We’ve already examined the three biggest questions facing Michigan this season along with how Michigan will deal with their offseason losses. This third and final installment looks at the three main storylines for the Wolverines, focusing on a variety of areas that could make or break Michigan this upcoming season.
Last season, Michigan suffered an identity crisis for the first 20 games of the season. It wasn’t until senior captain Derrick Walton Jr. offered up some real leadership and took command of the Wolverines. Zak Irvin followed suit as more of a secondary “hype man”, but it was clear that Walton had the keys to the car and served as the head coach out on the floor for Michigan. On the bench, Andrew Dakich served as the pseudo-assistant coach for some of the younger players after four years of front row seating for premier college basketball. Who steps into that role this season?
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson are the two seniors who have been with Michigan for the last four years, though Robinson has only been on the court for three of those following his transfer from Williams College. Neither guy is particularly vocal, so I don’t expect them to become leaders overnight. Graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons might be the guy to fill this void, as he led Ohio the past two seasons despite being a redshirt sophomore and junior. Once Michigan can find their leader, it will allow players to settle more comfortably into their roles.
In years past, Michigan scrambled to find players ready to contribute as a result of injury. Last year, all eight rotation players played 38 games. Four of those guys, Walton, Irvin, Mark Donnal and D.J. Wilson, are gone. Michigan replaces Walton and Irvin with two capable guys in Simmons and Charles Matthews, while Robinson slides into a starting role. Only Abdur-Rahkman averaged 30+ minutes per game last season, while Moritz Wagner averaged 24 and Robinson was just over 20. Add in Zavier Simpson’s nine minutes per game, and you’re looking at 83 of a possible 200 minutes returning.
Wagner probably increases to 30 per game along with Abdur-Rahkman, Simmons and Matthews, while Robinson will likely stay around 25. John Beilein usually plays his starters heavy minutes, but introducing three new starters into the fold could lessen their minutes just a bit. The big question is, who will be ready to play behind them?
Simpson appears to be the backup PG, with freshman Eli Brooks not far behind. Is Ibi Watson ready to backup Abdur-Rahkman, or will highly touted recruit Jordan Poole step in to that spot? Michigan doesn’t really have a backup for Matthews, so I’d expect to see a combination of Matthews, Robinson and Isaiah Livers split up the 80 minutes pretty evenly between the two forward positions. At center, Moritz Wagner will probably get as many minutes as he can stay on the floor and out of foul trouble. If Jon Teske or Austin Davis provides some semblance of defense and rebounding in their 10 minutes on the court, Michigan will gladly take that.
It took Maverick Morgan and his 10 points per game on a mediocre Illinois team to kickstart Michigan’s season. While he’s probably not entirely incorrect in assessing Michigan’s style of play, the Wolverines need to find a way to not get punched in the mouth against bigger, more aggressive teams. Of the five starters, two are borderline horrendous defensively (Wagner and Robinson), one is a diminutive point guard that will struggle against bigger guards (Simpson), and one believed he was a surefire “one-and-done” at Kentucky before deciding to restart his journey in Ann Arbor (Matthews).
These are guys who are being counted out before the season starts, and Michigan needs to find a way to not only keep them motivated, but playing tough, gritty basketball. D.J. Wilson was the defensive energizer bunny with his blocks, and the Wolverines will miss his presence on the floor. Does Michigan have anyone else on the roster who can provide that extra level of grittiness that John Beilein’s teams often lack? If so, he could be a big yin part to the crisp offense yang that the Wolverines plan to run this season.