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2020-’21 Michigan Wolverines Basketball Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Michigan Wolverines and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2020-’21 season.

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

The 2020-’21 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2020-’21 ‘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.

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After more than a decade with John Beilein at the helm, the Michigan Wolverines finally had a coaching change last season. Former Michigan and NBA star Juwan Howard was hired to take over for Beilein after the latter left to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers for half a season. Howard arrived with a lot of uncertainty and questions, though fans had high hopes.

And boy did he pick a year to come to Ann Arbor.

Michigan was largely successful in Howard’s first season with the program. The team went 19-12 overall against the nation’s toughest schedule and appeared in great position for the NCAA Tournament before the season was called short last March. Team leaders Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske led the way and younger players like Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner helped fill out the lineup.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the season was early on, when Michigan raced out to a 7-0 start, beat a loaded Gonzaga squad, won the Battle 4 Atlantis, and catapulted up the national rankings. It was an incredible run for a first-time coach and provided a glimpse of Michigan’s potential as a team. Unfortunately, fans never got to see whether the team could replicate its impressive neutral court success in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

But whether fans want to admit it or not, last season was a holdover of the Beilein era. Every major contributor (save one) previously played and was recruited by Beilein. Howard certainly deserves credit for the success the team had last season, but many questions remain regarding the program moving forward. And while we won’t be able to fully answer these questions for years, this year is going to tell a lot.

So, can Howard and the Wolverines keep things rolling in Ann Arbor? Let’s take a look.

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 former Michigan basketball player Anthony Wright breaking down Michigan’s roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2019-’20 Season Performance

  • Record: 19-12 (10-10)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #16
  • NET Rating: #24
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A (Cancelled)

We touched on some of this above, but Michigan had a pretty productive 2019-’20 season. The Wolverines were a solid-to-good team that finished with a meh record because of an absolutely brutal slate. Michigan played the nation’s toughest schedule, where all but eight games came against teams ranked in top 90 on KenPom. The schedule was how Michigan was viewed as a virtual lock for the NCAA Tournament, despite being a game short of the magic 20-win mark heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

What’s really interesting about Michigan’s profile last season was the team’s lack of bad losses. Michigan lost a total of 12 games last season with none coming against teams ranked outside the top 30 on KenPom. From a purely ratings based analysis, Michigan’s worst loss of the season came against Illinois. And considering the Illini were nationally ranked for much of the season and beat Michigan with a buzzer beater, it’s hard to complain too much. This was a team that took care of business when given the chance.

One of the biggest things derailing Michigan’s success last season was the team’s underwhelming three-point shooter and a mid-season injury to Livers. The forward was easily the team’s best shooter and when he missed extended time in January and February, it had a severely detrimental effect on the team. One can make a pretty convincing argument that Michigan’s rough 4-6 stretch during the heart of Big Ten play was almost exclusively linked with Livers’ injury. It’s difficult to believe all six losses directly resulted from Livers’ absence, but there’s little denying it played a factor.

All told, it was a solid-to-good season for the Wolverines. Howard did a nice job in his first year. And while we’ll never know what might have happened in the postseason, Michigan accomplished enough during the regular season to believe the program remains in good shape moving forward.

The highlights of the season came in the Battle 4 Atlantis when Michigan beat Iowa State, North Carolina, and Gonzaga in successive games and scored a win over rival Michigan State in February. The two losses to Illinois and the missed opportunities against Minnesota and Penn State were certainly low points.

Individual statistical leaders were Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske, and Franz Wagner. Simpson led the team in minutes, points, assists, and total win shares. Teske led the team in rebounds and blocks. Wagner led the team in steals.

2. Offseason Exits

Perhaps Howard’s biggest challenge this season will be replacing the team’s significant offseason departures. The Wolverines are losing five players from last year’s team in Cole Bajema, Colin Castleton, David DeJulius, Zavier Simpson, and Jon Teske. This group includes the team’s two most productive players and two key reserves.

The most significant departures certainly come from Simpson and Teske. The two were easily Michigan’s most productive players, leading the Wolverines in total win shares last season. In fact, the two finished nearly a full game above anyone else on the roster in said category. Simpson was the team’s offensive initiator and an outstanding passer and Teske kept things together down low, dominating the boards and defending in the paint.

It’s also hard to understate what these two did off the court as well. Simpson was the team’s spiritual leader and was the straw that stirred the drink offensively. He led the league in assist rate and finished 13th in the conference in percent of team possessions used. Either of those numbers would be huge by themselves, but one player having both speaks volumes about how much he did for the team last season. Likewise, Teske did a ton of “grit” work for Michigan down low and on the boards. Those things can’t be undersold.

Along with those two, Michigan is also losing three depth pieces in Bajema, Castleton, and DeJulius. The most significant loss projects to be DeJulius. He was the team’s key reserve behind Simpson and projected to start this season before transferring to Cincinnati and leaving a hole behind him in the lineup. Castleton was the team’s third option at the five behind Teske and Austin Davis and played approximately 15 percent of the team’s minutes. Bajema was a true freshman and played sparingly. Both also transferred this offseason.

There’s little debating Michigan is losing a lot this season. The Wolverines are losing the team’s two best players and three other depth pieces. And considering two of the depth pieces played behind the team’s best players, they look even a little more concerning. Howard and staff will have their hands full overcoming these departures.

3. New Additions

This season, the Wolverines will be adding four new recruits and two transfers. The recruits are Hunter Dickinson, Jace Howard, Zeb Jackson, and Terrance Williams. Dickinson, Jackson, and Williams are rated as four-star prospects by 247Sports and Howard is rated as a three-star. Jackson is listed as a shooting guard, Howard as a small forward, Williams as a power forward, and Dickinson as a center.

Dickinson is the incoming prospect receiving the most attention. He’s listed at 7-foot-2 and 255 pounds and is expected to play immediately down low. Dickinson was ranked 42nd nationally by 247Sports and has a diverse skill set. He should be able to set screens, play off the ball, and clean up the boards. There’s some NBA potential in there down the line.

Jackson and Williams will also likely get some early playing time. Jackson is a Beilein holdover recruit who should get some minutes in the backcourt and Williams is a player who projects as a great three or four-year player in college. However, both likely need some time to develop before they can be high-end contributors. Howard is Juwan Howard’s son and will likely receive very limited playing time this season.

Michigan is also adding two notable transfers this offseason in Chaundee Brown and Michael Smith. Brown arrives from Wake Forest and projects to be an instant starter at the two guard spot after averaging 10.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game with the Demon Deacons. Smith arrives from Columbia, where he filled the role of volume scorer at the point guard position. He should also get some significant minutes in the backcourt. Additionally, transfer guard Brandon Wade is also coming off a redshirt and should be able to help out in the backcourt as well.

All told, Michigan is adding a fantastic group of newcomers. The recruiting class features plenty of talent and the program is adding two instant impact transfers as well.

4. Points of Optimism

There’s a lot to be excited about for the Wolverines this season. The team may be losing two key players, but a lot return around them. And on top of that, Michigan adds a dynamic recruiting class and two quality transfer additions. This is a roster more than capable of doing some major damage this season.

Of course, Michigan’s optimism has to start with the team’s talented returners. And that begins with Livers and Wagner on the wing. Both were All-Big Ten level players last season and are back for another run this season. Livers was a great scorer and the team’s most reliable three-point shooter. And Wagner was a multi-faceted contributor, who was efficient inside, an improving passer, and a quality rebounder. The strength of Michigan’s team will certainly be here on the wing.

Along with those two, Michigan also returns a number of key role players. Eli Brooks returns in the backcourt, Brandon Johns is back on the wing, and Austin Davis returns upfront. Brooks started 30 games last season, Johns started 11, and Davis really came on over the final stretch of the year. These three should really fill things out around Livers and Wagner.

Michigan’s talented group of newcomers also deserves mention here. Michigan had the Big Ten’s highest rated recruiting class this season and that doesn’t even include the two transfers, who could both compete for starting roles from day one. It’s rare to add even one instant impact type, but Michigan adds three this year with the two transfers and Dickinson and a few other potential long-term contributors. That should be really exciting for fans.

We’ll see how all the pieces fit together, but Michigan figures to have one of the more intriguing rosters in the Big Ten this season. And if one or two players can overperform on expectations, the Wolverines could be in the hunt for a great Big Ten finish.

5. Points of Concern

Let’s start this section with the obvious. Michigan is losing two massive contributors in Simpson and Teske. Both played extensive minutes for the Wolverines last season and (as mentioned above) Simpson dominated the team’s offensive possessions. It’s hard to imagine any other Big Ten team where so much of the team’s production relied on two players.

Overcoming one or two departures is standard practice, but these are going to be difficult, especially with DeJulius and Casleton walking out the door as well. DeJulius was slated to replace Simpson in the starting lineup this season and Castleton would have provided some minutes off the bench at the five spot as well. However, both are now gone. It means Michigan’s going to have to rely on some new faces and unproven options as a result. And that’s a dangerous spot to be in for positions as important as point guard and center.

And while Michigan has two likely stars in Livers and Wagner, the team is going to need to find another offensive initiator. Livers is great on the perimeter, but he’s not a guy who’s going to dominate possessions or create much off the dribble. And Wagner was a little too inconsistent last year to think he can carry most of the offense by himself just yet. Finding a player who can get things moving offensively will be key. Brooks and Brown will likely man things in the backcourt, so fans will hope they can get the job done. However, both are relatively unproven in that role. We’ll have to see if they can get it done.

Michigan’s perimeter shooting also left a lot to be desired last season. Livers’ return should alleviate some of these problems, but the Wolverines finished 141st in three-point percentage last season and struggled significantly in Big Ten play from deep. For example, Michigan was a dreadful 5-of-28 (.179) from three in a loss to Penn State last season. Improving there could go really far in improving the team’s long-term hopes.

The good news is Michigan has enough to overcome these challenges. It will be up to the program’s talented 2020 class and key returners like Brooks, Livers, and Wagner to address some of these deficiencies.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, much of this section was dedicated to discussing Simpson and Teske. But with those two now gone, there’s a void at the top of Michigan’s lineup. The Wolverines will need to find a new top option for this season. The good news is there are plenty of options available for Howard.

The most likely picks are Livers and Wagner. The two put up nice numbers last season and were probably only a step or two away from being really special. Livers’ biggest issue was staying on the floor and Wagner struggled with shot consistency. However, a little modest improvement and the sky’s the limit.

Here’s what I wrote about Livers in our top 25 player countdown:

If there’s one part of Livers’ game that stands out, it’s his impressive three-point shooting. He his 40.2 percent of his looks from deep last season, including an impressive 39.6 percent against “Tier A” opponents. More simply stated, Livers showed up in Michigan’s biggest games.

But Livers’ shooting didn’t stop there. He was efficient across the board, finishing with a 117.7 offensive rating in league play (7th in the Big Ten) and was perfect from the free throw line during conference play. Livers also avoided turnovers, finishing with the lowest turnover rate during league play.

. . .

It’s hyperbolic to claim one player will determine a team’s season, but it feels that way with Livers and Michigan. If the Wolverines are going to be relevant nationally, the team’s almost certainly going to need Livers to be a force offensively. The team has other play makers, but nobody with a skill set like this. He needs to stretch defenses and find ways to create more off the bounce this season. If not, Michigan’s going to have limited options.

Fortunately, Livers looks primed for a big season. Expect him to remain one of the best shooters in the conference and be in contention for All-Big Ten first team status if things go well.

And here’s what I wrote about Wagner:

Wagner’s greatest strength is his diversity on the court. He was Michigan’s Swiss Army knife last year, contributing in all kinds of different ways. Wagner was an efficient scorer on limited possessions, cleaned up on the boards, defended relatively well, and hit enough from deep to keep defenses honest.

And Wagner’s skill set wasn’t static last year, either. He took significant steps forward in his shot selection, defensive understanding, and in the paint. And that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Wagner was just a freshman last year. If he continues ascending, he could be one of the league’s most productive players.

. . .

Wagner projects to be a really reliable and productive player for the Wolverines this season. He’s going to contribute in different ways and bring a lot of energy on the floor. And for him, even some modest improvement will pay off handsomely for the Wolverines. A little better shooting here, or a rebound there and Michigan’s going to win a few more games. It’s the nature of having a player with Wagner’s skill set.

Expect Wagner to be in the All-Big Ten discussion at season’s end. Whether he can make the first team will depend on his shooting and assist numbers.

It’s hard to see anyone else challenging these two in this category. However, a few darkhorses are Brooks, Brown, and Dickinson. Fans will hope Brooks can grow on last season and both Brown and Dickinson arrive with plenty of excitement, though neither is proven in Ann Arbor. Nonetheless, my pick would be Wagner. He’s relatively proven and has done a great job of staying on the floor.

7. 2020-’21 Schedule Breakdown

  • TBA - Unknown
  • 12/9 - North Carolina State
  • TBA - Unknown

Normally, I would use this space to dive into Michigan’s schedule, the biggest games on the slate this year, and some expectations for how the team should perform. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the erratic scheduling changes, we don’t know much about the schedule at the moment. In fact, the only game officially on the schedule right now is Michigan’s home game against North Carolina State as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. As such, it’s pretty hard to get a full grasp of how things might look just yet.

As far as what we do know, Michigan’s likely going to play a lot of local teams, which the exception of the Wolfpack. We also know Big Ten play will be pretty bizarre this year, as arenas will almost certainly have reduced capacity, if anyone is able to attend at all. That will be particularly important for the Big Ten, which has led the nation for years in fan attendance. Expect road games against teams like Indiana, Michigan State, and Wisconsin to be much easier this time around.

Michigan will certainly have a tough schedule like it always does. Expect some marquee games in mid-February to early March where the team can score some big wins to help its NCAA Tournament resume.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Eli Brooks (Sr.) - 80%
  • SG: Chaundee Brown (Sr.) - 95%
  • SF: Isaiah Livers (Sr.) - 95%
  • PF: Franz Wagner (So.) - 95%
  • C: Hunter Dickinson (Fr.) - 55%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

A few week agos, Michigan’s lineup looks pretty uncertain. The team seems to have certainty on the wing, but nowhere else. But then, Brown’s waiver for immediate eligibility was approved and things ironed themselves out. Thanks to that fortunate bounce from the NCAA, Michigan now enters this season with a pretty stable set of starters.

In the backcourt, Eli Brooks and Brown will start. Both are seniors with extensive playing experience. And while neither is a perfect option, they’re both too capable to believe anyone in Michigan’s thin backcourt will beat them out. Expect a lot of emphasis on Brooks improving his passing. He finished with a pretty underwhelming assist rate for a guard projected to start at the point. Brown will hope to improve his perimeter shooting.

Expect most of the backup minutes here to come from transfer guard Smith and true freshman Jackson. Smith arrives after putting up big numbers at Columbia and Jackson arrives as a pretty highly touted prospect. The question on Smith is how he can perform with limited possessions. He was very much a volume scorer at Columbia, but he won’t have that opportunity here. Fans have to wonder if he’ll be efficient enough with just a handful of opportunities a game. Additionally, junior Adrien Nunez and transfer guard Brandon Wade are also expected to see some playing time. Expect their minutes to be relatively limited.

The nice thing for the backcourt is the diversity Howard has on the roster, in big part because of Brooks. He’s a legitimate combo guard with experience at both the one or two spots. That’s nice to have here because Howard can move him between positions if the other options there are struggling. That way, if Michigan’s backup option at the one or two is struggling, Brooks can mitigate some of the damage. It’s a nice way for Michigan to “double up” on starter minutes.

On the wing, things appear pretty certain. Livers and Wagner are going to start at the three and four spots. Both are proven options and should be in the All-Big Ten hunt by season’s end. Most of the backup minutes here will come from Brandon Johns, who showed plenty of flashes last season. And like the backcourt, expect Michigan to swap Livers and Wagners between positions to minimize backup minutes here. Freshmen Howard and Williams could also get a look here, depending on how ready they are to contribute.

Finally, the frontcourt will ride with Austin Davis and Dickinson. And while I penciled in Dickinson as the starter, these two are going to rotate heavily. In fact, I expect them to have relatively similar minutes as we move through the season. Davis should provide a welcome boost as Dickinson adjusts to the college game.

The unfortunate reality for Michigan is the team has little depth behind those two big men. Should either of them get banged up or in foul trouble, Michigan’s likely looking at sliding down Johns to the five or playing a walk-on in Jaron Faulds. The Wolverines could survive that for limited segments, but it won’t hold over for an extended stretch. Michigan really needs Davis and Dickinson to carry things down low.

Overall, Michigan’s lineup looks pretty solid. Two of the starters look like All-Big Ten players, two others are seniors, and the last is a highly touted recruit. The biggest challenge for the Wolverines will be behind them, as the team lacks much proven depth. Fans will have to hope a few players can surprise as the season goes on.

9. Outside Perspectives From Adam Biggers and Anthony Broome

“Following John Beilein’s departure, there were questions surrounding Michigan basketball. Who else could come in and lead the Wolverines to Big Ten championships, Final Fours and continue to recruit at a high level? Well, UM got its answer in 2019, signing Fab Five legend Juwan Howard, who has the No. 1-ranked class for 2021; he’s also presenting his No. 15-ranked 2020 class.

Names will change. But if Howard is anything like Beilein in the coaching and development department, the Wolverines should get consistent results and equal — or better — the incredible Beilein era. Projecting Michigan as an early Sweet 16-caliber team isn’t out of the question — not with Isaiah Livers (F) and Eli Brooks (G) leading the charge. Michigan has a great blend of senior talent and leadership to mentor their youth. Year 2 of the Howard era couldn’t have been scripted better — he has all the ingredients to really start something special in Ann Arbor.” - Adam Biggers of Saturday Tradition.

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“It’s hard to get a read on the type of team that Michigan will have going into the second season of the Juwan Howard era. By all accounts, this should be a deeper team with an influx of young talent in the form of Howard’s first recruiting class and Chaundee Brown and Mike Smith entering the fold as immediately-eligible transfers. However, they lost two of the winningest players in program history in Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske and there are real concerns about how both of those guys get replaced. At point guard, it likely comes in the form of Smith and Eli Brooks handling primary ballhandling duties between the two of them, while fifth-year senior Austin Davis is expected to have an expanded role while freshman Hunter Dickinson comes along. What this team does still have is one of the best one-two punches in the Big Ten with Isaiah Livers and a still-ascending Franz Wagner, who was arguably Michigan’s best player at the tail end of last season.

There were plenty of bumps in the first year under Howard, which was to be expected. Injuries and inconsistencies hurt them at both ends of the floor. But as has been Michigan tradition the last number of years, this was a team playing its best basketball heading into March. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic took away the chance to see how Howard would fare in the month that defines the great coaches. Because of this, it is hard to put a finger on where the trajectory of this group is considering many of the faces are the same.

In what appears it will be a truncated an odd season, much as the rest of the sports landscape is during the days of COVID, I have about the same expectations for this team as last year. Competing for a spot in the top half of the conference and making some noise in the NCAA Tournament seems like a fair projection. If this group could find its way into the second weekend, I think a lot of people would be very happy with that. They will be turning over almost half of the roster in 2021-22, so any action that the freshman class gets is gravy while being part of a veteran-laden group that is ready to win.” - Anthony Broome of Maize N’ Brew.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Replacing a legend isn’t easy to do. Nonetheless, Howard got off to a great start in year one. Michigan remained nationally competitive and he seemed to understand how to get the most out of players at the collegiate level.

The question now is whether he can keep things rolling in Ann Arbor as Beilein’s players depart. It’s going to be quite a challenge. And the biggest part of that challenge will be replacing Simpson and Teske, who carried things for the Wolverines last season. They were some of the most successful players in Michigan history and won’t be easily replaced.

Fortunately, Michigan returns a number of key contributors from last season and added quite a big during the offseason as well. The Wolverines return four players who started games last season, add two key transfers in Brown and Smith, and are bringing in the conference’s best rated recruiting class. That’s not a bad spot to be in entering a season.

It seems clear Michigan will remain a solid team this season. There’s simply too much talent for the Wolverines to be irrelevant. However, it’s also hard to see the team ascending much further than that with some of the roster’s depth limitations. Expect another trip to the NCAA Tournament and a pretty solid performance.

Big Ten Prediction: 6th Place