The 2018-’19 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2018-’19 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.
Today is Election Day. It’s a big deal, so I tried to find a clever political metaphor to tie the midterms to the upcoming Michigan basketball season. Sadly, I failed.
Nevertheless, you should go vote. You should probably do it now. Ok, you can do it right after you read this article.
On to Michigan.
In 2013, John Beilein noted in a Big Ten Network documentary that he once recruited a high schooler who asked whether Michigan had ever been good at basketball. At the time, Beilein was shocked by the question. It was the winning tradition in Ann Arbor that had attracted him to the job in the first place. But in fact, the question wasn’t so unreasonable. The young athlete, born sometime in the mid-90s, had witnessed Michigan make the Tournament only three times between 1994 and 2008, and never advance past the first weekend of play.
Kids these days wouldn’t dare ask that question. After a monumental year in which the Wolverines won the Big Ten Tournament and made an unexpected run to the NCAA national championship game, Michigan basketball is among the elite college basketball programs in the country and poised to keep it going.
Since 2011, Michigan has won 70 percent of its games, claimed the Big Ten regular season championship once and the conference tournament championship twice, and made two trips to the Final Four and the NCAA championship game. Add to that a top 12 recruiting class, a Hall of Fame coach with a contract extension, a stable crew of assistants returning for another year, and one of the most rabid collegiate fanbases in the country.
Things are looking up in Ann Arbor.
Let’s take a closer look at this year’s team and see what you can expect when the season officially tips off this evening.
1. 2017-‘18 Season Performance
- Record: 33-8 (13-5)
- KenPom Team Rating: #7
- RPI Rating: #11
- Postseason: NCAA Championship Game
Etched in your memory from last season are a few moments. Jordan Poole’s improbable scissor-kick buzzer beater against Houston and the ensuing madness. Nick Ward’s broken ankles, and even more broken spirit. The pure joy you felt as Michigan rained a barrage of threes on Texas A&M in the Sweet 16.
But these moments obscure the fact that Michigan’s season last year wasn’t really that flashy or dramatic. In fact, it started messy and was defined by the kind of incremental improvement that has given John Beilein his reputation as a boring tactician.
Michigan started the year with a loss to LSU, an eye-opening shellacking in Chapel Hill, and an embarrassing collapse in the second half against Ohio State. In these early games, the Wolverines struggled from the three-point line (shooting 26-29 percent) and scored less than 25 points in a half.
The team didn’t have a starting point guard, let alone an identity. But once the Big Ten season started, things got better. Moe Wagner returned to his old self, Duncan Robinson’s shooting woes dissipated, and the Michigan defense developed into a force. Jordan Poole’s coming-out party in games against Indiana and Maryland was the offensive threat that Michigan needed so desperately from its bench.
This steady improvement culminated in a string of early tests in January. Michigan lost a narrow fight to Purdue after a controversial out-of-bounds call and shocked the fourth-ranked Spartans in East Lansing. At that point, it was clear that Michigan could at least hang with the best in the conference but most of us had yet to really grasp what the team was capable of.
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t believe the hype was real and felt like my doubts were confirmed by losses to Northwestern and Nebraska. In an email to friends last February, I said, “I’m having a hard time accepting the all-too-true reality that this team is mediocre.” And I wasn’t the only one. After a loss to Northwestern, UMHoops noted, “the Wolverines are closer to bubble-plus than league contender.”
But over the next few weeks, Michigan did what it does best.
Improve. Improve. Improve.
The Wolverines adjusted to defenses switching every screen and started to use Zavier Simpson as a real offensive tool. The team won handily on the road against Wisconsin, Penn State, and Maryland and were in control from start to finish in a massive matchup with Ohio State at home. In these final five games of the regular season, Michigan’s three-point shooting percentages were 45, 36, 35 47, and 48.
Michigan rode this momentum into the Big Ten Tournament, where they escaped an ugly bout with Iowa and went on to play impressive, complete basketball in wins over Nebraska, Michigan State, and Purdue.
The rest of this story is familiar to you. An offensive slog and brief scare against Montana. Last-second euphoria amidst Houston’s despair. John Beilein’s favorite day ever against Texas A&M. The weird, strange, odd Florida State win. And the Final Four.
But the season was more than a bunch of wins and a few losses. This team had a unique ability to muster whatever it needed whenever it needed it the most. A timely bucket from Abdur-Rahkman after a long drought. A fierce resilience on defense when they were trailing big. Some nights it came from the flashy Poole show or the awakening of the Big Sleep. Other nights it was just gritty, unrelenting discipline from Zavier Simpson. Whatever it was and whoever it came from- they found it every single time. And that’s why 2017-’18 will always be a special year in Michigan basketball history.
2. Offseason Exits
Michigan lost its heart and soul this summer with the departure of Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and Duncan Robinson. Fifth-year graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons played some backup point guard minutes and made his presence felt during NCAA tournament games again Montana and Loyola, but his departure is less significant.
When it comes to on-court production, it’s clear that Michigan is losing key offensive and defensive pieces. Wagner and Abdur-Rahkman started nearly every game all season, and Robinson came off the bench played significant minutes at the four position after beginning the season in the starting lineup.
Wagner averaged 14.6 points per game on 39.4 precent three-point shooting and pulled down an impressive 7.1 rebounds per game. Abdur-Rahkman contributed 12.9 points a game, hardly ever turned over the ball, and consistently played lockdown defense on opposing guards. Robinson averaged 9.2 points per game on 38.1 percent shooting and grew into a passable defender at the four position. Overall, it’s safe to say that an offense built on shooting will sorely miss its three best three-point shooters from last season.
As Beilein noted at Big Ten media day, though, “it’s more than just the players, it’s the style that we could play we those guys.” Michigan’s offensive identity in 2017-’18 was built on exploiting a serious mismatch at the five position - Wagner could take people off the dribble from the perimeter, finish as the roll man, and make pick-and-pop threes at nearly a 40 percent clip.
This move opened up the floor for Michigan’s other playmakers and consistently kept defenses guessing. Whether it was in East Lansing in January or against Loyola in April, Michigan’s biggest wins last season were defined by Wagner taking over and throwing opponents off-kilter.
Robinson similarly delivered the one thing that a Beilein offense feeds on - spacing, spacing, spacing. He was a threat to score every time he checked into the game and as you’ve heard (at least 800 times by now), Michigan never lost a game when Duncan Robinson scored six points or more. With Rahkman, you had a playmaker that you could count on at any time to penetrate into the lane and either find or finish.
Call me soft, but I think it’s really the intangibles that Michigan will miss when it takes the floor without Wagner, Abdur-Rahkman, and Robinson. The teams still standing in March and April have a consistent go-to-guy who is unfazed in big moments. Last year, Michigan had three .
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (MAAR) was not loud and flashy - he rarely showed any emotion on the court and was unknown for riling up his teammates. What he did bring, though, was an unwavering, ice-in-the-veins, composure and consistency. As I like to say, MAAR’s your mom: a solid, consistent presence who’s always there when you need him, but doesn’t feel the need to showboat because he proves his value on a daily basis. You need to call MAAR more often.
Wagner, on the other hand, brought a fiery brashness that quickly made him the villain of the conference but the leader of his team. When he dove on the floor for a loose ball or flexed after an and-1, his energy galvanized his teammates, the bench, and the crowd. There was a steely belief in last year’s team. That started with Wagner and his tireless competitive edge.
Robinson rounded out this bunch with a mixture of Abdur-Rahkman’s leadership by example and Wagner’s vocal presence. He made big, timely shots, played improved defense against bigger power forwards, and stayed composed through it all.
From statistical production on the court to leadership and experience in the locker room, Michigan lost a great deal this summer. Who steps up to play the departing trio’s minutes and fill their roles will be the big question of the 2018-’19 season.
3. New Additions
Michigan will be adding five new freshmen this season. And while comparisons to the Fab Five are fanciful, this is Michigan’s highest-ranking recruiting class since the Fresh Five in 2013. Here’s a brief look at the five new additions and what you can expect this year.
Ignas Brazdeikis is the name you’ll hear all year long, albeit mispronounced. The 6’7’’ forward from Canada is Michigan’s most prized recruit this year and appears ready to contribute on day one.
Brazdeikis led the team in scoring this summer in Spain and showcased an array of offensive tools that will likely win him playing time. He is a fiery, self-assured, and athletic playmaker who has a reliable shot but is most comfortable en route to the basket. Expect to see Brazdeikis at the two and four positions regularly and don’t be surprised if he’s a staple in the starting lineup.
Brandon Johns is an East Lansing native who brings similar athleticism and versatility. The 6’8’’ forward seems less game-ready than Iggy but is perfectly built for Beilein’s positionless style of play and could well find his way into the rotation at both the four and five positions. I wouldn’t be surprised if Johns is Isaiah Livers-lite in his first season: consistent playing time but limited offensive contributions coming in the form of residual action, back cuts, and catch-and-shoot threes.
David DeJulius is a classic Michigan point guard recruit. He is a dynamic ball handler and confident shooter who was recruited to succeed Zavier Simpson. DeJulius’s upside is high and he’ll likely get some minutes in Beilein’s rotation experiments at the beginning of the season, but all signs point to the Detroit native using this year to learn the college game from the bench and process Beilein’s complex two-guard offense.
From Burke to Walton to Simpson to Brooks, point guards at Michigan take a little time to get sorted - but once they do, they flourish. I expect DeJulius to follow suit.
Adrian Nunez is one of the more intriguing prospects in this year’s incoming class. Less heralded than his counterparts, the 6’6’’shooting guard showcased lethal shooting ability from distance in high school and was expected to be a prototypical Beilein guard who spaces the floor.
We haven’t heard much about Nunez thus far, but he may earn time by necessity if Michigan needs the shooting boost. At this point, it’s premature to say he’ll fill the role played by Zak Irvin 2014 or Jordan Poole in 2018 - but let’s circle back in a few weeks.
Colin Castleton is a 6’11’’ big man from Daytona Beach, Florida who looks young and lanky but could grow into a Wagner-esque weapon for the Wolverines. From the tape, it looks like he has the ability to finish as the roll man and knock down the mid-range jumper. Michigan big men have been known to take some time to adjust to the system, so I wouldn’t expect see much of Castleton this year. But, get ready. He’ll be good in a hurry.
Additionally, Michigan will also be adding a big man transfer in Jaron Faulds. He played for Columbia last season and will be a walk-on for the Wolverines this year. Unfortunately, he will have to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules.
4. Points of Optimism
They played a game on a Monday night in April. Some of those guys are back. And, despite a few offseason scares, John Beilein is still the head coach.
That pretty much sums up why Michigan fans should be optimistic about this upcoming season. The team returns three starters from last year’s National Championship Runner-up team. Two of those three returning players were catalysts of Michigan’s impressive defensive turnaround, leading the Wolverines to an astounding third-ranked defense nationally. Besides benefitting from another year in Luke Yaklich’s widely heralded system, the Michigan defense will add more towering rim protection and improved post defense in the form of Jon “Big Sleep” Teske.
Stifling defense and a deep, athletic bench may be enough. But, when you add in one of the most impressive coaches in college basketball, you have yourself some real reasons for optimism. John Beilein has won with young and veteran teams alike. He has turned simply mediocre talent into household names and discovered diamonds in the rough (if by “rough” we mean D-3 colleges and Germany). He slowly and methodically unlocks the best out of his players as the season wears on. This year, he is fresh out of major heart surgery, and looks ready to work his magic.
5. Points of Concern
The biggest area of concern last year was Michigan’s offensive consistency. The Wolverines shot poorly from the free-throw line (66 percent) and from beyond the arc (35.2 precent) and frequently suffered from long offensive droughts. Those problems will arguably get worse this year.
Michigan is replacing its three best shooters with untested freshmen and sophomores. Though there is more athleticism on this Michigan roster, scoring will be a struggle. If Jordan Poole is the only reliable threat from deep, spacing the floor gets more difficult and Michigan’s slashers will have to get used to driving and finishing through an increasingly congested lane.
Beilein acknowledged this challenge at Big Ten Media day, saying, “We’ve got to adapt again...I think that’s what i love - embracing change and trying to change your team for both offensively and defensively what can work. I think we have a chance to be a good defensive team again, but offensively we’re a work in progress.”
The big question for this year is how well Beilein and his staff can adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of their personnel. If the team can mix the driving and slashing with a healthy mix of catch-and-shoot and pull-up opportunities from the perimeter, this team could be deadly. If, on the other hand, Michigan is relying solely on transition offense and three guys with spotty shots getting to the hole on every half-court possession, turnovers will abound, defenses will figure things out, and this season could be a real drag.
6. Top Player
There are two logical choices here - Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole. And while I was a regular attendee at last year’s “Poole parties,” I’m not yet convinced that he can handle a primary playmaking role or even muster up good enough defense to stay on the floor.
Matthews has experience playing in the starting lineup and managing a major scoring role on the team. He has weathered shooting and turnover slumps, and is a reliable athlete that plays great defense and finishes in transition.
Last year, he managed to regularly finish on back cuts and residual action, knock down 30.5 percent of his threes, and improve his work in the ball screen game. He averaged 14.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in Michigan’s NCAA run and was not fazed by the bright lights.
If Matthews can up his three-point percentage to 35+ and inch up to 65 or 70 percent from the foul line, he will be Michigan’s best player. He has a mid-range jumper that reminds Michigan fans of Zak Irvin at his best and could showcase an improved ability to drive to both his left and right to get to the basket.
A more complete Charles Matthews will take Michigan far while an inconsistent 2017-’18 version of Matthews could signal a very low ceiling for this year’s team.
7. 2018-’19 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/1 - Northwood (exhibition)
- 11/6 - Norfolk State
- 11/10 - Holy Cross
- 11/14 - at Villanova
- 11/17- George Washington
- 11/18 - Providence/South Carolina
- 11/23 - UT Chattanooga
- 11/28 - North Carolina
- 12/1 - Purdue
- 12/4 - at Northwestern
- 12/8 - South Carolina
- 12/15 - Western Michigan
- 12/22 - Air Force
- 12/30 - Binghampton
- 1/3 - Penn State
- 1/6 - Indiana
- 1/10 - at Illinois
- 1/13 - Northwestern
- 1/19 - at Wisconsin
- 1/22 - Minnesota
- 1/25 - at Indiana
- 1/29 - Ohio State
- 2/1 - at Iowa
- 2/5 - at Rutgers
- 2/9 - Wisconsin
- 2/12 - at Penn State
- 2/16 - Maryland
- 2/21 - at Minnesota
- 2/24 - Michigan State
- 2/28 - Nebraska
- 3/3 - at Maryland
- 3/9 - at Michigan State
There’s no doubt about it: Michigan’s non-conference schedule is challenging. After a few seemingly straightforward games at home, the Wolverines embark on a two-week stretch where they play Villanova on the road, Providence or South Carolina at a neutral site, and North Carolina at home.
Put aside for a moment that Villanova and North Carolina are ranked in the top five in KenPom’s preseason rankings, and consider that Providence and South Carolina (who Michigan sees again in early December) return at least three starters from last year and are both ranked in the KenPom top 50. If Michigan comes out of the gate looking like the team that lost to LSU and North Carolina early last season, there could easily be three L’s on the schedule before December 1st.
As the winter progresses and Big Ten play commences, though, things look a bit more manageable for Michigan. The Wolverines avoid double plays against Purdue, Nebraska, Iowa and host two of these three games in the Crisler Center. With Nebraska and Iowa returning most of their starters from last year and Purdue led by the conference POY favorite in Carsen Edwards, a young Michigan team should be happy to see these foes just once this season.
Michigan’s double plays - Indiana, Maryland, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Minnesota - are certainly no cakewalk, but they come at a time when John Beilein teams are usually firing on all cylinders. Michigan has posted an impressive 27-6 record in February and March the last two years, and will likely have a clear sense of its identity by the time it faces off against Maryland and Michigan State.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Zavier Simpson (Jr.) - 95%
- SG: Jordan Poole (So.) - 85%
- SF: Charles Matthews (Rs. Jr.) - 95%
- PF: Ignas Brazdeikis (So.) - 65%
- C: Jon Teske (Jr.) - 80%
The PF position battle between Brazdeikis and Livers will be one to watch as the season progresses. Brazdeikis started in Michigan’s exhibition game last week, but it’s unclear whether that was simply a product of Livers’ tweaked ankle a few weeks ago. This one could go either way - but I wouldn’t be surprised if Iggy hits a bit of a mid-season freshman slump and Livers’s experience and defensive ability propel him back into the starting lineup.
At the five position, it’s likely Jon Teske for the long haul. But, as Beilein noted after the Northwood exhibition, Teske needs to start acting like the starting center and not the backup. If he has trouble knocking down jump shots and finishing around the rim, Austin Davis may have a chance to win the starting spot.
9. Team Perspective from Thomas Beindit
“Over the last decade or so, I have had the pleasure of covering a wide variety of great teams. Indiana and Michigan in 2013. Wisconsin with Frank Kaminsky. And Purdue’s recent run with its goliaths upfront. The Big Ten hasn’t been perfect, but we have seen some really talented and really loaded teams.
Last year’s Michigan team wasn’t the best of that group. It had some serious flaws and lost some hand scratching games over the course of the season. However, I’m not sure I can remember a more magical run than Michigan’s run to close the season. The Wolverines won 14-straight, won the Big Ten Tournament, and made the national championship game.
It was truly a magical thing to behold.
The challenge now, of course, is to move forward from the magic. It’s not an easy task to start over after a major accomplishment. And this year’s team loses threeish starters, including star forward Moritz Wagner.
But Michigan fans have plenty of reasons to feel good about this season. Isaiah Livers, Charles Matthews, and Zavier Simpson are back from last year’s starting lineup and the team also brings back some key reserves in Jordan Poole and Jon Teske. Add in an underrated 2018 recruiting class and there’s more than enough for John Beilein to keep the Wolverines at the top of the Big Ten once again.” - Thomas Beindit.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Last year’s season preview noted that Michigan was coming off a big year and may suffer from a bit of a hangover. “[T]here are pieces on the roster...and Beilein’s challenge will be scultping these pieces together into a feasible Big Ten lineup...All told, Michigan projects to be a team in the NCAA Tournament hunt with a chance to make it past the first weekend..”
Ditto for 2018-’19.
Michigan’s defense will be good, if not great. Zavier Simpson will be hunting point guards to chew up all season and Charles Matthews will use his length and athleticism to keep opposing playmakers in front of him. Jon Teske is expected to be a defensive upgrade at the center position. There is also no visibly egregious defensive liability on this team. Look for Luke Yaklich and this defense to come out nasty and convert turnovers to touchdowns pretty regularly.
The offense is a wildcard. There are plenty of guys on the roster that feel comfortable driving to the basket and finishing at the rim - but will they find a way to play together and make each other better. Does Michigan shoot better than 35% from three-point range? Can the Wolverines punish teams that deliberately force Simpson and Matthews to the foul line late in games? Will John Beilein find a way to adapt his system to his personnel?
Though I don’t have the answers to these questions, it’ll be exciting to watch them play out over the course of an up-and-down season. The author of next year’s season preview will likely be talking about a 2018-’19 team that scratched the surface of its potential, competed in the top half of the Big Ten, and clinched a bid to the big dance — but just barely.
Big Ten Prediction: 1st Place
(Please note: Final Big Ten predictions come from Thomas Beindit.)