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2016-17 Michigan Wolverines Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Michigan Wolverines and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2016-17 season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Four-Michigan vs Tulsa Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016-’17 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2016-’17 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers said team.

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1. 2015-16 Season Performance

  • Record: 23-13 (10-8)
  • KenPom Team Rating: 50
  • RPI Rating: 58
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (First Round)

The problem with Michigan, pretty much all of last season, is that they beat who they were supposed and only three times beat teams that were ranked higher either in the RPI or standings. The fourth victory, Texas, was a massive gift, as Michigan beat the Longhorns in the Bahamas before Texas was really good, and their late-season surge put them in the RPI top-30.

There was the good, including dramatic wins over Northwestern, Indiana and Tulsa to propel Michigan late in the season. But the good comes with the bad, including two beatdowns at home in the span of five days against Indiana and Michigan State that nearly spiraled the entire season out of control.

At the times the offense flowed extremely crisply, like in the first half against Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament. Ultimately, though, Michigan couldn’t get enough stops or rebounds to make up for the prolific offense. Their best players were relied on far too much down the stretch, burned out, and Michigan ran out of gas against the Fighting Irish. For this season to be different, contributions from eight or nine players will be consistently needed for this team to have enough energy left in March.

2. Offseason Exits

Michigan's roster overhaul looks more akin to an NBA roster or a John Calipari team, but there's still plenty of talent in Ann Arbor. The two most obvious losses are seniors Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht. Both players helped surge Michigan to a Final Four their freshman year in a supporting role, were monumental in Michigan's Big Ten Championship the following season, and have been the faces of the program since they arrived on campus.

LeVert's departure seemingly hurts more than Spike's, but both players were injured for a large part of last season that it seems unfair to this year's roster to overstate their importance. However, Spike taking his talents to West Lafayette in playing for Purdue should make for quite an interesting homecoming on February 25th at the Crisler Center.

While the final players of the self-dubbed "Fresh Five" are gone, Michigan's most ravaged class this past offseason was the incoming junior class. Three players bolted, including center Ricky Doyle, forward Kameron Chatman and guard Aubrey Dawkins. While none of these three players were consistent last season, each showed flashes of brilliance throughout their time in Ann Arbor to at least warrant potentially staying one more year.

Starting with Doyle, his loss definitely hurts the least of the three. He only averaged 12 minutes this past season, but emerged as the starting center his freshman year and had eight games in double figures. Ultimately, he was unable to move ahead of Mark Donnal and Moritz Wagner on the depth chart, and Doyle moves on to Florida Gulf Coast, where I expect him to have a fantastic final two seasons in Florida.

On the wing, Kam Chatman has to be considered one of the biggest recruiting flops in recent memory. The lefty from Portland, Oregon had a chance to be the perfect player in John Beilein's system, and his passing ability and shooting was enough to warrant a starting role from the get-go.

Chatman just wasn't ready despite starting every game in the non-conference, and saw his minutes dwindle to about 10 or 15 a game. With his starting spot gone in year two, so too was his confidence. His shot against Indiana will forever live in infamy as the shot to get Michigan to the NCAA Tournament, especially considering he hadn't played much the entire game.

The last departure is Dawkins, a relative afterthought during recruiting who emerged into a phenomenal bench scorer his freshman year. His shooting against Illinois, Northwestern and Rutgers particularly stand out, and Dawkins was the starter for the first nine games of the season but soon displaced by even better sharpshooter Duncan Robinson. He still played 15 minutes per game throughout the season, but only scored 14 points in the final seven games. When his dad took a job at Central Florida, Dawkins felt he could prove himself more than on Michigan's roster.

3. New Additions

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.

Michigan’s lone wing recruit 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 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.

Backing up Moritz Wagner and Mark Donnal this season two lumbering big men for Michigan, Jon Teske and 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.

4. Team Strengths

John’s Beilein’s teams are known across the country for one things always: shooting. This team is no different, as all five players in the starting lineup can consistently knock down a three-point shot. Having centers like Moritz Wagner and Mark Donnal with range makes the defense keep honest all the way out to the perimeter, which allows slashers like Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman free run to the basket.

According to ESPN, Michigan ranks 16th in BPI, which measures teams’ “percentage of roster returning (including transfers), past performance of those returning players, composite recruiting rankings (from 247 Sports) and coaches’ past performance.” This mainly factors in offensive ability, but also the strength of returning players.

As you’ll see in the starting lineup below, Michigan starts three seniors, one junior and one sophomore, with a senior and junior coming off the bench alongside two freshman. Experience in college basketball has gotten increasingly more important, and having guys like Walton and Irvin who have played 100+ games in a Michigan uniform is vitally important.

5. Team Weaknesses

While the offense runs like a well-oiled machine, the defense and rebounding leaves something to be desired. Opponents shot 50.6% on two-point field goals last season, which is a disastrously low number that includes a multitude of allowed layups and dunks. This is partly due to Michigan’s style of play, but also relates to the fact that Michigan hasn’t had a good defensive team under John Beilein. These statistics were known to Beilein, and led directly to the hiring of Billy Donlon, who will serve as defensive coordinator.

Other horrific defensive statistics include defensive rebounding, in which Michigan ranked 288th nationally, and opponent free throw percentage, where Michigan finished 308th. These numbers will only improve if Beilein allows Donlon to have complete control of the defense, allowing players to be more aggressive.

The defense, in turn, relates directly to the offense. Michigan’s offense can be excellent, but at times last season completely stalled. Michigan needs help when their traditional cut-and-move offense isn’t working, and allowing MAAR to play isolation isn’t going to the solution. This means Moritz Wagner is going to have to become a viable post-up player, as the German sophomore finished the year shooting nearly 72% on two-pointers last season.

6. Top Player

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.

Irvin is one of the best shooters in the Big Ten. At 6'6", he has the size to shoot over bigger guards and small forwards, which allows him to get his shot off at will. This has always been his biggest strength and has kept him on the floor when his defense and rebounding leave something to be desired. Irvin's driving ability has become one of his best assets over the last year or so, and his newfound athleticism allows him to have thunderous dunks to rile up the crowd. Irvin is a perfect offensive player in the Beilein system, which allows him to find both easy baskets and more difficult shots he has to create on his own.

While Irvin has made strides in some areas of his game, there still remain areas where he needs to improve. Starting on the defensive end, Irvin still is an average defender at best. To play at the next level, Irvin will have to become more consistent at guarding shooting guards and small forwards. Last season John Beilein played zone, including a seldom-used 1-3-1, to mix up defensive schemes. Part of this had to do with changing up defenses, but this could have also had to do with Irvin being on the floor for nearly the entire game and not wanting to expose him defensively.

Irvin's projection largely depends on the success of Michigan, and vice versa. After two productive seasons, Irvin's third year in Ann Arbor should be a great one. As discussed above, the areas while I would love to see improvement from Irvin is on the defensive and passing statistics. If Irvin has ambitions of playing in the NBA, this is the perfect season to showcase his talents.

7. 2016-17 Schedule Breakdown

Michigan begins their year in the 2K Classic against Howard and IUPUI before heading to New York to play Marquette, a solid team that lost lottery pick Henry Ellenson from last year's team. A game against either Pittsburgh or SMU is Michigan's next opponent the following day, two teams Michigan and Beilein know well. Pittsburgh was a constant opponent against West Virginia in the Big East when Beilein coached there, and SMU has had Michigan's number the last two seasons, both in games that Michigan played particularly poorly. Michigan has a chance to leave New York 2-0, but they'll really have to shoot the ball extremely well at Madison Square Garden.

After a quick trip to New York, the Wolverines head to South Carolina to take on Frank Martin and the Gamecocks. This is one of Michigan's two road tests in this part of the schedule, and heading to Columbia to play South Carolina should be another great game. Michigan then returns home for four winnable games at home, but Virginia Tech under Buzz Williams could be a tougher than usual opponent.

The game that really catches my eye in this part of the slate though is Texas, with Shaka Smart and his "havoc" defense taking a trip to Ann Arbor. Michigan got the best of Texas the last two meetings on neutral courts, and Michigan will have the home-court advantage in Ann Arbor.

Four days after Texas, the Wolverines have their toughest game of the slate having to go to Los Angeles to play a very talented UCLA team. The Bruins had an extremely disappointing year last season, and brought in a stellar recruiting class to Westwood who look to get UCLA back to the NCAA Tournament.

The final three games of the non-conference should be pretty straightforward, as Central Arkansas, Maryland Eastern Shore and Furman shouldn't give Michigan too much trouble. As we've seen in the past, no game should ever be considered a win before the final whistle, but Michigan can learn from the past to not let these slip ups happen again.

To begin the conference season, Michigan travels to Iowa to play at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on New Year’s Day. It’s honestly bizarre to start Big Ten play on the most nationally hungover day of the year on a Sunday, and I expect both teams to come out sluggish. I mean, would you want to play your first game of the year in sub-zero temperatures in Iowa? Didn’t think so. The Hawkeyes lost a ton of talent, including stud forward Jarrod Uthoff, and I think Michigan has just enough firepower to overcome Iowa in this one.

It gets significantly easier from there, as Michigan has three winnable games at home against Penn State, Maryland and Nebraska, with a road test against Illinois sandwiched in between the Terrapins and Huskers. As you’ll see in a bit, Michigan’s schedule does them no favors going forward from this point, so hopefully the Wolverines are able to go 5-0 to this point.

Nebraska should be pretty bad again, Penn State will be improved but still not great, and Maryland lost Jake Layman, Robert Carter, Rasheed Sulaimon and Diamond Stone. If Michigan can at least win four of the first five, it will provide serious momentum going forward.

Here’s where the schedule gets tricky. In their next eight games, Michigan gets Wisconsin twice, Michigan State twice, Indiana twice, and home games against Ohio State and Illinois. According to projections from Sporting News, Athlon, ESPN and Blue Ribbon, the Badgers, Spartans and Hoosiers should all finish in the top four, with Purdue coming in some combination of second or fourth according to these rankings.

The good and bad news: Michigan gets a home and home with all these teams, and get the Boilermakers at home later on in the year. These are games Michigan absolutely has to capitalize on, given how they were absolutely horrible in back-to-back home games against Indiana and Michigan State last season.

The Wolverines end their schedule with four of five road games against Minnesota, Rutgers, Northwestern and Nebraska, and the aforementioned Purdue game at home right in the middle. Again, it’s a weird scheduling job that Michigan has four extremely winnable games against potentially the very bottom of the Big Ten all on the road.

There’s a really good chance that at least three of these four teams will have nothing to play for except for pride at this point in the season. This has the potential to be an easier game if said team lets up, but also could be a point of pride to beat Michigan and try to derail their NCAA Tournament hopes.

Overall, the only way to look at this schedule is in three bite-sized chunks. Over the course of 18 games, it’s simply not fair to look at one stretch of games and come to a conclusion about this team, especially given how erratic Michigan’s play has been over the last two seasons. With that being said, the total imbalance in the schedule means this is true this season more than in recent years.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Derrick Walton Jr. (Sr.)
  • SG: Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (Jr.)
  • F: Zak Irvin (Sr.)
  • F: Duncan Robinson (Sr.)
  • C: Moritz Wagner (So.)

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.

At one wing position is Zak Irvin, who we highlighted above as Michigan’s top player coming into this season. Irvin has been a head scratcher during his three seasons in Ann Arbor, flashing unbelievable talent alongside poor shooting and shoddy decision making in crunch time. His passing has gotten increasingly better, but it’s hard to know whether Irvin will be able to sustain consistency over the course of a season.

Michigan’s season could ultimately come down to whether Irvin is able to play at a high level, and he’s capable of it. Look for Irvin to find his shot early in the season, especially when Michigan’s season isn’t particularly difficult. If he’s able to regain this shooting stroke, he can become of the most competent and complete players in the Big Ten.

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.

At center, Wagner 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.

9. Overall Season Outlook

Last season, Michigan lost some games that would have seriously helped their resume come tournament. The first of these games was against Xavier, a team that ended up hovering around the top-10 all season, but still a game at home that most Michigan fans believed they could (and should) have won. The other glaring loss was at SMU, where the Wolverines didn’t only lose, but were embarrassed by 24 points. This season, they have ample opportunities to build the resume early.

These early season games include two in New York against Marquette and either SMU or Pittsburgh, at South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Texas and at UCLA. Few teams have as many good chances to win a lot of high quality non-conference games, and Michigan has five or six in the span of a month. This will give Michigan fans a glimpse into how good this team can be, or whether John Beilein needs to make some major changes before the start of Big Ten play.

Overall, Michigan remains one of the biggest question marks in the Big Ten heading into this season. They have immense talent from their first seven or eight guys, but yet to be seen whether these players have the firepower to win 25 or 27 games and actually compete for a Big Ten championship. Hopefully last season’s disappointing collapse to Notre Dame to end the season will serve as motivation to come out firing this season, but they need consistent perimeter play and better interior defense to stay afloat near the top of the Big Ten.

Big Ten Prediction: 5th Place