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Michigan 2016-17 Preview: The Frontcourt

NCAA Basketball: Northern Kentucky at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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 frontcourt, a unit that features two known players and two complete unknowns. Battling for starting position will be senior Mark Donnal and sophomore Moritz Wagner, while freshman Jon Teske and Austin Davis will be vying for the third center spot while the other will most likely be redshirted.

BTPowerhouse Preview' - Michigan Bigs:

2015-16 All-Big Ten Qualifiers: None

Key Departures: Ricky Doyle

Key Additions: Jon Teske, Austin Davis

Top Player: Moritz Wagner

Michigan’s center position has been such a fascinating study into the evolution of college basketball alongside the rigidity of a coach like John Beilein. While most teams have been looking for one consistent player to battle for 30+ minutes a game, Michigan’s approach has been “center-by-committee” since I started covering the Wolverines’ after the 2012-13 season.

Mitch McGary became the eventual centerpiece that year, starring as a physical, active center in the NCAA Tournament and doing things that most college players could never dream about. But McGary was unable to stay healthy enough and found himself in more trouble the following season, so Michigan’s center minutes were divided up between Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford and occasionally Max Bielfeldt.

Morgan and Horford departed, leaving the door open for Bielfeldt to take major minutes. He was unable to, as Ricky Doyle became the eventual starter and Mark Donnal served as primary backup. None of the three made major contributions, and Doyle found himself glued to the bench much more toward the end of last season while Donnal and Wagner played. Doyle departed, Teske and Davis joined, and Michigan’s four man center committee took shape for this upcoming season.

Starting Rotation

For now, I’m putting Donnal here, but don’t expect this to last for long. The 6’9” senior was excellent in spurts for last season, showing an array of moves around the basket and stretching the defense out the three-point line. His best two games came on the road, in which he finished with over 10 field goals and 25 points against Maryland and Illinois. Don’t expect Donnal to come close to these numbers, but Michigan is going to need his leadership and experience at times this season.

I expect Wagner to overtake the starting role by the end of non-conference play, but instead of Wagner playing almost all the minutes, looking for nearly a dead even 20-20 minutes split. Wagner commits too many fouls and is an energizer bunny on the court, while Donnal’s calm demeanor and more consistent play make him a much more reliable option off the bench.

Bench Rotation

Speaking of Wagner, I think this kid has a chance to become one of the best big men in the Big Ten by season’s end. If you didn’t get a chance to watch Wagner last season, he runs around the court, sometimes wildly, screaming positively and always talking. He’s got excellent touch and shooting ability for someone nearly seven feet, and his feet move gracefully at times around the post.

However, along with the good must be the bad. Wagner’s achilles has continued to be foul trouble, a problem he’ll have to deal with if he wants to consistently play more minutes for Michigan. In the NCAA Tournament game against Notre Dame, Wagner had six points and four fouls in eight minutes. In a snapshot, that was Wagner’s season.

Behind Wagner sits one of two lumbering big men for Michigan, Jon Teske or Austin Davis. Teske is a legit 7-foot and provides Michigan with a shot blocking option, something this team has sorely lacked since the departure of Jordan Morgan. It’s unclear whether he’ll be ready for the rigors of Big Ten play, but he could be a viable option for 5-10 minutes a game.

The other option is Davis, who is a little smaller at 6’10”, is more of a traditional Beilein big man rather than a true bruiser. Davis averaged 26 points and 13 points per game in high school, albeit against weaker opposition, but it’s clear that Davis has a knack for finding the ball both around the basket and on the perimeter.


Michigan only has 40 minutes to divide amongst three or four players, and like in years past, expect Beilein to go with the hot hand. If Wagner can emerge as the best player of this quartet, look for Beilein to play the German sophomore for extended minutes. Given the experience of both Wagner and Donnal and the sprinkle of a new face for a few minutes every game, look for this unit to provide big numbers for Michigan.