[Marc-Gregor Campredon]

Hoops Mailbag: Bench Freshmen, Livers vs Tillman, Spoonerisms Comment Count

Alex Cook December 14th, 2018 at 2:20 PM

What non-rotation bench player's development is most crucial for 1) this season's success 2) success in coming years? — @DrGarbs

Right now, the rotation consists of all of Michigan’s scholarship players who have been in the program for more than a year, as well as Ignas Brazdeikis. That leaves the remainder of what was a highly-touted freshman class: Brandon Johns, David DeJulius, Colin Castleton, and Adrien Nunez. All four have struggled in their rare, mostly garbage time appearances in live action so far in their young careers. None have looked ready to meaningfully contribute for a top team.

With Austin Davis’s struggles as the backup center and Michigan’s depth issues more generally, the Wolverines could really benefit from the emergence of another adequate role player (or two). Unfortunately, the three 4* freshmen who are currently out of the rotation play at positions that are difficult for some young players to adjust to: point guard and center. DeJulius was a great scorer and shooter in high school and has to learn how to operate one of the most complex offensive schemes in college basketball. Center isn’t Johns’s natural position, and Castleton might be too slender to contribute in his first year on campus (Johns and DeJulius have looked much more physically ready).

Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske were near the same caliber of recruit as those three — and both fared poorly as freshmen two years ago. Simpson was recruited to be Derrick Walton’s backup and made more than one shot in a game just four times all season; Teske couldn’t supplant Mark Donnal as the backup center, and the game looked way too fast for him in his brief cameos. They’re now essential components of an extremely good team. Michigan’s best freshman (Iggy) won’t be around for too long, and it’s impossible to say how any of the remaining members of that class, including Adrien Nunez, will turn out solely based on how they’ve looked as freshmen.

Based on Michigan’s current rotation, the most obvious need seems to be at center, though any of the bench freshmen who can step up to provide eight capable minutes per game will surely find playing time. Johns and Castleton provide different looks than Teske or Davis; if Johns can get more comfortable in his role on both ends, he could make a sporadic impact as early as this season — he has the talent. And while DeJulius profiles to be a good — possibly great — general of the Beilein offense in time, Johns probably has the higher ceiling. The idea of Castleton is an intriguing one as well, though. Maybe they could reprise the Wilson-Wagner frontcourt.

So, for this season’s success: Johns. For success in coming years… DeJulius (because he’s the Point Guard of The Future, and having a good point guard is very important in college basketball).

Which B1G team is KenPom/Torvik underrating the most? Overrating the most? — @colintj

Team Kenpom Torvik Sagarin Average
Michigan 4 2 3 3
Michigan State 8 6 2 5.3
Wisconsin 13 13 15 13.7
Nebraska 21 12 11 14.7
Ohio State 19 17 14 16.7
Purdue 14 21 18 17.7
Indiana 25 27 16 22.7
Maryland 28 32 36 32
Iowa 38 34 45 39
Northwestern 47 47 49 47.7
Penn State 42 52 58 50.7
Minnesota 58 72 63 64.3
Rutger 107 66 82 85
Illinois 104 65 93 87.3

Overrated: Nebraska.

Tim Miles and his veteran team are likely to return to the NCAA Tournament, but a ranking on the edge of the top ten (per Torvik and Sagarin, Kenpom has them around twenty) is too high. James Palmer is one of the better scorers in all of college hoops; Isaac Copeland and Isaiah Roby make up a strong frontcourt; crucially, Glynn Watson is shooting well from outside. The Cornhuskers have a quality offense and a quality defense, though they’re not exceptional on either end.

Nebraska’s resume thus far consists of a narrow road win over Clemson and decisive home wins against Creighton and Seton Hall (none of which are consensus top forty teams); in their losses, Texas Tech pulled away at a neutral court (not really any shame in that), and they blew a substantial lead at Minnesota (a bad loss in how it went down, not necessarily that bad as a binary outcome). They did annihilate two bad teams by a combined 121 points, which may be boosting their rankings.

According to the computers, Michigan and Michigan State are ahead of a well-regarded second tier, and I don’t think Nebraska will prove to be the best team in that tier, and could wind up closer to the middle of the league. I don't think Tim Miles's first truly good team is this good, and I'm not sure I trust him to get this team to its ceiling.

Underrated: …Minnesota …nobody?

Because of how well-regarded the league is right now, there aren’t many candidates here. Michigan, State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State, Purdue, and Indiana are too highly-ranked relative to how good they are to be considered underrated. Illinois and Rutgers - both bad - are assessed fairly.

That leaves Maryland, Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Minnesota, roughly in that order. Maryland and Iowa will probably wind up on the bubble - Maryland’s one of the youngest teams in the country and Iowa is the big “good offense, bad defense” outlier in the conference. Northwestern, Penn State, and Minnesota all are probably mediocre, and if there actually is an underrated team in the conference, it’s probably the Gophers (Minnesota is the lowest-ranked of the three).

But ultimately the Big Ten is just viewed too favorably by the computers to consider any of its teams to be underrated. I’m not going to make the affirmative case for Minnesota being good (though Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy are certainly good), and everyone else seems to be ranked where they should be — or too highly.

[More after the JUMP]

Talk about this team's biggest flaws/holes, how you expect them to be exploited and what they need to do to shore them up. (Can you tell I'm constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop?) — @ismat

Basketball season is no place for the Black Pit Of Negative Expectations. Michigan overachieved and peaked late each of the last two seasons, and have continued to improve despite key personnel losses. Realistically, Michigan probably has a Top 25 offense and Top 5 defense — perhaps the best — and that’s the profile of a Final Four contender. Beilein is a good bet to get the most of what he has, and Michigan has some great players.

During the Michigan - Northwestern broadcast on BTN, Jon Crispin was seized by a moment of insanity and said that Michigan had no great players. Ignas Brazdeikis is a great player. Zavier Simpson is a great player, even if his Kenpom profile doesn’t say so. Jon Teske is a great player. Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews have had a few rough games, but they’re great players. Michigan’s starting five doesn’t have a player who’s particularly outstanding relative to the others, but that is a fantastic starting five. That’s a championship caliber starting five if the vagaries of the NCAA Tournament are in Michigan’s favor (maybe that’s the biggest thing you should be worried about).

Beilein doesn’t play any of those guys ironman minutes, but they all play a lot (Teske plays the least, but still 2/3 of Michigan’s minutes). Sixth man Isaiah Livers plays over half of Michigan's minutes, and he’s a really good player in his own right. But Michigan’s rotation ranks around the bottom ten nationally — out of 353 teams — in terms of how many minutes are allocated to bench players. If Beilein could get away with it, he might prefer to play with those six plus Eli Brooks as the reserve guard. He can't. The emergence of another option (or two) would help Michigan avoid having to play guys who simply aren’t ready to contribute meaningful minutes in high-leverage spots. The Wolverines (aside from Davis) are foul-averse, but significant foul trouble could be an issue in a key game or two. An injury would be really damaging to this team.

Michigan’s great on both ends of the floor — and elite on one — and that all looks pretty sustainable in the long-term. The offense can go cold at times, but that’s true of most offenses. Michigan still has good scorers and runs a great system. The types of shots the defense is sometimes susceptible to are the exact type of shots the percentages say that defenses should want to dictate. In order to beat Michigan, teams will have to make a lot of tough shots and will have to hope Michigan is off from three. It’s hard to find many holes on this team, especially with the top of the rotation so the biggest concern is depth.

This is a BPONE-free space.

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Would MSU or Michigan make a Livers for Tillman trade? Fun to see them both having big impacts off bench. — @araby_dunn

I love this question.

For people who follow basketball recruiting, the fates of certain players are connected. Consider Cassius Winston and Zavier Simpson: Michigan prioritized Winston for years and loved him as a prospect, but may have sensed that he was leaning toward Michigan State (and its fantastic 2016 class), so Michigan secretly recruited Simpson and quickly secured his commitment. Winston then committed to State. Simpson, who was thought to be a Wisconsin lean at the time, opened the door for point guard D’Mitrik Trice in Madison; Te’Jon Lucas, who was thought to be Michigan’s backup plan for Winston, wound up at Illinois (and eventually transferred). Winston and Simpson now lead two top-ten programs and compete directly in one of college basketball’s best rivalries — and there’s an interesting backstory there, as is the case for many Midwestern recruits who stay in the Big Ten.

Livers, from Kalamazoo, and Tillman, from Grand Rapids, are both Michigan natives. 247 rated Tillman as the top in-state prospect in the 2017 class, and Livers was second. Livers won one of the closest Mr. Basketball votes ever in Michigan over Tillman. Tillman’s team ended Livers’s high school career during the playoffs of their senior year. Livers picked Michigan, Tillman picked Michigan State. Chances are that sometime this season, during the first half of one of the games between the two schools, Livers will check in to play the five and find himself matched up against Tillman, Michigan State’s backup center. They’re each the best reserves on their respective teams, and they're only two years into their four-year careers. 

Tillman wouldn’t start for Michigan, though he would be great in relief of Teske; with how much Izzo loves Kenny Goins, I’m not sure Livers would start for State either (though Izzo did recruit Livers seriously). Both have looked great in their roles. Livers is an unorthodox sixth man as a wing who can hold up at the five and who’s hitting over half his threes. Tillman is in a job share with Nick Ward, and they split minutes evenly, but Tillman appears to be developing into the next great State big man as a traditional center. Both will grow into bigger roles as their careers progress, but both are pretty integral to their teams’ success already.

Winston vs. Simpson, Tillman vs. Livers: little storylines like these help enhance the rivalry — and college basketball in general. As for the old Bill Simmons “Who Says No” bit, I think that Izzo and Beilein would both say no to a Livers-Tillman trade.

Best Big Ten hoops spoonerism? — @Bry_Mac

A big thank you to my good friend, Bryan, for asking this question. Spoonerisms are near and dear to my Internet-poisoned brain. While there are some fantastic candidates — Nete Pance, Dad Bravison (I giggle at this one every time I think about it), Nipper Kichols, Keter Piss, etc. — there is only one choice I could possibly make: KILLER MOPP. In a vacuum, Caq Sharter would probably be the pick. The one good thing Rutger has ever done was recruit an eight-minute-per-game JUCO forward who pops into my head as "Caq Sharter" whenever I see or hear his name (because the Internet has turned my mind into slurry). Anyways, with KILLER MOPP in Evanston with Chris Collins, at the home of the Wildcat Internship Program… few spoonerisms can compete with that. It's KILLER MOPP. It has to be.

Maybe Collins should join the WIP [HT: @Smoothitron]



December 14th, 2018 at 2:38 PM ^

As an admitted basketball dope, what's the theory on Beilein's success with PGs? 

Is it recruiting? An attitude he looks for? His system? Development?

Trey Burke to Walton, I expected a huge dropoff, but Walt was also a backbone-type piece of very good team. Now to Z, the team again seems to feed off of him and his attitude, and despite how good Iggy has been, all the pieces are so much better when Z is on the floor. 

Can we expect the same from DeJulius? Was he that type of guy in hs?


December 14th, 2018 at 3:14 PM ^

I don't have an answer to your question about why Beilein is so good at developing point guards, but I can try to answer about DeJulius after following basketball recruiting quite a bit.

DeJulius is not the same kind of player as Z. I would say he is closer to D Walt than Z. He is a guy that is very talented offensively and can shoot from anywhere. This is why many fans thought we might be seeing more of him with Z's lack of shooting prowess. I think DeJulius is very competitive like Z, but I think it is hard to find someone quite as fiery as Z. What Z lacks in offensive polish, he makes up for in speed and defense. DeJulius has that polish on offense.

All in all, I do not think the team will look the same when/if DeJulius takes the reins in the next few years. Will they revert back to a team with an amazing offense and a subpar defense, I doubt it. Z, Matthews and Yaklich seemed to have changed the identity of the program, but you will be hard pressed to replace the quality of defenders that they are. I imagine in the next few years the offense will get better with the insertion of a sharpshooting point guard back into the lineup and the defensive efficiency may drop down a little.

If you want to see the type of player that DeJulius can be, it is fun to watch his performance against Foster Loyer and Clarkston (widely regarded as the best team in the state last year). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBiVjhwxyJk


December 14th, 2018 at 3:18 PM ^

A big part of it is just talent, and talent identification.  Trey Burke was just unbelievably good, and for whatever reason a lot of coaches just did not see it.  Walton was also a really talented player, a consensus four star recruit with some lethal offensive game. 

I don't think there is really a magic formula.  He has just had some damn good point guards.



December 14th, 2018 at 6:47 PM ^

Yeah, I think the answer is that it's all of those things: recruiting, attitude, development and system.

Recruiting: Darius Morris, Zavier Simpson and Trey Burke were all 4-star top 100 recruits, and Walton was top 50.

They all came in with a lot of talent.

Attitude:  All of those guys became great leaders and floor generals and alpha dogs.  That's a big credit to Beilien for identifying and developing that mentality that you want in a PG.

Development: No denying that Beilien is a great teacher, gets a lot of guys to overachieve and has few "disappointments".

System:  Beilein's system gets the most out of players on the offensive end (and now Yak is doing it on the defensive end).  It's not unlike an Air Raid football team like Texas Tech or Oklahoma or Baylor (in their heyday) where the system puts guys in the best position to get the most of their talent and be as efficient as possible (and in some cases put up insane numbers). 

All of his PGs have been really productive in his system but none of them translated that to the pros, and have essentially performed about what their recruiting rankings would have predicted of their pro careers give or take a little (i.e. G-league for Morris, G-league/min contract for Burke and Walton is still on his initial contract but a two-way is exactly what you'd expect from the #45 recruit).

And for good measure, Spike had all of those things sans the talent/athleticism.


December 15th, 2018 at 6:46 AM ^

These are great responses, and I would only add that Beilein sees a player's potential as well as his limitations when he recruits.  Some of this is by necessity: for thirty years he could only recruit players who were viewed as deeply flawed for some reason, usually a physical one.  So Trey Burke was a 4 star who was small in stature (relatively), quick but not otherwise notably athletic for a high major basketball team, and slight in body build.  Beilein saw the mind and skills, and he saw how they would fit in the right offensive system. Same with Duncan whose body and one dimensional game put coaches off, and so on and so on.

 If a football analogy is okay, this is what NE has done on defense for ever.  They have a few stars, but they fit flawed (only in a relative sense) players into a system that maximizes their strengths and hides their weaknesses as much as possible.  Sometimes they might not have enough talent to be all that good, but it works more often than not.


Blue In NC

December 14th, 2018 at 3:47 PM ^

"During the Michigan - Northwestern broadcast on BTN, Jon Crispin was seized by a moment of insanity and said that Michigan had no great players. Ignas Brazdeikis is a great player...."

I don't think that Crispin was that far off, depending on your definition of great.  Crispin may be using "great" in the sense of "dominating" and in that way, I am not sure that any Michigan player is dominant (Iggy maybe the closest overall and Z or Teske looking at elite defense).  But I think Crispin has a point that no specific one individual is primarily responsible for Michigan's success.  And I think that can be a team strength and also a credit to the coaches.


December 14th, 2018 at 5:19 PM ^

With the NBA focusing so heavily on guys who can shoot the 3 and defend multiple positions Livers looks like someone who could have a long NBA career. I see him making a big leap at Michigan over the next couple of years. 


December 15th, 2018 at 6:59 AM ^

You didn't mention Brooks, and that's both understandable and wrong.  He has played 15 or so minutes against most games.   Except for one occasion where he hit a big 3 at the end of the game, he has been neutral-unnoticeable for the most.   Yes, he turns the ball over against pressure, but he's able to run the offense well-enough against most teams to spell both Z and Brooks for a few minutes.  That's not enough from the first guard off the bench at both guard positions, but he has improved his game massively since last year.  Perhaps he will continue to do so, and that is vital.  

DeJulius isn't ready to play point guard for Beilein's offense imho.  He has elite quickness and shooting ability, but he's almost a pure gunner from what I've seen.  He was in high school, and he is now.  The full transition to a point guard may take a while.  Somehow though, I bet Beilein figures out a way to use him effectively in the meantime and to develop other players to serve while DeJulius does.