Previously: MGoPodcast 7.22, Postmortem Feelingsball
While it's easy to chalk 2015-16 up as another lost season for Michigan basketball, the program made real progress despite again dealing with injuries that would cripple a lesser squad. The Wolverines improved their win total by seven, made their way back to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence, avoiding anything resembling the NJIT-EMU experience of the previous season, and saw promising development from some of their younger players.
Yes, there was plenty of bad, but we'll get to that later. Today's focus is on what went right for Michigan in 2015-16 and the implications for next season and beyond.
More MAAR, More Efficiency. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman flashed potential as a freshman, but a wonky jumper, too many turnovers, a low free-throw rate, and early-season struggles finishing at the rim knocked his ORating down to an ugly 92.5.
This season, MAAR was thrust into a far bigger role after Caris LeVert's injury, and he responded by improving every facet of his game. His turnover rate dropped by more than half, he made 57% of his two-pointers in Big Ten play, he reliably knocked down corner threes, he got to the line more often, and while he won't be confused for a point guard any time soon he showed an increased willingness and ability to dish off the drive.
Most importantly, MAAR emerged as the team's most (read: only) reliable shot-creator in LeVert's absence. 33.2% of MAAR's shots came at the rim, the highest rate for a non-center on the team, per hoop-math. After LeVert (32.7%), the next-closest Wolverine in the rotation was Aubrey Dawkins at 22.4%, and MAAR worked a whole lot harder for his attempts at the basket—Dawkins was assisted on 75.0% of such shots, while MAAR was on just 16.4%. Even though MAAR had to go solo the vast majority of the time, he made an impressive 72.6% of his shots at the rim.
In an offense spearheaded by Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton, two players who have struggled to create and finish shots at the basket, that ability takes on paramount importance for next season. If MAAR can increase his usage—still at a relatively low 16.3% this season—while maintaining the efficiency he had this season, he could easily become the team's top option, especially if he improves as a passer out of the pick-and-roll. That would allow Walton to play off the ball more often, the role he's been best at in his Michigan career, and take pressure off Irvin to be an off-the-dribble creator, something he's improved at but still doesn't look totally comfortable doing.
Weezy, Freed. Save a few anomalous performances by Mark Donnal, the center position was a major sore spot this season, but there's renewed hope for next year after the late-season breakout of Moe Wagner.
Over the last four games of the season, Wagner went 9/9 from the field—including a three-pointer—with six offensive rebounds and four blocks in only 55 minutes. He was far and away Michigan's best pick-and-roll big, catching opponents square with his screens—he freed up Derrick Walton on the last play of the Indiana BTT game, forcing the help that opened up Kam Chatman in the corner—and showing great instincts for when to slip to the basket; it helped that he was a more reliable catcher and finisher than Donnal or Ricky Doyle, too. Despite being a skinny freshman, he showed he can hold up in the post on defense and potentially be a sorely needed rim protector.
Wagner's potential is tantalizing. At 6'10", he's got the frame to easily add 15-25 pounds and return next season in the 240-250 range. He dunks when Michigan's other big men go for layups. He has the athleticism and length to alter shots, run the floor, and even beat big men off the dribble. He made 71%(!) of his two-pointers as a freshman. If he can stay on the floor—a big question given his 7.3 fouls/40 minutes mark—he could turn the center spot from a negative into a positive in just one season.
Duncan Robinson. Even after an extended late-season slump—which, given Robinson's lofty standard, meant he made a mere 35% of his three-pointers in conference play—the D-III transfer proved he could more than hold his own at the highest level of college basketball. His shot chart remains a thing of beauty:
Robinson's dropoff can be attributed to issues that should be mitigated next season. He played more games than he ever had before while simultaneously facing a much higher level of competition. Opponents increasingly game-planned to eliminate Robinson as Michigan's other offensive weapons went down to injury or proved ineffective. With a year of D-I experience under his belt and what should be an improved group of players around him next season, Robinson should better be able to maintain his torrid early-season shooting pace. He showed signs of perking up at the end of this season, too, making 5/10 threes in the NCAA Tournament.
While Robinson would be a valuable starter based on his outside shooting alone, he rounded out his game as the season progressed. He drove to the basket more often late in the season, and while he wasn't great at finishing through contact, he shot a solid percentage near the hoop by using the basket to help shield him from defenders—the reverse layup off a baseline cut is becoming something of a signature for him. He went from being a terrible defender to merely a below-average one, separating himself from Aubrey Dawkins in that regard.
Robinson isn't quite Nik Stauskas 2.0—Stauskas created far more offense off the dribble—but Michigan ideally only needs him to be a second or third option in the offense instead of being the go-to guy. With more strength to finish drives after another summer of Camp Sanderson, Robinson should be a closer facsimile to Stauskas next season.
Derrick Walton's rebounding. At 6'1", Walton finished 14th in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding rate. Yes, some of that is due to the rebounding strategy put in place by the coaches—the big men seal off while the guards crash—but it's still ridiculous. While the rest of Walton's season was a disappointment, his remarkable ability to grab contested rebounds over bigger players shouldn't be overlooked.