If you’ve watched any of John Beilein’s teams during his Michigan tenure, you’ll know that any question asked in the preseason usually goes out the window at some point during the season. Last season’s questions ranged from “Wait, D.J. Wilson didn’t transfer and is really good?” to “What is Zak Irvin doing?” (which shifted to “What is Zak Irvin doing!” up to “Is this team really good enough to win the national title?” To those questions, yes, yes and blame Jordan Bell. With that, we’ll dive into the three most important questions facing Michigan this season?
What Version of Moritz Wagner Will Michigan Get?
I love this question because like Wagner, it’s extremely complex. The sweet-shooting German forward/center is undoubtedly Michigan’s most interesting piece this season. He’s an unbelievable interview, unabashedly emotional on the court at all times, a phenomenal offensive weapon, a subpar defender and rebounder, and an inconsistent player entering his third year in Ann Arbor.
Last season, Wagner averaged 12 points and four rebounds for Michigan, which sounds about right if you factor in his highest of highs (26 points against Louisville, 24 points against Purdue) with his lowest lows (3-10 for seven points against Oregon, 0-5 for five points in the Big Ten Tournament against Purdue). As brilliant as Wagner was in some big games, it’s clear he still has a tendency to fade in others.
This summer, Wagner played at the U20 European Championships in Greece. He finished tied for 7th in points per game with just over 16 in a remarkably efficient 20.3 minutes per game. But if we look deeper, we find a consistent pattern again. Wagner had 32 points on 12-19 shooting in Germany’s win over Iceland, but started the tournament with six points on 2-13 against Sweden. He shot 81% from the free throw line, but a 2-12 (16%) 3-point shooting percentage against decent competition is a bit of an alarming stat.
What will Michigan get out of Wagner? Luckily, the Wolverines have a few early season games against mediocre competition for Wagner to get back into a groove, but I worry whether the big man will falter against elite Big Ten competition like he did at points last season. If he can use his otherworldly scoring arsenal to beat defenders from both the inside and outside, he can become one of the best (and hopefully consistent) players in the entire country. Defensively? I wouldn’t hold my breath for that part of his game to come around just yet.
What Should Michigan Expect from Charles Matthews and Jaaron Simmons?
John Beilein is about as by-the-book as they come. That’s why you don’t hear his name being thrown around during the Rick Pitino nightmare unfolding. It’s why Beilein waits until players come to campus on an official visit before he offers a scholarship. It’s why the slogan, “We had subs, it was crazy” is folklore among Michigan basketball fans’ prodigal grandfather. Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that Simmons and Matthews should not cause a rift in the locker room. On the court, we’ll see if their talents are as good as advertised.
Simmons is the more known entity, having played college basketball for three full seasons before choosing Ann Arbor to play his graduate transfer season. The Catch-22 with Simmons is that he’ll both be playing with and against the best competition he’s ever consistently faced. Those assist numbers in the video above are no joke, and playing alongside Wagner, Duncan Robinson, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and others will give Simmons plenty of options to distribute the ball.
But could Simmons find the speed of the game a bit faster than he’s used to in the MAC Conference? He’ll come in and no doubt command the starting point guard spot, but will he take closer to 30+ minutes per game like Derrick Walton did last season, or will the minutes be more evenly distributed? With unknown commodities coming off the bench behind him, Michigan’s season could hinge on Simmons’ playmaking ability.
One of those guys receiving the ball from Simmons is Matthews, a highly touted transfer from Kentucky who plays like a pogo stick on both ends of the floor. He’s a gifted defender with an innate ability to finish around the basket, but in his highlights at Kentucky, we didn’t really see him stretch the defense much with his jump shooting.
Beilein has said numerous times in practices that Matthews is dominating for the scout team, but he said the same thing about redshirt Austin Davis at center. Matthews won’t have to shoulder a major scoring load, but having an explosive wing to guard some of the better players in the Big Ten while also finding his shot could help alleviate some of the scoring pressure on Wagner, Simmons and co.
How Will Michigan Survive Their Five Game Gauntlet From November 29th to December 12th?
If you’re not a schedule junkie like me, you probably wait to look at these things a week or two before the game. The Wolverines have three tough games in the Maui Classic before, but this consecutive stretch of games could make or break their season heading into 2018. Thanks to the money-driven Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, Michigan finds itself playing a conference game on December 2nd. A wounded Indiana team enters Ann Arbor for that Saturday tilt, but Michigan will have just returned from a Wednesday night game in Chapel Hill against defending National Champions North Carolina.
The Wolverines play again two days after the Indiana game, this time traveling to Columbus to play at cavernous Value City Arena. They have five days off before a home game against a UCLA team with lofty expectations (and another Ball brother) before a short turnaround and a game in Austin, Texas against Shaka Smart and “another-one-that-got-away” recruit Mohamed Bamba.
All told, the Wolverines, will be doing a tremendous amount of travel in that time, playing against four or potentially five NCAA Tournament teams. If Michigan can win at least three of those games, they should be in good shape for the remainder of conference play. If the team goes 0-5, chaos could ensue. But a 4-1 or 5-0 stretch could give Michigan major confidence heading into 2018, something John Beilein’s teams could sorely use before their annual March turnaround.