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2021-’22 Michigan Wolverines Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Michigan Wolverines and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2021-’22 season.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kimberly P. Mitchell / USA TODAY NETWORK

The 2021-’22 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-’22 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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Entering last season, expectations for the Michigan Wolverines were mixed. The team had talent and a few returning pieces, but nobody was quite sure what to expect. Juwan Howard still had room to prove himself and the program was losing Xavier Simpson and Jon Teske.

Things could work out.

They also could go terribly wrong.

Fortunately for Wolverine fans, things worked out wonderfully. Michigan not only put together a successful season, but ended up winning the Big Ten title, earning a one seed in the NCAA Tournament, and coming within a basket of the Final Four. It was one of the better Michigan squads in recent memory, which is saying something given what the program accomplished before Howard’s arrival with John Beilein at the helm.

Howard will now try to build off that season without a handful of key contributors from last season, including Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner. The good news is Hunter Dickinson returns and the program adds the league’s best recruiting class. Howard will have to figure out how to mold the pieces together, but everything is there for another special season.

So, can Michigan get the job done? Let’s take a look.

1. 2020-’21 Season Performance

  • Record: 23-5 (14-3)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #3
  • NET Rating: #3
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (E8)

Michigan began the season ranked 25th in the polls, but quickly elevated from there, jumping out to an 11-0 start, including a few key league wins. While things felt a bit precarious at first, Michigan established itself as a legitimate contender by early January, knocking off Maryland, Northwestern, Minnesota, and Wisconsin by double-digits in successive fashion. All four were viewed as solid opponents at the time.

And while things weren’t perfect the rest of the way, the 11-0 start propelled Michigan to its first Big Ten regular season title since 2014 and a one seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines eventually finished 23-5 overall and came narrowly short of the Final Four, falling 51-49 against UCLA in the Elite Eight. Still, it was a remarkably successful season and did wonders for establishing Howard as the program’s head coach.

Highlights of the season included regular season sweeps of Maryland and Wisconsin, a victory over Iowa in late February, rivalry wins over Michigan State and Ohio State, and the three NCAA wins to get Michigan to the Elite Eight. Low points included the losses to Illinois and Ohio State and the heart breaker against UCLA with a Final Four on the line.

Individual statistical leaders were Hunter Dickinson, Mike Smith, and Franz Wagner. Dickinson led the team in points, rebounds, and blocks. Smith led the team in assists. Wagner led the team in minutes, steals, and total win shares.

2. Offseason Exits

As one might expect of a team that won the Big Ten and made the Elite Eight, Michigan got hit pretty hard by offseason departures. The Wolverines ultimately lost CJ Baird, Chaundee Brown, Austin Davis, Isaiah Livers, Rico Ozuna-Harrison, Mike Smith, Franz Wagner, and Luke Wilson this offseason. That’s three starters and two key depth pieces.

The most significant departures are Livers, Smith, and Wagner. All three were consistent contributors when healthy last season and averaged more than 31 minutes per game. Livers was the team’s best outside shooter, Smith was its most productive passer, and Wagner was the Swiss army knife who could do everything. Replacing these three will be quite a challenge.

Additionally, Michigan will also have to replace two key reserve options in Brown and Davis. Brown played more than half of Michigan’s minutes last season and Davis provided nice relief behind Dickinson upfront. Brown was also particularly useful on the defensive end, where he was arguably Michigan’s best perimeter defender. Finally, Michigan will also have to replace three walk-ons in Baird, Ozuna-Harrison, and Wilson.

Overall, there’s a lot walking out the door here. Losing three starters and your two best bench players is quite a blow. How these players are replaced will say a lot about the trajectory of Michigan this season.

3. New Additions

This season, the Wolverines are adding six new recruits, one transfer, and one walk-on. The recruits are Isaiah Barnes, Kobe Bufkin, Frankie Collins, Moussa Diabate, Caleb Houstan, and Will Tschetter. Diabate and Houstan are rated as five-star recruits, Barnes, Bufkin, and Collins are rated as four-stars, and Tschetter is rated as a three-star. According to 247Sports, Collins is a point guard, Bufkin is a combo guard, Barnes is a small forward, and Diabate, Houstan, and Tschetter are power forwards. Ian Burns also joins the program as a walk-on.

The recruits receiving the most attention at Diabate and Houstan. Both are rated as five-star prospects and should have immediate paths to playing time this season. Diabate is an athletic freak and Houstan looks like one of the best stretch forwards in the country. Many believe he could have a huge impact for the Wolverines from outside the arc.

The other incoming prospects also have a real shot at playing time. Bufkin and Collins are both top 50 prospects in the backcourt, Barnes has a decent skillset on the wing, and Tschetter could be a wait and see player. These four alone would be a great class and they come along with Diabate and Houstan. It’s an incredible group and it makes sense why 247Sports ranks it as the nation’s second-best class.

Additionally, Michigan will also be adding DeVante’ Jones from Coastal Carolina. He played three years there and averaged 19.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game in his final year with the program. He dominated the team’s offensive possession for Coastal Carolina and should be able to initiate things offensively for Michigan this year.

Overall, this is an incredible group of additions for Michigan. The recruiting class is exceptional and that doesn’t even include Jones, who very well could be the best incoming transfer in the league. Fans should be thrilled with what’s coming to Ann Arbor.

4. Points of Optimism

Given the program’s success in recent years and what it’s adding this offseason, it’s fair for Wolverine fans to be excited about what’s ahead. There’s high level talent, proven pieces, and a boatload of talent arriving. That all suggests big things ahead and plenty of legitimate reasons for optimism.

At the onset, we need to talk about what Michigan returns from last season. Dickinson and Johns are proven players upfront, Terrance Williams has shown some potential on the wing, and Eli Brooks returns in the backcourt. Even if that’s a limited group, having two All-Big Ten caliber options and a talented 2020 recruit is a great place to start. Simply put, when a player like Brooks is an “afterthought,” you get some perspective on the talent here.

It’s also important to recognize how good Dickinson could be this season. He’s a legitimate All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. Having a star player doesn’t guarantee success, but it goes a long way. Being a top 10 team almost necessitates having an All-American player. And Michigan has that this season in Dickinson.

Along with the returners, Michigan also adds an incredible amount of talent this offseason. Most programs hope to add one or two contributors, but Michigan is looking at adding three starter caliber players and at least two more who can contribute off the bench. Houstan and Jones should start, Diabate is going to see starter minutes in the backcourt, and players like Collins and Bufkin are more than capable of seeing bench roles. You’re talking about a lineup full of players joining what was already a Big Ten title squad. All of that suggests the Wolverines could be a special team this season.

5. Points of Concern

If there’s one clear weakness with Michigan’s team this season, it’s the significant turnover from last season. The Wolverines lost three starters and its two best bench players from last season. Even if you love Michigan’s returners and its culture, that’s a ton of contributions walking out the door. For perspective, that’s 66 percent of minutes from the Big Ten Tournament game Michigan played against Maryland last March. Obviously, that’s a lot walking out the door.

It’s also important to emphasize how good some of those players were last season. Livers and Wagner were NBA Draft picks and Smith played incredibly well. These weren’t your run of the mill departing senior starters. These were special players that won’t be easily replaced. After all, Wagner was a Swiss army knife for the Wolverines.

And these departures mean Michigan will rely extensively on new arrivals, namely in the form of the program’s 2021 recruiting class. And while the class is ranked exceptionally well in the national rankings, we’re still talking about freshmen. Prospects are always a short in the dark and Michigan is going to need several to step up this year. That’s a risky proposition.

Michigan is more than capable of overcoming these challenges, but the newcomers are going to need to be ready to play. And if the Wolverines miss on a few of them, it could be quite a challenge for the team to repeat its 2020-’21 success.

6. Top Player

Michigan enters this season with a clear leader for its top player. Dickinson returns after an All-American campaign and figures to be in the Big Ten Player of the Year race from season’s tip. He was a dominant force inside last season and one of the best scorers in the paint in the conference. His only real limitations relate to his passing and perimeter game. However, neither issue is all that significant at this level.

If anybody is going to challenge Dickinson, it’s probably going to be Brooks or one of the new additions, namely Jones, Houstan, or Diabate. Jones is an experienced and successful college guard, Houstan could be an offensive force, and Diabate has more long-term potential than anybody else on the roster. However, Dickinson seems like the easy pick here.

7. 2021-’22 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/5 - at Wayne State (Ex.)
  • 11/10 - Buffalo
  • 11/13 - Prairie View A&M (Washington, DC)
  • 11/16 - Seton Hall
  • 11/19 - UNLV (Las Vegas, NV)
  • 11/21 - Arizona/Wichita State (Las Vegas, NV)
  • 11/24 - Tarleton State
  • 12/1 - at North Carolina
  • 12/4 - San Diego State
  • 12/7 - at Nebraska
  • 12/11 - Minnesota
  • 12/18 - Southern Utah
  • 12/21 - Purdue Fort Wayne
  • 12/30 - at UCF
  • 1/4 - at Rutgers
  • 1/8 - Michigan State
  • 1/11 - Purdue
  • 1/14 - at Illinois
  • 1/18 - Maryland
  • 1/23 - at Indiana
  • 1/26 - Northwestern
  • 1/29 - at Michigan State
  • 2/1 - Nebraska
  • 2/5 - at Purdue
  • 2/8 - at Penn State
  • 2/12 - Ohio State
  • 2/17 - at Iowa
  • 2/20 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/23 - Rutgers
  • 2/27 - Illinois
  • 3/3 - Iowa
  • 3/6 - at Ohio State

This is a pretty fun schedule, all things considered. Michigan doesn’t play any elite opponents in non-conference play (at least on paper), but there are a lot of interesting games there. You get a feisty Buffalo team, Seton Hall, the trip to Vegas, and North Carolina and San Diego State in early December. Even UCF in late December looks intriguing. That’s a sneakily strong slate with a variety of top 100 opponents.

Big Ten play also looks fun. We generally know how it’s going to look, but some of these stretches look fantastic. Check out this one in January:

  • 1/8 - Michigan State
  • 1/11 - Purdue
  • 1/14 - at Illinois
  • 1/18 - Maryland
  • 1/23 - at Indiana

All five of those games look fantastic. You get marquee home matchups against Michigan State, Purdue, and Maryland and road trips to Illinois and Indiana. The game against Illinois also looks particularly intriguing after the bad blood between the programs last season. The close to the year also looks great:

  • 2/27 - Illinois
  • 3/3 - Iowa
  • 3/6 - at Ohio State

This schedule looks really difficult, but Michigan is more than capable of surviving it. While making it through the challenges of Big Ten play will be tough, this is a team with plenty of depth and talent. It should be fun to watch.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: DeVante’ Jones (Rs Jr.) - 95%
  • SG: Eli Brooks (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
  • SF: Caleb Houstan (Fr.) - 80%
  • PF: Brandon Johns (Rs. Jr.) - 70%
  • C: Hunter Dickinson (Rs. Fr.) - 95%

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

It’s odd to say about a team losing three starters and its two key reserves from last season, but Michigan enters this season with a pretty predictable starting lineup. Three players look like locks and the two other spots look pretty predicable as well. That’s all very encouraging for the team’s performance this season.

In the backcourt, expect Jones and Brooks to lock down the starting spots. Jones was a proven player at Coastal Carolina and Brooks is the team’s most experienced returner. It would be utterly shocking to see either of these players challenged for a starting role. The biggest challenge will be to see how the two play alongside each other. Jones dominated possessions at Coastal Carolina and won’t be able to do that at Michigan. Expect some type of learning curve.

Behind those two, Adrien Nunez and the incoming freshmen should take most of the minutes. Fortunately for Wolverine fans, these guards are also quite talented. Collins and Bufkin are top 50 prospects and Barnes is ranked 115th as well. Based on how most top 100 recruits perform, it seems reasonable to believe at least one or two of these players will be decent.

On the wing, expect to see Houstan and Johns grab the starting roles. Houstan is an elite prospect with early starting potential and Johns returns after a solid campaign last season. Johns stepped up when Livers went out with injury and performed admirably. Terrence Williams should take most of the reserve minutes here. Jace Howard is also an option.

Upfront, Dickinson should be a lock to grab the starting role. He’s an All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. During last season, he played 64.5 percent of the team’s minutes and fans will be hoping that rises this time around.

The battle for minutes behind Dickinson should be intriguing. Diabate is the preferred option, but nobody is quite show how ready he will be this season. While he’s an athletic freak, it’s unclear how ready he will be as the season begins. Diabate also seems more of a natural fit for the four than the five. There’s going to be some real experimentation early in the season to see where he fits best. Johns can also fill in at the five as well.

Overall, there’s a lot to like about Michigan’s lineup heading into this season. The team has three proven players in Brooks, Johns, and Dickinson, adds a proven option in Jones, and brings in key recruits in Collins, Houstan, and Diabate behind them. There’s more than enough here to win a lot of games.

9. Realistic Team Goals

Given the talent on this roster, Michigan can set some lofty goals this season. The Wolverines enter this season ranked among the top 10 nationally and third on KenPom. And while preseason projections are often faulty, those rankings are high enough to put some genuine faith into this Wolverine squad. This should be a really good team.

Based on the roster and those evaluations, it’s fair to set the goal at a Big Ten title and a trip to the Final Four. Those are lofty goals, but they’re reasonable given where things sit in Ann Arbor. Achieving those goals will likely come down to a bucket or two, like it did last year. It should be a heck of a ride.

10. Overall Season Outlook

When Howard took over for Beilein a few years ago, nobody was quite sure what to expect. Howard had an impressive resume, but had never done it at the college level and had never been a head coach. There were simultaneous reasons to be excited and cautious about the Wolverines under his leadership.

Well, two years in and Howard has been an unquestioned success in Ann Arbor. He’s built two NCAA quality teams, won last year’s Big Ten title, and came within a bucket of making it to last year’s Final Four. For a coach in his first two seasons, that’s remarkable. And his followup could be even better, adding the Big Ten’s best recruiting class this offseason.

Michigan lost enough this offseason to create some legitimate questions about this year’s Wolverine squad. Howard and his staff will also have to figure out how to meld talented freshmen with experienced returners, which is no easy task. There will be some bumps along the way. However, this team has all the pieces of a championship squad. We’ll have to simply wait and see if the team can deliver on that hype.

Big Ten Prediction: 1st Place