Hoops Preview 2014-15: The Mailbag, Part One Comment Count

Ace November 11th, 2014 at 2:28 PM

Previously: Gardening Lessons (The Story)Preview PodcastPreseason All-Big Ten TeamsPoint GuardsWings Part 1 (LeVert, Irvin), Wings Part 2 (Chatman, Wilson, Dawkins, MAAR), Bigs (Donnal, Doyle, Bielfeldt), Media Day Player InterviewsBig Ten NewcomersBig Ten Outlook Part 1, Big Ten Outlook Part 2

Improvement from the rest of the squad should help M's young centers get acclimated. [Fuller]

Michigan had their first and only exhibition of the 2014-15 season last night, and on Saturday the games start counting for real. Even by John Beilein Michigan squad standards, this is a young group facing a lot of pressing questions, and the answers will determine if the Wolverines continue the remarkable success of recent seasons or fall back to the pack a bit.

There are so many, in fact, that the preseason mailbag will be a two-parter. Today, Alex and I address your questions about the young group of centers, the possibility of more zone defense this season, and proper expectations for Zak Irvin's sophomore season.

The latest mailbag said you're looking for basketball questions, so here's my biggest wonder heading into the season: What should my expectations be for the production from the center position, a position that seems to be a weakness on an otherwise strong team? 

Beilein said he wants Mark [Donnal] or Ricky [Doyle] to eventually emerge as The Guy, but if we consider them to be a platoon (can we call it Donnoyle?), what output should we be happy with and what should concern us? Will Mark Donnal be the perfect fit everyone's been talking about (I won't make the age-old comparison), or will he be overpowered by mean scary Big Ten centers? Will Ricky Doyle be a calming presence on the defense or will we see that classic freshman deer-in-the-headlights look too often?

This message got a lot longer than I planned, but it's just something that I've been discussing at length with the basketball beat writers, and I think it's something that a lot of the fan base is wondering. Let me know what you think!


Ace: Let's start with a point of reference. Last season in Big Ten play—which removes Mitch McGary's scattered nonconference minutes from the equation—the combination of Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford averaged 11.3 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.4 turnovers, and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 70.7% from the field.

A few of those numbers are unlikely to be replicated by a trio of freshman centers—while he'll see plenty of time at the four and maybe even the three, DJ Wilson will get a lot of run at the five—and Max Bielfeldt. Morgan and Horford were both very efficient finishers who didn't take jumpers; that's not the case for any of M's current centers—even Doyle is comfortable shooting from mid-range—and just by virtue of them taking more jumpers, that shooting percentage is going to dip. Replacing seniors with freshmen usually means rebounding will go down and turnovers up, too.

All three main center options have scoring potential, though. Donnal missed his only three-point attempt last night and wasn't a major factor on offense, but if he can consistently stretch the defense he should stick as the starter. Ricky Doyle could easily surpass him, however, and even provide the type of scoring that Morgan/Horford did. Doyle is the bigger guy and looks to have more potential as a rebounder—he had an impressive putback last night—and his tape from high school and the Italy trip shows he's adept at finishing near the basket with either hand. Wilson, when he's at the five, will really spread the floor, and he's easily the best passer and ballhandler of these three; he may also be the best outside shooter.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of this excessively long answer and much more.]

While it'll take the centers a while to get fully acclimated to playing defense at the collegiate level, there's the distinct possibility Michigan takes a big step forward as a team, with the fives playing a big part. Morgan was great positionally, but never a shot-blocker. Doyle and Donnal both have potential as rim protectors, especially Doyle, and Wilson's enormous wingspan allows him to erase shots in unexpected fashion—he unleashed the Inspector Gadget arm for a block last night that Wayne State's player couldn't have seen coming. The rest of the defense around these guys should improve—Walton, LeVert, and Irvin are a year older, any dropoff from GRIII to Chatman/Wilson should be minimal, and Stauskas wasn't a strong defender—so if they can alter their fair share of shots at the tin, Michigan's defense could get much better despite losing their leader on that end.

Importantly, the centers should get more help on the boards this season. Robinson's rebounding at the four last season was decidedly subpar; both LeVert and Walton posted better defensive rebounding rates. Now Chatman steps into that spot, and he carries the reputation of an excellent rebounder—something he displayed last night with six boards; he seems to have the knack for knowing where the ball is going to carom that GRIII lacked. Meanwhile, Walton is a very active defensive rebounder for a point guard, LeVert uses his length really well on the boards, and it's hard to imagine Irvin posts a 7.7% defensive rebounding rate again this year—he had five boards last night and visibly put in a lot of effort to get them.

The production may drop at center this season, but I think a good amount of it is going to be covered by the other four guys on the court.

Alex: I think the most important thing for the position will be adequate defense -- scoring should not be an issue for Michigan, so Doyle and Donnal (and maybe Wilson) won't need to put up big scoring numbers. Any points (or offensive rebounds, which Michigan doesn't emphasize) from the position will be somewhat of a bonus. What Michigan needs from its centers is foul aversion -- an especially big problem for young big men, and a potentially devastating one if both Donnal and Doyle are foul machines -- as well as generally decent defense: containing the pick-and-roll, helping off smartly on drives, positioning well for defensive boards, and holding up in one-on-one post defense.

I'm expecting it to be a little rough early on in the season; Donnal will probably start and he'll be a different look than what we're used to on offense (he won't be as good in the pick-and-roll, the crisp movement won't be there, but he will give Michigan a five-out look which provides incredible spacing), while Doyle will play quite a bit. Both of those guys are pretty much unknowns at this point, but Doyle has been getting more positive buzz than his recruiting profile would indicate.

This reminds me a lot of 2011, in which Michigan had Jordan Morgan (redshirt Fr.), Jon Horford (true Fr.), and Evan Smotrycz (another true Fr., playing out of position at the five), with Donnal as Morgan, Doyle as Horford, and Wilson as Smotrycz. J-Mo put up surprisingly solid numbers that season, but Michigan won't need it this time: just bigs who can stay on the floor and hold up on the defensive end.

LeVert's length makes him a disruptive presence at the top of the 1-3-1. [Fuller]

With several new, rather unproven starters on the team, especially the young Bigs, will we see a shift in defensive philosophy for Michigan now that Jordan Morgan's experienced defensive presence is missing? Possibly more of the 1-3-1 than we saw last year?


Ace: If there was a team to do it under Beilein, it's this one, though the youth up front might prevent them from experimenting too much in the early going—first, the centers have to get down the basics in man-to-man. If last night is any indication, that's exactly how they're approaching this season; it was pure man-to-man all game.

The potential for zone is an intriguing one because this team is pretty big one-through-five. A lineup of Walton-LeVert-Irvin-Chatman/Wilson-Doyle features a ton of length; whether out of the 1-3-1 or the 2-3, those guys would disrupt a lot of passes, and Beilein may be more willing to get risky on defense if he's got better rim protection from his bigs.

Based on Beilein's history at Michigan, however, I wouldn't expect much zone except as a situation-specific curveball. With such a young group up front, keeping things simple is going to be a priority.

Alex: Maybe more 2-3 zone, but it seems like Beilein has shelved the 1-3-1 for the most part. A lineup with LeVert, Irvin, and Chatman on the wings provides a ton of length, so I would like to see the 1-3-1 used situationally like it has been in the past. It's an extremely high-risk, high-reward defense that can concede a parade of layups and corner threes if it's attacked correctly. For that reason, Beilein likes to use it later in the game, setting it up off of made baskets, but using it as a staple defense seems untenable. Michigan's tinkered with a 2-3 in the past and might use it again--the 2-3 works well against opponents who struggle to shoot from the outside.

It will be interesting to see if Michigan forgoes the hard hedge on ball-screens in man-to-man defense; they've done that in the past to trap ball-handlers but it exposes the defense on the back end and is easily broken with time to exploit it with college hoops' 35-second shot clock. NBA teams often use more of a conservative pick-and-roll defense, which would benefit Michigan: the ball-handler has to shoot the Wolverines out of that scheme and Yogi Ferrell is probably the only Big Ten player who can do it consistently.

[Ed-Ace: FWIW, the team went with the hard hedge last night.]

Zak Irvin showed off a more well-rounded game last night. [Fuller]

I know the expectations are for Caris to be the focal point this year but what are the chances we see a meteoric rise from Zak Irvin similar to the one Nik took last year?



Ace: Irvin should have a breakout season, but any expectations that he'll replicate Stauskas' incredible sophomore year should be seriously tempered. Here's a comparison of some key stats from their respective freshman seasons, courtesy of KenPom:

  %Min %Poss %Shots ARate TORate FTRate 2PM-2PA 3PM-3PA
Irvin 38.1 19.4 25.9 4.7 9.3 10.7 23-50 (46%) 62-146 (43%)
Stauskas 75.6 16.2 17.5 7.6 14.2 29.2 58-116 (50%) 80-182 (44%)

Not only did Stauskas play quite a bit more while posting similar numbers from beyond the arc, he played a much different role in the offense. Irvin was a gunner, pure and simple; he took just 5% of his shots at the rim. Freshman Stauskas nearly quadrupled that number (19%) due to a healthy number of pick-and-roll possessions, which also boosted his assist rate—a number that would take off in his sophomore year. While both players took on secondary roles in their first years at Michigan, Stauskas had far more variety in his game.

Irvin also doesn't need to be Nik Stauskas, nor does Michigan need him to be Nik Stauskas. Last season, Michigan had lost their primary ballhander—some guy named Trey—and their #2 scoring option, so it made sense for the offense to largely run through Stauskas. This year's team returns two quality point guards and a scoring wing who can really facilitate the offense in LeVert; there isn't the same need for Irvin to become an all-around force.

That's not to say Irvin won't take big strides this season. He's going to rebound a lot more, most likely, and he displayed increased athleticism with a couple authoritative dunks last night—though those came in transition, not off the dribble. He even hit a midrange jumper. (We have photographic proof! Well, of the attempt, at least.) But if you're looking for someone to take a Stauskas-like leap, it's either LeVert or Walton—they're going to be the guys with the ball in their hands most of the time.

Alex: The chances of a big year from Zak Irvin are very high, if only because he's going to play more. More minutes means more shot opportunities or Irvin, who never hesitates to take them. Stauskas's rise came because he expanded his game while assuming the role of alpha dog on the team -- I don't foresee Irvin experiencing that. He won't have as big of a rise as Stauskas because breakout years like that simply don't happen very often. Another guy to watch is Derrick Walton - he could easily be very improved from last year.



November 11th, 2014 at 3:43 PM ^

The Harris-Morris-Burke-Stauskas-Levert torch-passing will continue next year and Irvin is the favorite to be that guy. It probably won't be this year though. Like Alex said, it's unlikely Irvin is quite there yet, mostly becauses of the other people around him. But he could ascend to a level where he is option 1B, as Caris was last year.  The complicating factor is Derrick Walton, who also could be very very good.

Last year, GR3 and Walton and Irvin had to back off a bit as Caris/Nik led the offensive charge.  The year before, Nik was "just a shooter" and THJ became more of an off-the-ball player again.

In other words, there's always been room for two high usage players and other guys kind of have to hang back and do the one thing they're very good at.  It always works, but HOW it works is something we don't yet know.  This year it seems that either Walton or Irvin will step up significantly, but just how that mix plays out we have to wait on.

Beilein has turned Harris-Morris-Burke-Stauskas into dominant offensive performers.  None of these guys have had NBA success yet, which tells you something about who is responsible.  In other words, I'm not worried, and feel VERY confident that either Irvin or Walton (or both) will be in contention for all-conference honors.


November 11th, 2014 at 6:35 PM ^

i think the 1-3-1 could be highly successful when wilson is at the 5, especially against a team with questionable point guard play.  levert at the top is very disruptive.  i'm not sure i would use this zone with doyle, due to lack of quickness.