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Despite the Heartbreak, There’s Still Plenty of Optimism for Michigan

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Down the stretch of Michigan’s most important game thus far, John Beilein went with his trusted guys. That included Moritz Wagner, a junior who has consistently produced for the Wolverines since the middle of last season. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was in his usual place at shooting guard, as the senior manned the position for 36 of 40 minutes.

Alongside MAAR was Charles Matthews, the redshirt sophomore Kentucky castaway who has flourished into a star under the tutelage of Beilein. And two other faces remained on the court, both guys few thought would have this type of impact so early on. Sophomore Zavier Simpson, an afterthought behind Derrick Walton Jr. last season, now shining against one of the league’s two best teams. The last guy was Isaiah Livers, an extremely solid defender who has morphed into a knockdown corner shooter within the last month.

These are the guys Beilein went with, some based on skill and others out of pure necessity. While they might not have delivered the final blow to put Purdue away, their fight shows the future is extremely bright in Ann Arbor.

Without delving too deep into the entire game, there were two questionable coaching decisions I couldn’t wrap my head around. The first involved playing freshman point guard Eli Brooks behind Zavier Simpson. While Brooks feasted against mediocre competition, it appears his confidence is completely gone. In eight minutes of action, Brooks had three rebounds and one turnover. I don’t think he looked to drive the ball to the basket even once. Until you can regain the confidence of your backup point guard, he simply doesn’t deserve to play. Instead, Michigan should have gone with Duncan Robinson or Jordan Poole for these minutes. The Wolverines could have stuck either sub-par defender on either Grady Eifert or Ryan Cline, who combined for no points in 22 minutes of action.

The second, and the one that will be scrutinized for a variety of reasons, was not playing Jon Teske on the final defensive possession against Isaac Haas. The Purdue behemoth center had been feasting on Wagner for the duration of the game, and Teske’s sheer size had been bothersome for Haas throughout. Wagner wasn’t going to attempt a 60-foot three-point shot anyway, so keeping Teske in the game solely for defensive purposes seemed like a no-brainer. Beilein went with Wagner.

While I briefly touched on some of the performances, I’d like to delve into what would appear to the be the most complete and effective rotation for Michigan at this point. This factors in position flexibility, defensive lineups, scoring lineups, and everything in between. With that, let’s break it down (minutes in parenthesis):

PG: Zavier Simpson (25), Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (15)

SG: Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (20), Jordan Poole (20)

SF: Charles Matthews (35), Duncan Robinson (5)

PF: Isaiah Livers (25), Duncan Robinson (15)

C: Moritz Wagner (30), Jon Teske (10)

There’s a lot to digest here, and obviously foul trouble could divert this plan based on extenuating circumstances. But the main gist is to get rid of the true “backup point guard” entirely for right now. Neither Eli Brooks or Jaaron Simmons appears to have wrangled the position, and neither deserve it. Instead, moving MAAR to backup point guard for 15 minutes would give Michigan a bigger lineup and added playmaking ability.

Simpson deserves these 25 minutes per game, and last night his full arsenal was on display. The sophomore knocked down two huge three-pointers, was effective at driving to the basket both to pass and shoot, grabbed six rebounds and dished out five assists. His minutes aren’t going anywhere, and his added confidence will only make Michigan better as the season goes on.

At shooting guard, Abdur-Rahkman will still hang on to more than half of his minutes there. He’s become a Beilein staple, and Michigan’s most reliable wing and backcourt player generally average somewhere around 35 minutes per game. Behind him, how on Earth is Jordan Poole not earning more minutes? In his paltry seven minutes last night, the freshman had eight points and changed the entire complexion of the game. Poole entered the game with Michigan down by 10 points. He knocked down a 3-pointer and a jumper to propel Michigan to an 8-0 run, and he’s a quality shooter that grabs the attention of the defense.

At one wing, Charles Matthews will be playing between 30 and 35 minutes a night when he stays out of foul trouble. He’s Michigan’s best on-ball defender, and despite his tendency to take far too many shots (5-14 overall, 2-9 on two-point shots), he’s probably the best driver and finisher for Michigan. My proposed rotation would flank him with even more shooters, allowing for more space to attack the basket. Behind him, Robinson can play the 5-10 minutes as a backup “3” to work his way into a shooting rhythm while Matthews rests.

The biggest development, however, is probably at the “4”. While Duncan Robinson deserved to be the early season starter, Isaiah Livers has developed into one of Michigan’s five most reliable players. His ability to guard multiple positions, including a combination of Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias, show his defensive prowess. Combine that with an excellent ability to finish at the rim (mostly on dunks, but pretty darn good nonetheless) and a deadeye ability to hit the corner 3, and you’ve got one of the brightest young talents in the Big Ten. Robinson should still get some minutes behind him, and Livers remarked that he loves playing alongside Robinson due to his ability to stretch the floor. Livers is well on his way to becoming a star at Michigan.

At center, Moritz Wagner remains the guy. While he didn’t have any earth-shattering statistics last night (11 points, six rebounds), he made Haas extremely uncomfortable guarding away from the basket and should have substantially easier matchups going forward. His three-point marksmanship has left him just a bit (1-4 against Purdue), but even having the threat from the center position should open up his drive and post-up game. Behind Wagner, big Jon Teske is turning into a really nice defensive player. He still has major offensive limitations outside of five feet, but his activity (five rebounds in 11 minutes) make him a really intriguing piece going forward.

While Michigan was unable to pull out the victory, there’s still a huge amount to be taken from this game. The young Wolverines played three freshmen, three sophomores, one junior and two seniors went toe-to-toe with the senior-laden Boilermakers and the number five team in the country. The loss stings, and the combination of Michigan’s inability to make plays down the stretch and some dodgy officiating will irk fans. But the progress is tremendous, and this team is unquestionably one of the best four in the Big Ten.

They’ll have another chance to prove that on Saturday when they enter the not-so-friendly confines of the Breslin Center to play Michigan State. The Spartans were humbled in their last contest against Ohio State, and have a tune-up game at home against Rutgers before the Wolverines drive over to Lansing. Few expect Michigan to win this game, especially given the imposing front court of Nick Ward, Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges. But if this Michigan team can play with the same type of fight and aggression they showed against Purdue, look out.