I put out a call for mailbag questions last week and got a high number of responses, many of which are now moot after Michigan's scholarship situation got sorted out in the last couple days. I'm running this in two parts and I'm still taking questions for the second; you can email me or ask your question on Twitter with the tag #mgomailbag.
On with the show, which starts with a somewhat prescient Smoothitron question that came in before Ricky Doyle's transfer announcement.
Guard rotation concerns.
Am I crazy for thinking the 3rd guard is the biggest question mark on the roster for 16/17?
As maligned as the 5s have been, Wagner, Donnal, plus some modest improvement seems ...fine? Not to mention, there is always the longshot of whatever other 5s that are on the roster at that point breaking out.
At guard, we'll have Walton and MAAR playing huge minutes and freshmen+Dakich behind them. It will be bad news for us if Dakich has to soak up minutes, so Michigan will probably have to rely on a freshman to fill a substantial role, or potentially a huge one if injuries strike.
As successful as Michigan has been relying on freshmen contributors, it seems scary, especially for someone like me who now assumes there will be 1-3 devastating injuries every year.
Short answer: I'm still far more concerned about the center position.
[Hit THE JUMP for the long answer and questions about Moe Wagner and the outlook for next year's defense.]
Long answer: While Michigan has resorted to pulling a redshirt off Andrew Dakich each of the last two seasons due to injuries, that shouldn't be at all necessary in 2016-17 even with the departure of Spike Albrecht. They bring in two freshman guards, one a top-100 recruit, and they have a some flexibility with the returning starters, too.
The most important incoming freshman is point guard Xavier Simpson, the newly crowned Ohio Mr. Basketball. Michigan has had success with freshman point guards in the past, and unlike Trey Burke and Derrick Walton, Simpson won't be thrust into a starting role from the outset. He can score in a variety of ways—the video at the top of this post is highly recommended—and he's known as a good defender, which is usually a major concern for freshman PGs.
The Wolverines could very conceivably play a three-man guard rotation of Walton and MAAR as the starters with Simpson coming off the bench; Walton can slide over to the two and MAAR is capable of playing spot minutes at the point. They'll have another option in incoming shooting guard Ibi Watson.
Yes, relying on freshmen to play significant roles isn't exactly comforting, but that's the reality of college basketball and Michigan's been quite successful doing so under John Beilein. Injuries could completely change that outlook, of course, but the same can be said about the big men.
— Erik Dalipe (@eDalipe) March 25, 2016
For one, freshmen big men usually take some time to get acclimated, and that was clearly the case with Wagner when he got on the court early in the season. While he had a few solid performances, especially the Charlotte game, he was getting by on raw talent while still finding his way within Beilein's system—his confusion about where to be on both ends of the court was often apparent. By the end of the season, he was visibly more comfortable on the court; the chemistry he developed with the guards in the pick-and-roll didn't happen overnight, and Beilein noted after the season that Wagner also had to come a long way on defense, too:
“He really played well down the stretch,” Beilein explained. “We saw some of that earlier, but during the middle of the year he was still struggling with a lot of defensive concepts. He didn’t block any shots and all of the sudden he’s blocking three or four in one game.
“He’s a young kid and as he develops, we think he has the chance to be a very very good player. We put him on the scout team for a couple of weeks to see if he could get his swag back and then he went 9-for-9 in the postseason with a rebound every six minutes.”
While I think Beilein stuck with Doyle as the backup center for too long instead of giving Wagner more minutes, there's good reason he spent much of the season on the bench. The growing pains he went through in practice would've played themselves out in actual games, and with Michigan on the bubble it would've been a big risk to play him more.
My kingdom for a defense.
— Rob G (@Rob_BG) March 25, 2016
Let's go for average, since the jump to legimately good from where Michigan was this season would be a huge one. The key to making that leap is Moe Wagner building on his late-season surge and cutting down his foul rate to the point he can play the majority of the available minutes. Not only is he Michigan's tallest—and, after a summer of Camp Sanderson, hopefully flat-out biggest—returning center, he showed the potential to be something Michigan has sorely lacked under John Beilein: a true rim protector.
Not having a shot-blocker to cover for mistakes on the perimeter has hurt the defense as much as anything else the last few years; Michigan has finished 308th, 340th, and 308th in block rate the last three seasons. Wagner could be the guy to change that; Donnal doesn't have the athleticism.
Having an inside presence would go a long way towards getting the defense to average. The rest of the necessary improvement would come from marginal progress across the board:
Senior, healthy Derrick Walton > junior, didn't-look-100% Derrick Walton
Junior MAAR > Sophomore MAAR
Simpson >>> Dakich
Junior Duncan Robinson and junior Aubrey Dawkins > Sophomore versions of Robinson/Dawkins
Senior Irvin with hopefully more help from Chatman/Wilson at the four > Junior Irvin going it alone at the four
One of Robinson or Dawkins becoming something besides a liability would also help a great deal; against well-rounded teams there was no hiding either of them on defense. Robinson showed in-season improvement in a way Dawkins did not; while Robinson won't ever be a plus defender, he's better at positioning himself and knowing how to use his length to make up for a lack of lateral quickness.