off the bench his freshman year, finishing his year shooting 42.5% from the 3-point line in which 73% of his makes were from 3. This gave Irvin the ability to just focus on shooting, a role in which Irvin excelled in 15 minutes per game. His sophomore year was a bit more complicated, as Caris LeVert’s injury and a lack of another playmaker forced Irvin into major minutes. He responded, finishing the year averaging 14 points and five rebounds despite Michigan finishing the year 16-16.
Last season, with the emergence of both Aubrey Dawkins as a more reliable bench player and an injury, Irvin regressed, finishing with 12 points, five rebounds and three assists per game. This season, Irvin appears to be fully healthy. He’s got the four other starters back, and with Irvin only missing one of Michigan’s last 104 games the past three seasons, look for the senior to get back on track and propel Michigan.
At the other wing stands one of the most intriguing players in college basketball. Most people know Duncan Robinson’s unconventional path to Michigan, including a stop at Division III Williams College before sitting out a year. Robinson was given a chance last season, and far exceeded expectations. The then-redshirt sophomore came out of the gate blazing hot, shooting nearly 55% in the non-conference. He regressed to the mean in a major way during conference play, only knocking down 37 3’s en route to 35% shooting behind the arc.
Maybe Robinson just felt the fatigue of a full Division I season, but the now redshirt junior is looking to pick up where he left off last year’s non-conference. Signs are encouraging for Robinson to improve his numbers overall though, especially his rebounding numbers. If he can find his groove in driving to the basket and become more than just an open jump shooter for Michigan, he can become one of the most important cogs on this Wolverines’ team.
While Michigan fans have saw plenty of Irvin and Robinson last season, the next two players are relative unknowns. The likely first forward off the bench is D.J. Wilson, a 6’10 redshirt sophomore who will look to improve on a dismal start to his Michigan career. Wilson was projected to play some backup center when he arrived on campus, but an injury forced him to redshirt his freshman year, and last season’s lack of true position caused Wilson to only play six minutes per game.
His only performance to even glance over is against Youngstown State, where Wilson finished with 12 points in six minutes. These points, however, all came in garbage time, including Wilson knocking down all three 3-pointers he attempted. At 6’10, he’s got the size to be a really good defender at the wing position, and hopefully John Beilein can let Wilson play a lot of minutes early to establish his role going forward.
The other wing rotation player is Ibi Watson, a 6’5” shooter from Pickerington, Ohio, the same hometown as Caris LeVert. At first look, it appears that Watson seriously needs to hit the gym to sustain the rigors of Big Ten play. Ideally, Watson is only playing about 10 minutes per game to give Robinson and Irvin some rest, and his ability to chew up these minutes will be crucial over the course of a 35 or 40 game season. If he can do that and knock down a few shots, he’ll be a welcome addition to Michigan’s wing core and hopefully a nice player in a year or two.
Of Michigan’s three positional groups, this is by far the most difficult to project. There are four players available for the 80 allotted minutes, but expect about 60 to go to Irvin and Robinson. Michigan needs both of their starters to not only play a lot but to play well, as Irvin is arguably the most gifted scorer on the entire roster. If they’re able to get solid production out of their starters and a decent 15-20 minutes from their bench, this group could be just good enough to propel Michigan to the upper half of the Big Ten.