The 2023-’24 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2023-’24 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 postseason potential.
Since Juwan Howard took over in Ann Arbor, it’s been a wild ride for the Wolverines. The program has seen the highs and lows of college basketball, with a Big Ten title in 2021 and a disappointing trip to the NIT last spring. The inconsistency has rolled over to Michigan’s roster as well, as fans have watched a litany of players move in and out of the roster over the last few years.
Unfortunately, Wolverine fans experienced many of those lows over the last eight months, as Michigan finished last season with an underwhelming 18-16 overall record, missed the NCAA Tournament altogether, and took an early exit from the NIT. And things only got rougher from there, with Kobe Bufkin and Jett Howard declaring for the NBA Draft and star center Hunter Dickinson transferring to Kansas. Those moves gutted a roster that had already struggled to deliver on the court.
The question is now whether Michigan can set last season behind and get back on track. Many are skeptical of the Wolverines’ chances, especially with the significant offseason departures and with the team’s poor execution down the stretch last season. Time after time, Michigan blew winnable games and cost itself a shot at the NCAA Tournament.
So, can it be done? Let’s take a look.
1. 2022-’23 Season Performance
- Record: 18-16 (11-9)
- KenPom Team Rating: #44
- NET Rating: #57
- Postseason Appearance: NIT (Second Round)
Last season was a disaster for the Wolverines. Despite entering the season with an All-American candidate at center, a loaded incoming recruiting class, and a handful of key returners elsewhere, Michigan fell on its face, struggled to close out games in conference play, and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015 and only the second time since 2010.
Generally speaking, Michigan’s struggles were a team effort. The Wolverines were as inconsistent as anyone and were a disaster for large portions of the season on defense. The offense also got dragged down with a few ball dominant players, who combined seem to be worse than their individual skills would suggest. After all, it’s rare to see a team with multiple NBA Lottery picks (Bufkin and Jett Howard) and an All-American level center (Dickinson) miss the NCAA Tournament by a few games’ margin.
With that said, Michigan probably wasn’t as bad as some of its overall performance suggested. To start, a litany of key injuries severely impacted the team’s hopes. Transfer guard Jaelin Llewellyn only played eight games and Michigan saw other contributors like Jeff Howard and Terrance Williams miss time as well. No, the team wouldn’t have been an elite squad if these guys were healthy, but it certainly adds up.
The Wolverines also lost a litany of close games. And while close losses happen in college basketball, it’s hard to contextualize how many teams this happened to Michigan last season, and how bad some of the collapses were. Here are just a few stats from give of Michigan’s games last season:
- Lost to Virginia with 64.3 percent in-game odds with two minutes left;
- Lost to Central Michigan with 89.9 percent in-game odds with a minute left;
- Lost to Iowa with 95.7 percent in-game odds with just over two minutes left;
- Lost to Indiana with 77.4 percent in-game odds with just over five minutes left;
- Lost to Illinois with 94.1 percent in-game odds with less than two minutes; and
- Lost to Indiana with 73.6 percent in-game odds with just over a minute left;
While it’s unfair to simply “flip” those games and assume Michigan “should have” won them, it puts into context why Michigan finished 336th in KenPom’s luck metric. If even three of those games had been wins, Michigan’s likely right on the verge of another NCAA bid, if not easily into the field. It’s a brutal reality for the Wolverines.
Highlights of the season included the non-conference win over Pittsburgh, the Big Ten wins over Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, and the NIT win over Toledo. Low points included the brutal losses above, along with a blowout to Penn State in league play, and the postseason losses to Rutgers and Vanderbilt.
Individual statistical leaders were Kobe Bufkin, Hunter Dickinson, and Dug McDaniel. Bufkin led the team in minutes and steals. Dickinson led the team in points, rebounds, blocks, and total win shares. McDaniel led the team in assists.
2. Offseason Exits
Michigan got hit pretty hard this spring with offseason departures. The Wolverines saw six players depart in Joey Baker, Isaiah Barnes, Kobe Bufkin, Hunter Dickinson, Gregg Glenn, and Jett Howard. Three of the six were starters and one was a key bench contributor, which will leave Juwan with his hands full in trying to replace them.
The most significant departure was Dickinson. He arrived in 2020 and instantly made an impact in Ann Arbor, earning a starting job early in the 2020-’21 season and leading Michigan to a one seed and the Big Ten regular season title. He was then Michigan’s best player the next two seasons, leading the Wolverines to the Sweet 16 in 2022 and to last year’s NIT appearance. He was an offensive monster and a great player on the boards. He still had more eligibility left, but decided to transfer to Kansas, likely for NIL reasons.
The other three notable departures are Baker, Bufkin, and Jett Howard. Bufkin and Jett were both starters throughout last season and put up impressive numbers before heading to the NBA Draft. Baker wasn’t quite as explosive, but was one of the team’s better three-point shooters and arguably Michigan’s best bench option last season. They all come from the same positional group, which makes their departures hurt even more.
Michigan’s final two departures were Barnes and Glenn, who both played sparingly last season. Both arrived with decent recruiting profiles, but never delivered on them. Neither is expected to be a significant on-court loss.
3. New Additions
This season, the Wolverines will be adding one new recruit and three transfers. The lone recruit is four-star shooting guard George Washington III. The transfers are Alabama’s Nimari Burnett, Seton Hall’s Tray Jackson, and Tennessee’s Olivier Nkamhoua. All three have immediate eligibility for this season. Harrison Hochberg also arrives as a preferred walk-on.
The new additions receiving the most attention are Burnett and Nkamhoua and rightfully so. Nkahmhoua was a star contributor for the Volunteers last season, starting over 35 games for the team and finishing as one of the most efficient players on the roster. There’s little doubt the former Tennessee forward will earn an immediate starting spot in Ann Arbor. And while Burnett’s contributions at Alabama were far less impressive, he still played on one of the nation’s better teams and had an impressive recruiting profile. Burnett should be one of the more athletic players on Michigan’s roster next season and should be a reliable defensive presence on the wing.
Jackson and Washington aren’t expected to contribute as much as the two above, but should be reliable bench options for a team desperately looking for some. With Dickinson’s departure, there are minutes available at the five and Jackson should get some of those. Washington should be able to get 5 to 15 minutes a game backing up Dug McDaniel.
Overall, this is a quietly solid group of newcomers. Nkahmhoua looks like a potential star for the Wolverines and the other three additions should all get minutes as well. It’s hard to say this replaces everything that walked out the door, but it should at least replace a hunk of it.
4. Points of Optimism
There’s little denying Michigan enters this fall with its lowest expectations in years, likely dating back to the earliest days of the John Beilein era, when Michigan was still trying to resurface from the Fab Five scandal and related NCAA sanctions. In some ways, it feels like a return to that status in Ann Arbor, as Michigan will have an uphill battle to make this season’s NCAA Tournament.
However, even amid those concerns, there are some genuine reasons to believe Michigan will surprise this season. To start, it’s important to put this roster and last season’s performance in perspective. The Wolverines weren’t great, but were far from the “embarrassment” many critics called them. The team finished 44th on KenPom and probably would have made the Big Dance if it had been a little healthier or even modestly better at closing out games. That has to be welcome news for fans because it means Michigan isn’t starting nearly as behind as some figure.
The newcomers and returners should also mesh together pretty well. Yes, Michigan probably needs one or two of them to overachieve to feel good about its chances, but the Wolverines have established pieces around them in McDaniel and Tarris Reed. Add in experienced players like Jaelin Llewellyn and Terrance Williams and you start having decent options to fill out the depth chart.
All of those pieces should give Michigan one of the better starting lineups in the Big Ten. That might sound ambitious, but it’s accurate. While the top tier of the league certainly figures to have better lineups than the Wolverines, it doesn’t go as far as some might expect. After all, keep in mind how well McDaniel played down the stretch, the known play of Nkahmhoua, and the potential of players like Llewellyn, Burnett, and Reed. If you started shopping those players around the Big Ten, they’re going to start a lot of places.
Michigan’s culture and mindset also stands to improve significantly from last season. And that isn’t meant to be a “shot” at anyone. It’s just simply the byproduct of a team loaded with stars looking to build their NBA stock. This figures to be a more balanced roster and lineup than Wolverine fans have seen in recent years. And while that’s generally not a good thing, it could pay dividends on the defensive end of the floor and in the “grit” stats. Perhaps Michigan will be able to grind out more games than in recent years.
This all leads to the obvious conclusion that Wolverine fans have real reasons to hope for this season. This isn’t a talent void roster or a team doomed to fail. Some newcomers are going to have to hit the ground running, but we’ve seen that done before.
5. Points of Concern
Unfortunately, while fans have some reasons for hope, there are also plenty of reasons so many are down on the Wolverines entering this season. To start, the lack of elite talent on this roster. While players like McDaniel and Nkahmhoua have the potential to be star level contributors, this is only the second time since 2010 that Michigan has entered a season without a preseason All-Big Ten pick. That’s a big statement about the lack of elite level players on this roster, which is always a concerning note.
Michigan’s lack of depth also raises some major red flags. Juwan and his staff spent virtually the entire offseason trying to find more bodies for this roster and rightfully so — the Wolverines lack quality depth at basically every position. The starting lineup looks promising, but this team is significantly more vulnerable to injury than last year’s group and (as noted above) that likely kept them out of the Big Dance last time around.
To put that into perspective, just look at the two, three, and four spots in the lineup. While the addition of Nkahmhoua should fill at least one spot, there’s relative uncertainty everywhere else. Burnett was inconsistent at his previous stop, Llewellyn is more of a combo guard than a two guard, Jackson probably isn’t a positional fit alongside Nkahmhoua at the four, and players like Khayat, Jace Howard, Will Tschetter, and Williams have been underwhelming throughout their careers. It’s a tricky spot.
It’s also unclear where Michigan is going to get its perimeter shooting. The team ranked 114th nationally in three-point percentage last season, but over 72 percent of Michigan’s three-pointers came from players who left the roster. For context, Michigan’s leading returner (McDaniel) in the category only averaged 2.7 three-point attempts per game last season. Somebody is going to have to step up and it’s unclear who it will be.
6. Top Player
With the offseason departures, Michigan enters this fall without a clear pick in this category. Dickinson was clearly the program’s best player last season and his exit will give the rest of the roster a chance to expand their contributions.
The frontrunners figure to be McDaniel and Nkahmhoua. Both are relatively proven players who have produced at respectable levels. McDaniel will need to increase his efficiency to elevate his game, but he’s certainly shown the ability to play extended minutes and get hot in big moments. Of course, Nkahmhoua has played at a high level on a nationally relevant team and should be able to continue his play in Ann Arbor.
Other darkhorses are Reed and the other transfers, namely Burnett. However, it’s unclear if either of them have the offensive consistency to push the top two in this category. Jackson also has a chance to get plenty of playing time and could elevate himself.
7. 2023-’24 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/3 - Northwood (Exh.)
- 11/7 - UNC Asheville
- 11/10 - Youngstown State
- 11/13 - St. John’s (New York, NY)
- 11/17 - Long Beach State
- 11/22 - Memphis (Paradise Island, Bahamas)
- 11/23 - Arkansas/Stanford (Paradise Island, Bahamas)
- 11/24 - Battle 4 Atlantis (Paradise Island, Bahamas)
- 12/2 - at Oregon
- 12/5 - Indiana
- 12/10 - at Iowa
- 12/16 - Eastern Michigan
- 12/19 - Florida (Charlotte, NC)
- 12/29 - McNeese
- 1/4 - Minnesota
- 1/7 - Penn State (Philadelphia, PA)
- 1/11 - at Maryland
- 1/15 - Ohio State
- 1/18 - Illinois
- 1/23 - at Purdue
- 1/27 - Iowa
- 1/30 - at Michigan State
- 2/3 - Rutgers
- 2/7 - Wisconsin
- 2/10 - at Nebraska
- 2/13 - at Illinois
- 2/17 - Michigan State
- 2/22 - at Northwestern
- 2/25 - Purdue
- 2/29 - at Rutgers
- 3/3 - at Ohio State
- 3/10 - Nebraska
Michigan projects to have one of the nation’s tougher slates, with one of the more challenging possible Big Ten allotments and a handful of tricky non-conference matchups. Much will come down to how the Wolverines perform against similarly positioned opponents.
Non-conference play will be highlighted by the trip to Atlantis and a few marquee matchups, including road trips to St. John’s and Oregon and a neutral site game against Florida. Virtually all the games (save maybe the game against the Ducks) should be in the tossup category, which makes the slate particularly intriguing. If the Wolverines can be a bit better than expected, there are plenty of wins available.
Things will remain challenging from there, as Michigan prepares for a gauntlet of a conference schedule. The Wolverines get double-plays against Illinois, Michigan State, and Purdue and a road game against Maryland. Considering that group contains four of the top five Big Ten teams on KenPom entering this season, it’s hard to imagine things being much tougher. KenPom projects the Wolverines as underdogs in all seven games.
Perhaps the most intriguing portion of the slate will come near the end, with the following games that have KenPom odds to win noted alongside:
- 2/7 - Wisconsin (49%)
- 2/10 - at Nebraska (45%)
- 2/13 - at Illinois (26%)
- 2/17 - Michigan State (45%)
- 2/22 - at Northwestern (36%)
- 2/25 - Purdue (33%)
- 2/29 - at Rutgers (45%)
- 3/3 - at Ohio State (34%)
That’s eight games against quality opponents where every matchup is currently projected as a loss. However, four are in the 40s and the Purdue game comes at home. Obviously, it won’t be easy, but Michigan needs to find a way to come close to (or exceed) 4-4 in those games. It’s crucial to avoid another tailspin like the team had last year.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Dug McDaniel (So.) - 95%
- SG: Nimari Burnett (Gr.) - 85%
- SF: Terrence Williams (Sr.) - 60%
- PF: Olivier Nkamhoua (Gr.) - 95%
- C: Tarris Reed (So.) - 95%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
The Wolverines enter this season with some stability in the lineup, with two returning starters and a promising big man back as well. Add in a few quality transfers and it’s fairly easy to see how things will shake out. The question is more so about how those players fit together and whether the roster will have much depth behind them.
In the backcourt, McDaniel is going to lock down the point. He may have started slowly last season, but he came on significantly toward the end and became one of the team’s more reliable offensive options. Unfortunately, things are kind of a mess around him. Burnett seems like the safe pick at the two, but he had mixed results at Alabama. The depth options are also underwhelming. Jaelin Llewellyn is back from last year, but he’s coming off an injury and true freshman Washington is the other option. Fans will have to hope those two can grow into 10 minutes or so a game as the year continues.
The wing group looks similar, with one predictable starter and uncertainty otherwise. Nkamhoua is certainly going to grab one of the starting roles and play major minutes. The question is how the minutes fall around him. Williams starter the exhibition, but he was incredibly inconsistent last season. The same can be said for most of the other options like Will Tschetter, transfer forward Jackson, and Youssef Khayat. None are proven commodities on the wing. Wolverine fans need to hope at least one of those three overperforms.
Upfront, things are going to ride with Reed. He was a solid reserve behind Dickinson behind last season, but will now take over the starting role. He has shown promise when he’s been on the court, especially on the defensive end. However, doing it for limited minutes and doing it for 20-30 minutes is a different story. Jackson will likely take most of the reserve minutes behind him.
Overall, Michigan should field a pretty capable starting five. Three or four of the positions could be “plus” spots where the Wolverines have a matchup advantage against most opponents. The tricky parts will be navigating the fifth spot and the team’s limited depth. If Howard can manage that, Michigan could be pretty formidable.
9. Realistic Team Goals
Perhaps no fanbase in the Big Ten has been more spoiled than Wolverine fans over the last decade. After years of ineptitude, Beilein arrived and turned Michigan into a national contender. The program won multiple Big Ten titles, multiple Big Ten Tournaments, and made seven trips to the Sweet 16 since 2013. It’s the kind of stretch fans dream of.
Unfortunately, the air has came out of the balloon over the last few years. Michigan initially dropped from the top 10 to the top 25 and then fell harder last March, missing the NCAA Tournament altogether. It was easily Michigan’s worst season since 2014-’15 and many Wolverine fans are now feeling down about the team’s chances this time around. And while some of that sentiment might be accurate, this is a team more than capable of making the NCAA Tournament cut. Fans should expect to be firmly on the bubble near March.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Last season was a rough one for the Wolverines. After so much success in the 2010s, Michigan fans were hoping for more than a lackluster NIT appearance last March. Add in the disappointment surrounding players like Dickinson and Jett Howard and it’s easy to see why Wolverine fans are so down about the team’s chances this time around.
However, while the team’s expectations are low, Michigan has plenty of promise this season. The Wolverines return two starters and a few key depth pieces and add one of the league’s more intriguing groups of newcomers. With any luck, Michigan should be able to field one of the Big Ten’s better starting lineups.
The question will simply be what Michigan can get out of its role players. If players like Williams and Jackson hit the ground running, the team could easily find its way back into the NCAA Tournament. But if the depth is lackluster and the bench collapses, it could be another long season in Ann Arbor.