The 2017-’18 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2017-’18 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.
Last season was a special one for the Wolverines. The team somehow turned a mixed start and what appeared to be a flawed roster into the best story in college basketball and the most shocking midseason turnaround in the country.
All told, Michigan ended up finishing with a 26-12 overall record after winning 12 of its final 15 games, including 10 win overs top 100 teams. The Wolverines also grabbed the Big Ten Tournament title and a Sweet 16 appearance.
The start of the run, of course, was an airplane crash on March 8th, when the Wolverines were traveling to Washington, DC for the Big Ten Tournament. While Michigan had already been trending up, even before that crash, it brought the entire group together and led to the miraculous late season run.
But now, Michigan will have to turn the page on that run and last season.
The Wolverines head into this season with mixed expectations. There’s no denying that the team finished as one of the hottest in college basketball last season, but the team will be losing three starters and a few depth options as well. Replacing players like Derrick Walton and DJ Wilson won’t be an easy task.
However, the good news is that the team returns a star in Moritz Wagner upfront and adds potential transfer contributors in Charles Matthews and Jaaron Simmons elsewhere. Add in some role players like Muhammad Ali-Abdur Rahkman (MAAR) and Duncan Robinson and there are enough pieces to do some damage.
Moving on from the end of last season will be a difficult task for the Wolverines and fans alike, but this year’s squad should have an interesting balance of proven options and newcomers. Let’s take a look at whether John Beilein and his team can build off of last year’s late season run.
BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast
Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Michigan Wolverines, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Wolverines, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and BTPowerhouse Contributor Joshua Stern breaking down Michigan's roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.
1. 2016-’17 Season Performance
- Record: 26-12 (10-8)
- KenPom Team Rating: #20
- RPI Rating: #25
- Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (S16)
College basketball may be an unpredictable sport, but I’m honestly not sure if I’ve ever seen a team’s season go as bizarrely as Michigan’s last year. The team went up and down so many times that you would think you were on a circus ride. The final run to the Big Ten Tournament title and Sweet 16 was just the cherry on top.
Michigan started off with mixed results on the season. The team dominated in its earliest non-conference games with wins over Marquette and SMU, but followed it up with a painful 46-point offensive performance in a loss to South Carolina and a blew a winnable game to Virginia Tech roughly a week later. Michigan followed that up with a narrow win at home over an underwhelming Texas team.
Through nine games, Michigan was already looking incredibly inconsistent.
Following that Texas win, Michigan went on the road and lost an offensive shootout against UCLA. The Wolverines put up 1.31 (!!!) points per possession in an 18 (!!!) point loss. Michigan then won its final three ‘buy’ games of non-conference play.
Big Ten play started out on a rough note, as Michigan dropped games to Iowa, Maryland, and Illinois in its first four league games. And though the team recovered, it then lost to Wisconsin roughly a week later. Michigan sat at 12-7 overall and 2-4 in Big Ten play. Things looked like they might be starting to go off the rails.
However, Michigan followed that up with one of the most impressive runs over the last few seasons. The Wolverines won 14 of the team’s next 19 games, won the Big Ten Tournament, and made the Sweet 16. That run included 12 wins against top 100 opponents and six against top 25 KenPom teams.
By the end of the season, Michigan was playing like a top 10 team. Unfortunately, a few mistakes against a talented Oregon team cost the Wolverines a trip to the Elite Eight and a shot at the Final Four. Still, it was an incredible season for the team and program, even if it came in unorthodox fashion.
Individual statistical leaders were Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton, and DJ Wilson. Irvin led the team in minutes. Walton led the team in points, assists, steals, win shares. Wilson led the team in rebounds and blocks.
2. Offseason Exits
With two seniors in the lineup and two others with serious NBA potential, it’s not surprising to learn that the Wolverines got hit pretty hard by offseason departures. However, adding on a handful of depth options will make things even tougher.
All told, the team is losing Andrew Dakich, Mark Donnal, Zak Irvin, Sean Lonergan, Derrick Walton, DJ Wilson, and Fred Wright-Jones. While three of these players saw little to no time for the Wolverines, the others saw substantial playing time.
The most significant departures will come from Walton and Wilson. The two were dynamic for Michigan over the course of last season. Walton averaged 15.5 points, 5.0 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game and Wilson averaged 11.0 points and 5.3 rebounds himself. The two were first and second on the roster in total win shares.
What’s particularly important to recognize with these two is just how much they influenced Michigan’s performance as a team last year. Walton’s growth during last season was the major catalyst of the team’s midseason turnaround and Wilson’s diverse play upfront pushed the team to many of its postseason wins. Michigan isn’t anywhere close to the Big Ten Tournament title and a Sweet 16 without these two.
Along with those two, Michigan is also losing Donnal and Irvin. While the two were relatively inconsistent during their collegiate careers, they were both productive. Irvin led the team in minutes last year and Donnal was one of its top bench options. The impact of these departures also looks bigger in light of the other losses as well.
The final three departures from Dakich, Lonergan, and Wright-Jones won’t be significantly felt on the court. The three were walk-ons (or former walk-ons) who played a total of 55 minutes all season.
Simply put, Michigan’s departures are massive. The team is losing three starters, another rotation player, and its two best players from last year. Even if there are newcomers that can fill some of these voids, replacing these guys will be the most significant challenge of this season.
3. New Additions
This season, the Wolverines are adding three new recruits, two transfers, and three walk-ons. The recruits are Eli Brooks, Isaiah Livers, and Jordan Poole. Brooks is listed as a point guard, Poole as a shooting guard, and Livers as a power forward. Both Livers and Poole are rated as four-star prospects by 247Sports and Brooks is listed as a three-star.
While Poole is the highest rated prospect, the recruit receiving the most attention has been Livers. He is ranked 132nd nationally and as one of the top players in the state of Michigan. He has a unique combination of athleticism, length, and ball handling skills that make him an interesting addition for the Wolverines. In many ways, he projects to be a similar (while smaller) version of DJ Wilson.
The other two additions are Brooks and Poole. Both will likely occupy bench roles in the backcourt this season. Brooks is considered to be underrated by many due to where he played in high school, so he could be undervalued at 201st nationally. Poole is an elite shooting prospect that is rated 92nd nationally. He was a major midwest prospect.
The two transfer additions are Charles Matthews and Jaaron Simmons. Matthews actually transferred into the program last year from Kentucky, but had to sit out last season due to NCAA rules. Simmons is a graduate transfer from Ohio. Simmons is a point guard and Simmons is a stretch four.
Both of these transfers are going to play substantially this season. Matthews will look to fill the role left open by Irvin’s departure and Simmons could very well start at point guard this season. Matthews has more upside between the two given his athleticism and that he’s a younger prospect, but Simmons did work in the MAC last year, averaging 15.9 points and 6.5 assists per game.
Michigan’s final three additions are CJ Baird, Naji Ozeir, and Luke Wilson. All three are walk-ons that will contribute on the scout team. None of the three are expected to play any real time this season.
Overall, Michigan is adding quite a few nice additions this season. Matthews and Simmons should play a lot this year and all three recruits have high upside down the road. Expect this group to become more valuable as the season continues.
4. Points of Optimism
While there’s no denying that Michigan’s offseason departures are significant ones this season, fans still have plenty of reasons to be optimistic. This year’s squad is far from a lost cause and should still be competitive in conference play.
The first reason for optimism has to start with the return of Wagner upfront. He averaged 12.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game last season and only improved over the course of the year. In particular, his performance against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament will go down in Wolverine history. He was unstoppable in the second half and showed why NBA teams have so much interest in him.
Wagner can’t win games by himself for Michigan, but having a proven star is massive at the college level. He gives the coaching staff something to build around and gives Michigan that extra boost in close games. When games are so often decided by just a few possessions, having a player of that caliber is significant.
Along with Wagner, Michigan does return some proven contributors. MAAR returns in the backcourt and Robinson is back on the wing. Neither of those guys have shown themselves to be elite talents, but both have started plenty of games for the Wolverines and offer experience to a relatively young roster. Fans will hope they can provide some stability with Wagner.
Of course, Michigan also adds major transfer additions in Matthews and Simmons. Both players project to see major minutes this season and Matthews looks like has the chance to be a special one in Ann Arbor. He’s incredibly athletic and has shown an improved shooting stroke this offseason. If those two players are good enough to start, Michigan will have its starting lineup before it even needs to look to others.
And there are other players with potential on Michigan’s roster. The team adds a talented 2017 recruiting class and returns players all of its young reserves from last season. In fact, players like Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske look like they could emerge into valuable options this season. That would be great news for the Wolverines.
Michigan also has a proven coach at the helm. While every program likes to think they have the “right” guy at the top, Michigan knows it has a coach who can scheme, recruit, and develop players. And when there are some unknowns across the roster, having a coach like Beilein is great news.
5. Points of Concern
Let’s make sure we’re not avoiding this issue. Michigan is losing a lot from last season. Not only is the team losing three starters, but those departures also include (arguably) the team’s best two players (Walton and Wilson). Additionally, the team also loses a few depth options that will have to be replaced as well.
Offseason departures will never determine a season, but they can make things particularly difficult for the returners. That’s going to be the case this year. Walton and Wilson are not players that get replaced overnight and they’re not even the only losses. Michigan also has to replace contributors like Donnal and Irvin as well.
And what’s particularly important to remember is that Michigan was relatively mediocre last season until Walton and Wilson took off. Walton carried the team in late season play and Wilson was dynamic in postseason play. The two ended up leading the roster in total win shares and Walton led the team by a massive margin.
On top of losing so many contributors, Michigan will also have to face some uncertainty in its frontcourt. Wagner returns, but he struggled with foul trouble last season and only played 59.1 percent of the team’s minutes. Even if Wagner is dominant while on the court, he needs to stay on the court to be dominant.
To put this into perspective, just consider that during Michigan’s final six-game stretch (Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments), Wagner saw fewer than 20 minutes in three games. When the games counted the most, he spent a lot of time on the bench. That happens with big men, but Michigan needs him to be dominant this season and that’s not going to happen if he continues to struggle with fouls.
It’s also important to note that Michigan’s backcourt faces some significant questions as well. MAAR figures to be a proven starter, but everything else is a question mark. Simpson only saw limited minutes at the point last season, Simmons is a newcomer, and Ibi Watson did nothing as a freshman. And considering the emphasis that Beilein puts on guard play, that’s a concern. The team will need to find a way to answer this.
Michigan also faces the potential of significant defensive regression this season. The team was starting three players with a boatload of experience and Wilson was easily the Michigan’s best shot blocker. Avoiding regression here will be key.
6. Top Player
Heading into last season, there wasn’t much certainty in this season regarding the Wolverines. Even though the team returned players like Irvin and Walton, neither had shown much consistency for the maize and blue during their careers. Michigan struggled to find a player that could step up in the biggest moments.
Of course, as last season progressed, Walton emerged into that role and became Michigan’s top player. He was phenomenal over the last two months of 2016-’17 and probably should have earned All-Big Ten first team honors at season’s end. But he, Irvin, and Wilson are all now gone and Michigan finds itself with uncertainty yet again.
The most logical pick to be Michigan’s best player would be Wagner. He averaged 12.1 points and 4.2 rebounds a game last year and showed some major flashes late in the season. Specifically, his performance in Michigan’s upset win over Louisville was particularly impressive, as he scored 26 points on 14 field goal attempts.
However, Wagner has had his concerns. As mentioned above, he’s struggled with foul trouble and often can get out of position defensively. And even though Wagner figures to be better than he was last season, assuming those issues will correct themselves overnight is a bold thought. He should be better, but by how much?
Given these concerns, I do think that Wagner will get pushed for the role of Michigan’s best player this season. In particular, I think Matthews will be the guy that gives him the most pressure. The former Kentucky players oozes with potential and could wind up being a great two-way player for the Wolverines.
Other potential wildcards that should be mentioned are Simmons and Simpson. Both will be competing for the starting point guard role and could provide a nice boost for the Wolverines. However, neither figures to be good enough to push Wagner and/or Matthews for the role of Michigan’s best player.
7. 2016-’17 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/3 - Grand Valley State (Ex.)
- 11/11 - North Florida
- 11/13 - Central Michigan
- 11/16 - Southern Mississippi
- 11/20 - LSU (Maui, HI)
- 11/21 - Chaminade/Notre Dame (Maui, HI)
- 11/22 - TBD (Maui, HI)
- 11/26 - UC Riverside
- 11/29 - at North Carolina
- 12/2 - Indiana
- 12/4 - at Ohio State
- 12/9 - UCLA
- 12/12 - at Texas
- 12/16 - vs Detroit (Detroit, MI)
- 12/21 - Alabama A&M
- 12/30 - Jacksonville
- 1/2 - at Iowa
- 1/6 - Illinois
- 1/9 - Purdue
- 1/13 - at Michigan State
- 1/15 - Maryland
- 1/18 - at Nebraska
- 1/21 - Rutgers
- 1/25 - at Purdue
- 1/29 - Northwestern
- 2/3 - Minnesota
- 2/6 - at Northwestern
- 2/11 - at Wisconsin
- 2/14 - Iowa
- 2/18 - Ohio State
- 2/21 - at Penn State
- 2/24 - at Maryland
There’s little denying that Michigan figures to have one of the league’s tougher schedules this season. The non-conference slate is loaded and the Wolverines also get a pretty challenge group of games in league play as well.
In non-conference play, the challenges are numerous and substantial. To start, Michigan gets road games against North Carolina and Texas, a home tilt against UCLA, and will travel to Maui to face LSU and play two other tough games. It seems unlikely that the Wolverines make it through those games without a few losses.
The one piece of good (and bad) news regarding the non-conference slate is that Michigan’s remaining non-con games look like a piece of cake. The remaining seven opponents are all outside the top 250 on KenPom and should be overmatched when they tip off against the Wolverines.
However, the tricky part of so many weak bottom-tier opponents is that all seven will operate as “RPI bombs” for the Wolverines. There’s a really good chance that Michigan goes 7-0 against these teams, but any loss would be devastating. It’s something that would make a substantial hit to the team’s RPI. Simply put, don’t lose to these teams.
And things won’t get much easier in Big Ten play, either
This season, Michigan will get double-plays against Iowa, Maryland, and Purdue and road games against Michigan State and Wisconsin as well. Even if the Wolverines can protect home court, those are some pretty challenging games off the top, especially considering that Michigan has struggled on the road against teams like Iowa, Maryland, and Wisconsin over the last few years.
The key for Michigan will be taking care of business in its winnable games, pulling off a few upsets at home, and hoping that at least one of its tough opponents underwhelms this season. Otherwise, Michigan faces the potential of this schedule overwhelming them during the course of the year. Consistency will be crucially important.
Overall, Michigan should have one of the toughest schedules of any Big Ten team this season. There will be plenty of opportunities here, but Michigan is going to need to upset a few teams to have a shot at a top-tier resume.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Zavier Simpson (So.) - 55%
- SG: Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (So.) - 90%
- SF: Charles Matthews (So.) - 95%
- PF: Duncan Robinson (Rs. Sr.) - 70%
- C: Moritz Wagner (Jr.) - 95%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
While Michigan may have lost the majority of its starting lineup from last season, it does return a handful of players that are relatively easy to pencil into starting roles. After all, three of the players started before and another comes in with high expectations. Putting the pieces together isn’t all that difficult.
However, the one spot that does figure to have some drama is at point guard. The team returns Simpson, but is also adding transfer Jaaron Simmons and freshman Eli Brooks. There doesn’t appear to be a clear divide between the three at this point. All three have their advantages and disadvantages.
As of now, Simpson seems to have the edge and one has to believe it’s because of his significant experience advantage. The other two only recently arrived on campus and still have to learn the nuances of Beilein’s system. Nonetheless, my guess remains that Simmons will take this spot by season’s end. He was incredibly productive at Ohio and should be able to be productive in this role for the Wolverines as well.
Alongside these three should be MAAR at the two-guard spot. While MAAR has never been a star for the Wolverines, he has been a consistent presence. He’s certainly expected to start once again and will be looking to take another step forward. His backup minutes will be filled by a combination of the point guards and Ibi Watson. Fans will likely be hoping that freshman Jordan Poole can push for some time as well.
The wing is where things will get interesting. There’s little debating that Matthews will lock down one of the starting spots. The question is what happens alongside him. Robinson seems to have the edge right now given his experience, but the Wolverines have a plethora of options behind him.
Michigan’s wing reserves should be some combination of Poole or Watson sliding over to the three, freshman Isaiah Livers, and Austin Davis playing at the four. The only legitimate positional fit is Livers, but he’s a freshman. Considering that Robinson has some limitations to his game (rebounding, defense), Michigan’s ceiling as a team would likely involve one of these other players in the starting lineup. Whether any are good enough this season to push Robinson is the question.
The center position will, obviously, be filled by Wagner this season. He’s the team’s most proven returner and should be in the All-Big Ten race. Davis and Jon Teske will fill the backup minutes behind him. Michigan desperately needs Wagner to be dynamic over the course of this season.
Even with the offseason departures, Michigan should have the pieces to put out a formidable lineup. There’s a really solid combination of experience and talent. The primary questions will be what the team gets out of point guard and who can lock down the starting position on the wing alongside Matthews. If those questions are answered positively, this team has a lot of potential.
9. Team Perspective From Steve Lorenz of Wolverine247
“I think it's going to be another really interesting year for Michigan under John Beilein. In a lot of ways, it could mimic how last year played out: some inexperienced pieces combined with some new additions will lead to some growing pains early on as the team will continue to get better and better throughout the season.
Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews has the look of a potential star, while the point guard battle between Zavier Simpson and Jaaron Simmons looks to be one that will rage on throughout the season. The key to me? Michigan has the slashers to get Duncan Robinson open shots on the perimeter. If he can cap his Michigan career with an excellent shooting season, the Wolverines could surprise in both the Big Ten and in March.”
10. Overall Season Outlook
Michigan enters this season amid the afterglow of one of the most improbable late season runs of recent history. The Wolverines turned what appeared to be a lost year into an NCAA Tournament bid, a Big Ten Tournament title, and a trip to the Sweet 16. It was a miraculous turnaround that will go down in Michigan history.
However, as with most things, time moves on. The success is now in the rear-view mirror and Michigan needs to find a way to replace many of the key players from that team. Specifically, the losses of Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton, and DJ Wilson look substantial. Finding adequate options to move into their roles won’t be easy.
The good news, though, is that there are pieces on the roster. Moritz Wagner figures to be one of the league’s best frontcourt players and the team also returns two others in MAAR and Robinson who have starting experience. Michigan also adds two significant transfers and two four-star prospects in this year’s class. And that’s on top of a number of young players who return after being stuck behind upperclassmen last year.
Michigan and Beilein’s challenge will be sculpting these pieces together into a feasible Big Ten lineup. MAAR, Matthews, and Wagner should be productive starters, but the other two spots are question marks. Robinson has had his moments, but has shown to be a better bench option than starter and nobody has locked down the point guard spot.
Moreover, Michigan also needs to find some solid bench options behind its starting five and do this all through a gauntlet of a schedule. This could be Michigan’s most challenging slate yet under Beilein and he will have to figure out his rotation through games against teams like North Carolina, Texas, and UCLA.
All told, Michigan projects to be a team in the NCAA Tournament hunt with a chance to make it past the first weekend. However, the Wolverines will likely struggle with consistency amid a brutal schedule and continue to search for a quality fifth starter for the majority of the season.