Postseason Hoops Mailbag, Part I: Third Guard, #FreeWeezy, Defensive Improvement

Submitted by Ace on March 30th, 2016 at 10:26 AM

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.

Hey Ace,

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.

Abraham May

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.


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.

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.



March 30th, 2016 at 12:36 PM ^

Quantity =/= quality, but, uh:

The torrent of hockey analysis that they put out while Michigan was in the NCAA tournament for hoops

+ the constant stream of claims that "this season is a disappointment" when we made the tournament without our 2 seniors (1 of whom has NBA talent) and almost beat a team that went on to the Elite 8. I guess it's a disappointment that Caris and Spike got hurt, but the fact that they still made the tournament is a hell of a coaching job by Beilein

+ the racially coded crap on the forum

= this is a bad site for Michigan Basketball, all in spite of the good reporting Ace does. 


March 30th, 2016 at 1:22 PM ^

for resources and time. There may also be a sense that Dylan is the hoop site; Ace and Brian are always scrupulous in honoring his posts, also laudable. Some of the anti-Beilein banter in the forum is annoying, but there's plenty of it these days at umhoops too, unfortunately. Not that there aren't legitimate gripes, but the steady drumbeat of hostility is wearisome.

Those of us who are starting to be old-timers also remember when the tone of conversations was often higher here, too. But there's tons more traffic; it's a sign of success. And whenever you find it depressing, a step over to the stuff on most any other sports or general news site will make you feel better about here.

EQ RC Blue

March 30th, 2016 at 10:39 AM ^

On here, you don't have to bother reading the columns, just assume they say that the last thing that happened is the next thing that'll happen.  And while you don't have to be a former basketball star to write about hoops, reading Brian and Ace talk about basketball makes me wonder if they can dribble a basketball for more than ten seconds without tripping.


March 30th, 2016 at 10:46 AM ^

bit much.  I don't think either of them can deilver a skinny post in stride either but they can sure talk some football.

There was some very good content during the really good basketball years (Burke, Sauce).  It has declined a little no doubt but I don't think it is that bad.

Trader Jack

March 30th, 2016 at 11:02 AM ^

I often read umhoops, as well. While their coverage and analysis is better than mgoblog's, that's to be expected of a site solely focused on the basketball team. I suppose "fantastic" might be a bit much, but in comparison to basically every other college team-centric blog I've read, mgoblog's basketball coverage is very good. Definitely much better than the post I responded to suggested it is.


March 30th, 2016 at 2:14 PM ^

The basketball coverage is fantastic.  The analysis seems to be lacking.

Case-in-point:  That highlight clip of X scoring 65 points against that team was one of the least illuminating highlight clips I've ever seen.  He his free throws and got past clearly outmatched defenders - guys that were clearly slow (look at the two-forearm check on that first drive) and have no business trying to guard future D1 PGs.

Plus, knowing X is short, he didn't seem to be super short in that clip. So, a lot of other shorter guys on that court.

Even though Ace "highly recommended" that clip, anyone that regularly watches full HS game film probably saw the same things I saw: D1 recruit scores a lot against terrible opponent.


March 30th, 2016 at 1:49 PM ^

It's a free blog, so it's unfair to complain, but nonetheless the difference between coverage in good times vs bad is extreme. I'm sure there is a pragmatic element to it - fewer people will read a OSU UFR after we are scorched, but at the same time a lot of loyal readers come to expect a breakdown of what went down (good or bad).UMhoops does serve as a useful contrast in terms of tone.  Dylan will break things down - win or lose. It might be a bit shorter, but the content is there.  Mgoblog is more of a fan-oriented perspective and tends to shut down (sometimes literally) when things are bad. Less analytical looking for answers more whinging, whereas if we win there is lots of stellar analysis.


March 30th, 2016 at 11:13 AM ^

but not untrue. There's way too much fair-weather interest and not enough general basketball interest (i.e., NBA and non-Big Ten).  From the top down, this site is very open about favoring football and hockey.

That said there are some good points made above.  Guard depth IS going to be better (assuming everyone returns) and it's one of the big reasons to expect improvement next year. Just replace Poole with Watson and the point is valid. Michigan had no guard depth this year and playing Dakich was a panic move.  Freshman or not, Watson and Simpson are a massive upgrade. It's even possible (if Dawkins and Robinson don't improve) that we see some 3 guard sets with MAAR on the wing. (Not optimal offensively but against some teams it may help defensively to go small).

Defense should also improve via experience and everyone (besides Doyle) returning. 

Experience can make up for talent and vice versa. Michigan gains both next year.

Space Coyote

March 30th, 2016 at 11:25 AM ^

There does seem to be a general disinterest in basketball, though I know Alex is a very big basketball fan (I honestly don't really know Ace's history/interest, he may have more basketball interest than Brian). There are certainly things that are discussed regarding basketball that don't ring true to my experience, but that said, my experience generally ends at high school basketball and I am far from a basketball expert, especially with things outside my personal experience. There is also quite a bit, if not most, that I agree with, including their take on the Spike situation.

As far as the rest of your post:

Agree that guard depth should be much better. At the very least, it should result in there not being a complete defensive liability on the floor in Dakich. There are 3 guys that can potentially run the point, and the talent over Dakich is massive.

Where I disagree a bit is how you would play them. You may still see Walton bring the ball up the court, but I would put Walton on the wing once you get into a set. I think Walton is best off the ball and allowing MAAR to run the point. He can get to the basket and kick similar to Morris. This allows Robinson/Chatman/Dawkins to play the 4 on offense, and Irvin/Simpson/Watson/Robinson to play the or the 2. I think that's what's best on offense for this unit.

I also think the defense can make a decent jump on defense, and most of that improvement doesn't require improvement in athleticism, just in positioning. I've talked several times that the bigs, particularly Donnal, is often out of position on defense. This results in him getting stuck behind a big and easily backed down or in no man's land guarding no one. The help defense is much the same. The help is often too far away to help stop penetration into the lane and not close enough to properly closeout on shooters, particularly between the corner and the post. This results in frantic and undisplined rotations and open shots for the opponent. Simply improving defensive positioning can make the jump from bad to average for this defense, in my opinion.

Agree with your last sentence as well. Those things alone won't necessarily make Michigan better (they have to execute and perform), but it's evidence that it very well could.


March 30th, 2016 at 11:33 AM ^

Unlike big men, Beilein has a proven track record of getting contributions from freshman guards.  If they aren't well-rounded he'll tuck them in the corner and let them rain 3s.  Defense?  Well, freshman are generally a liability but the unfortunate reality is that our guards rarely improve much on that end of the floor.

Beilein knows what he is doing with guards and was pretty decisive about taking Simpson and Watson once the Battle/Langford saga.  You can question Beilein for a lot of things but getting production from and developing his guards is not one of them.

MAAR and Walton had to play almost the entire game because Dakich was the only alternative (or Dawkins who Beilein didn't feel comfortable playing much other than backing up Irvin and Robinson a bit). 

In other words, we go from a walk-on to two impressive recruits. That's an obvious upgrade.

Space Coyote

March 30th, 2016 at 11:41 AM ^

But there is a huge difference from what it was this past season with allowing easy dribble penetration (and not just to the free throw line, but really all the way to the bucket) and being able to stop them 10-15 feet from the bucket and at least forcing the opponent to kick the ball and pass it around the horn to find an open shot. I think they can at least start to make the offense work a bit more, which cuts out 5-10 free points a game given up just from that standpoint. Improvement from the center position is another 5-10 free point improvement as well. I don't think either make optimal improvement, but if you can even get a little improvement, you're cutting down free points by at least a handful per game, if not more. That's a fairly significant swing.


March 30th, 2016 at 3:40 PM ^

the penetration all the way to the basket was due to mostly one issue from what I was able to watch.  The first rule of defense is to stop the ball.  When the guards, or forwards, or whoever got beat high; there generally was no rotation by the defenders to stop them.  There were often guys there who should have rotated, but either didn't or rotated way too late.  


March 30th, 2016 at 11:37 AM ^

It's more about MAAR than Walton. MAAR's pretty good with the ball in his hand and of little value without it.  I agree that it plays to Walton's strenths better to have a Levert or Stauskas beside him who can create.

The problem is that MAAR has not been good at passing. Marginal improvement from freshman to sophomore year needs to be noted, but his assist rate was still utterly unacceptable for a primary ball-handler in a Beilein offense.

Michigan is still going to have to figure out who runs this offense. Walton, Irvin, MAAR all have their flaws. Simpson will too.


March 30th, 2016 at 12:04 PM ^

i don't think maar was supposed to handle the ball as much this year, but injuries to spike/caris forced this.  he obviously needs work on his passing; driving and kicking it out.  but he was forced to learn this on the fly once the BIG season started and caris got hurt.

i expect him to improve a lot over summer and this will be a huge key for next year.


March 30th, 2016 at 12:29 PM ^

A pessimist would look at MAAR's age and wonder how much capacity for improvement their is for an older junior.

An optimist would say that Beilein's proven at developing the skills of his guards and putting them in positions to succeed, even if they have some limitations.

My hunch: vision and passing are mostly innate and guys don't improve dramatically in that regard, but MAAR can continue to improve off the ball (i.e., 3 point shooting and cutting to the rim) and defensively.  I'd be a little surprised if he was the primary ball-handler on offense, but I could see him as the #2 option and thriving against opposing benches.

I think we need Walton to play better and more consistently more than anything else.  He's still our best bet to run the offense at an elite level.  Shown elite ability ability in flashes but rarely for multi-game stretches.  Opportunity is there for a huge senior season.


March 30th, 2016 at 11:42 AM ^

The things that will hold this defense back (I agree with Ace that Average is a best case scenario) are size and lack of development.

Donnal and Wagner are easy to push around and will continue to be. Doyle will be missed.  Everyone is suddenly assuming that Davis will fill his shoes but that's an epic leap up in competition that he is facing. Hustle will make up for some of it but he's in for a challenge.  Teske's still skinny aparently, but he's 7' tall and has all spring and summer to gain weight and strength.  Hopefully one of them can red-shirt but it's an open question who that will be.

I also don't buy that Wilson is going to the 4, so if he makes a Donnal-like junior-year leap he may be a factor as well (or allow the freshman to both red-shirt).

The lack of development is  a bigger issue. How many Beilein guards or wings improve significantly on D?  Even guys like Levert, Hardaway, Dawkins, and Robinson who had all the physical tools, never turned into impact on-the-ball defenders. Marginal improvement is all you see.  The only exceptions I can really remember where a guy got a lot better are forwards and Stu Douglass.


March 30th, 2016 at 10:33 AM ^

Poole isn't here until 17-18, so we absolutely do have guard depth concerns. If any of walton, simpson, or MAAR get injured we are right back where we were this year.  Watson is more of a wing guard.

 Beilein needs to do everything he can to ensure that Spike comes back if it's a possibility. If guys are going to transfer, Beilein needs to do everything humanly possible to get it sorted out right booking now. If we end up in another situation where we let a guy walk for an empty scholarship, I am going to absolutely lose my shit. If anybody defends letting Spike walk they way they defended letting Max walk, I am going to absolutely lose my shit.


There will be no defense for Beilein - none whatsoever - if that happens. 




March 30th, 2016 at 10:42 AM ^

shape, or form. It was entirely foreseeable that Max could improve in his 5th year, another year removed from surgery, and provide valuable minutes for Michigan at the 5. He ended up the 6th man on the big ten champ. We ended up with an atrocious big man situation. Beilein decided to keep an empty scholarship - literally no player - a void of humanity - nothing - instead of keeping Max. Up until the day he moved out Max wanted to stay. No defense. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. 




March 30th, 2016 at 10:51 AM ^

it is.  Max could have provided a spark to this team and had a certain skill set that was lacking, I will give you that.  However, he would not have changed the overall composition of the team in any substantial fashion.  No Max, First Four and a first round exit.  Max, No First First and likely first round exit.  He was a non-factor in the tournament for IU. 

In the meantime, both Donnal and Wagner got meaningful experience and the situation with Doyle shook out and has not resolved itself.  Letting Max go was not that big of a deal and was a closer call than you are saying.

I admit, I think the Spike situation is different.

Pepto Bismol

March 30th, 2016 at 10:59 AM ^

Let's play You're John Beilein.  You have a choice to keep one of these two after posting these numbers for the 14-15 season:

Player 1 (6'8", 240) - 14 minutes, 5 points, 4 rebounds, 48% shooter.  Redshirt Junior with 1 year of eligibility remaining.

Player 2 (6'9", 250) - 18 minutes, 6 points, 3 rebounds, 61% shooter.  True Freshman with 3 years of eligibility remaining.


Pretty comparable.  I'd keep the 2nd guy based on being younger, hopefully having a higher ceiling and more eligibility.  And that's what Beilein did.

You probably already know but Player 1 is Max Beilfeldt and Player 2 is Ricky Doyle.

Of course, Doyle fell off a cliff.  That makes it look like a dumb decision now, but it's easily defensible and a pretty logical move based on info available at the time.





March 30th, 2016 at 11:04 AM ^

Let's play You're John Beilein.  You have a choice to keep BOTH of these two after posting these numbers for the 14-15 season...


Of course, Doyle fell off a cliff.  That makes it look like a dumb decision now


No - the fact that we rode the year with an EMPTY scholarship makes it look like a dumb decision.


March 30th, 2016 at 11:12 AM ^

overall retort is not incorrect though.  Donnal, Max, Doyle, DJ, and Wagner is a massive log jam.  Max would have likely prevented Beilein from figuring out exactly what he has going forward and would have made a different of, perhaps and if lucky, one game in the W-L column.  I think he transfered because Beilein told him he would not play that much based on the above.


March 30th, 2016 at 11:31 AM ^

is that Beilein was being incredibly selfless, and forcing Max out of a less than ideal situation at Michigan so he could go find more PT elsewhere. 


However, I think Beilein was surprised and disappointed when that "elsewhere" became Indiana.  That stung him.


I choose to believe the above theory that John Beilein cared so much about Max that he was willing to risk some bench depth this year.  And yes, it bit him in the ass.


March 30th, 2016 at 11:16 AM ^

it was so obvious to everyone that max would improve significantly in his final year...

this coming from a guy who constantly posts that JB should be fired, rails on the lack of improvement of players, and assumes UM will be lucky to make the tourny next year, even though everyone is back.  because, you know, no one improves.


March 30th, 2016 at 11:18 AM ^

Spike would hinder the development of the program's future (Simpson). They have  2 PG and 2 off-guards, plus a serviceable walk-on with some experience. Pretty much what you want.

It's amazing how much people can overrate a backup PG. Walton is was and always will be better. And also (while we don't KNOW yet) the reality is that Simpson might be a better player RIGHT NOW.

Lose it.  Beilein's track record speaks for itself.