[Bryan Fuller – MGoBlog]
John Beilein’s entering his tenth season at Michigan – making him the fourth-longest tenured coach in the Big Ten. At this point, his methods, basketball ideology, recruiting habits, and distinct offensive style have become very familiar in Ann Arbor; even though there legitimate questions about his recruiting and his typically poor defenses, he’s one of the best offensive minds in college hoops. After having two teams that were legit national title contenders, things have trended downwards for Michigan: they missed the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15 and barely snuck in last year.
Of course, the injury to Caris LeVert was a devastating blow – as were many of the other injuries that have plagued Michigan since their Final Four trip a few years ago. Even though Michigan didn’t particularly play well in non-conference play last season, that wasn’t the fault of LeVert: the senior had developed into an All-American caliber player, was putting in the best defensive effort of his career, and seemed much more comfortable in an alpha dog role than he did as a junior. Unfortunately, he was lost to a season-ending injury for the second consecutive season – and was still a first-round draft pick.
Even without LeVert for almost the entirety of conference play (as well as Spike Albrecht, who was also sidelined by injury), Michigan scraped together an NCAA Tournament resume that was good enough to barely get the Wolverines in as one of the last four teams – forced to play in the “First Four” in Dayton. The best thing about their resume was the lack of truly bad losses, and Ohio State was the only team that wasn’t tournament-quality to beat Michigan. A handful of marquee wins – against Maryland, Purdue, and Indiana – were enough. Michigan’s mediocre conference efficiency margin (+0.4) suggests that they were lucky to get in.
Each of the starters from last year’s team will be back. Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin are the veterans; both were highly-regarded as recruits but have seemingly hit their ceilings – Walton shot 36% from two and Irvin had a sub-100 offensive rating last season. Joining them are Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, a slashing junior guard who’s old for his class, Duncan Robinson – mostly Just A Shooter – and Mark Donnal, a redshirt junior center who’s being pushed by tantalizing German big man Moritz Wagner.
While that starting five has a decided lack of star power – and most of the bench transferred, leaving incoming freshmen likely to play – continuity and experience are things that Michigan hasn’t been able to enjoy for several years. Even without a star, those factors (as well as Beilein’s expertise) should mean that the offense will be among the Big Ten’s best. Ultimately, this seems like a high-floor, low-ceiling type team: unless there’s significant defensive improvement, it’s hard to envision a leap back into the conference’s top tier.
[More on the Wolverines after the JUMP]
Michigan’s efficiency and usage distribution mostly falls along the typical downward linear trajectory, adhering to “more usage = lower efficiency” tendency pretty strongly (aside from Andrew Dakich, an outlier). There’s a reasonable explanation why Zak Irvin was the least-efficient starter by a significant margin: nobody else could take a lot of those possessions – when Michigan was leveraged into situations when someone had to take tough shots, it was always Irvin (for his part, the chucker tendencies he showed early on in his career makes him a natural fit for that role). Still, his shooting splits – 48 / 30 / 66 (2P% / 3P% / FT%) – were nowhere near good enough excel in that role.
After struggling with turf toe as a sophomore, Derrick Walton improved his offensive rating by double digits as a junior with the same level of usage. He may not be capable of late-clock shot creation, but he’s a great 3-and-D point guard with unique skills; his assist and turnover rates are good for the position. Walton’s shooting % from inside the arc is an anchor and indicates that it would be difficult for him to assume a much larger role offensively.
The role players – with the exceptions of Kam Chatman and DJ Wilson, who seemed to shoot the ball every time it was passed to them – were mostly very efficient in narrow roles. Duncan Robinson’s 45% shooting from three made him one of the most lethal weapons in the Big Ten on a per-shot basis (creating looks for him was much more difficult after LeVert was injured and opponents started sticking their best defender on Robinson); Mark Donnal shot 63% on two-point attempts that were mostly created by scheme and the individual passing ability of Michigan’s perimeter players. Aubrey Dawkins and Ricky Doyle found themselves decisively stuck behind those two, respectively, and transferred. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman showed flashes of shot creation ability at times but was a secondary option all season.
In total, Michigan wasn’t efficient enough on offense to overcome their defensive liabilities – the Wolverines were able to hold opponents under 1.1 points per possession just once in games they lost. The offense finished 42nd in Kenpom’s adjusted efficiency metric – far short of the lofty standard set by other Beilein teams.
Four Factor Z-Scores from games against Big Ten opponents
Of all the four factor profiles in the Big Ten, nobody had a more extreme distribution than the Wolverines. On offense, Michigan shot the ball efficiently and – as is typical of Beilein teams – avoided turnovers extremely well and didn’t get to the free throw line much at all. Their inability to generate possessions on the offensive glass (which is mostly a strategic choice) probably helped prevent more lucrative transition opportunities for opposing offenses.
Still, the opponents typically shredded Michigan regardless of how much (or how little) they were able to get out and run. Somehow the Wolverines allowed Big Ten teams to hit 55.5% of their two-point attempts, by far the worst mark in the league. The composite eFG% number – which incorporates shots outside and inside the arc – finished 13th, just ahead of an extremely awful Rutgers team. The Wolverines’ surprisingly good defensive rebounding and foul avoidance were the only things keeping them from having a defense that would have made it impossible to contend for a tournament bid.
Michigan’s four-man freshman class will be expected to contribute right away after the transfers of Spike Albrecht, Aubrey Dawkins, Kam Chatman, and Ricky Doyle. While that attrition might hurt the bench a little bit, it’s probably better in the long run for the Wolverines’ scholarship situation. The most highly-rated prospect in the class is Ohio PG Xavier Simpson, who picked Michigan over Wisconsin: he’s a little bit undersized but attacks the basket and plays great defense. With injuries, Michigan has been forced to give walk-on Andrew Dakich minutes as the backup point guard; Simpson should be a substantial improvement there and will likely start as a sophomore.
The Wolverines added two centers with slightly different skill sets – Jon Teske has long arms, great timing on blocks, and a good understanding of verticality, but he’s still skinny; Austin Davis is more of a ground-bound five who uses his massive size to dominate on the glass (it’s worth noting that his high school competition was very poor and often simply unable to handle a kid that big). Teske is an intriguing long-term prospect and could be the best shot-blocker Beilein has had at Michigan; Davis is perhaps more ready to play right away. Since there are minutes to be had as a third center, at least one will probably play.
The departures of Dawkins and Chatman will leave Michigan very thin on the wing, where Ibi Watson will be forced to play immediately. Whether he’s ready to contribute is an open question: he was a middling shooter on high volume at the high school level and wasn’t known for his defensive ability. While Michigan’s succeeded with underrated wing recruits during Beilein’s tenure, Watson’s unproven and while he has the physical attributes to be considered a nice developmental process, it’s unknown whether he’s college-ready now – though he’ll have to play regardless of if he is or not.
STARTER (POINT GUARD) – Derrick Walton (Sr, 6’1, 190): Played the 2nd-most minutes of anyone in Big Ten play, amazing rebounder for his size, good assist and steal rates, took over half of his shots from 3-point range.
STARTER (GUARD) – Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (Jr, 6’4, 190): Crafty penetrating guard, shot over 50% on 2-point shots, improved his 3-point range (36%) as a sophomore, low assist and turnover rates.
STARTER (WING) – Duncan Robinson (R-Jr, 6’8, 215): Just A Shooter, shot 59% on 3-point attempts from the corner, shot 39% on attempts from straight-on or on the wing, developed a more well-rounded game as the season progressed.
STARTER (POINT FORWARD) – Zak Irvin (Sr, 6’6, 215): Playmaking four dealt with nagging back issues last season and his 3-point % improved as the season went on, still rather inefficient, seemingly had to force things a lot last season.
STARTER (POST) – Mark Donnal (R-Jr, 6’9, 240): Proverbial light came on at the start of Big Ten play, converted scoring opportunities efficiently, good offensive and bad defensive rebounding (maybe scheme on the latter?).
BENCH (POINT GUARD) – Xavier Simpson (Fr, 6’0, 180): Drew some inevitable Trey Burke comparisons (Ohio Mr. Basketball as a PG), could play alongside Walton, will improve Michigan’s perimeter defense at the very least.
BENCH (WING) – Ibi Watson (Fr, 6’5, 185): Perhaps the only credible backup at the 2 / 3, scouting reports say that he’s a good scorer but not much of a distributor (though surely he’ll be taught the pick-and-roll like most Michigan wings).
BENCH (STRETCH BIG) – DJ Wilson (R-So, 6’10, 240): Took a redshirt year because the game was moving too fast for him, seemed to be the case again last year, has shot-blocking potential, takes threes (and only made 30%).
BENCH (POST) – Moritz Wagner (So, 6’10, 234): German big man made huge strides near the end of last season, has the potential to take the starting job from Donnal because of his skill and activity level, but was very foul-prone.
BENCH (POST) – Jon Teske (Fr, 7’0, 245): The guess here is that Teske gets playing time over Davis, could potentially make a much-needed impact defensively.
A few years ago, I came up with a system that would compare the statistical profiles of Big Ten players to their historical counterparts by taking the sum of the differences between a given player’s profile and each of the thousand player-seasons from 2008-present in twenty different statistical categories.
# value is the Z-Score of the player’s statistic (or statistics averaged over multiple seasons) relative to the entire sample
Perhaps nothing better contextualizes Zak Irvin’s struggles last season than with whom he’s compared to: that Tre Demps – a shot-happy combo guard who played a lot for Northwestern – is his closest analogue is not a good thing. It was very interesting to see Tim Hardaway Jr.’s solid junior season that high on Irvin’s list; the gap in efficiency is a big difference between the two, as is Irvin’s ability to pass the ball. In any case, a different set of names would have probably emerged had Irvin not been injured to start the season.
It’s impossible to know exactly how much that back injury slowed him down, but his shooting numbers suggest that it might have been pretty serious: Irvin hit only 20% of his threes in the non-conference portion of the season before hitting a far more respectable 39% in Big Ten play and in the postseason (with many of those shots coming off the dribble). Even though he did shoot better from three as the season went on, Irvin played a lot (6th-highest playing time in Big Ten play) and was forced to guard the better forward of the two opponents put on the floor. The strain showed, and Irvin – like Derrick Walton last year – seems to be a decent bet to experience a leap with a season at full health.
With five returning starters, Michigan has more returning experience than any team in the Big Ten (except for Wisconsin). Still, for the Wolverines to break through into the upper echelon of the league, they’re going to have to improve a lot on the defensive end – something that’s rightfully been the program’s focus since the NCAA Tournament loss to Notre Dame last spring (a game that Michigan led by a dozen points at halftime). The hiring of Billy Donlon as an assistant – one that Beilein’s repeatedly compared to a “defensive coordinator” – is promising and perhaps he’ll be able to bring Michigan’s defense up to at least average for the first time since 2012-13. Donlon’s head coaching career at Wright State showed that he has some tactical acumen on that side of the floor.
While Michigan’s an undersized team, it wouldn’t be impossible for them to cobble together an adequate defense. There are a lot of questions: Will Xavier Simpson’s reputation as a defensive bulldog get him significant minutes (and more rest for an overworked Derrick Walton)? Can the big men’s weaknesses on that end be mitigated by scheme – or will one of the freshmen step up to grab valuable PT? Is DJ Wilson going to make an impact with his length and quickness, perhaps as a four? Will Michigan be able to have a deeper rotation so their best players don’t get worn out by the end of the game?
The offense should be better than it’s been the last two seasons, but it probably won’t come close to the fire-breathing Burke- and Stauskas-led attacks of earlier in Beilein’s tenure. Michigan hasn’t had continuity or a veteran presence like this team will have since Beilein took over; perhaps this will more resemble his West Virginia teams that drilled his signature offense to perfection than the more star-focused offenses of his tenure in Ann Arbor. That’s partially because Walton and Irvin don’t quite have the ability to take on heavy responsibility and come away with anything other than really inefficient basketball.
It really does come down to the defense. Michigan pretty much returns everyone from a team that found itself perched on the edge of the bubble come tournament time, and if there’s not improvement on the defensive end, they’ll likely be in a similar situation again this season – in the middle of the Big Ten and in the tournament, but as a low seed that’s a long shot to make it to the second weekend. With Beilein around, the offense will be fine – though there’s a decided lack of dynamic playmaking on the roster, which could be a problem. At worst, the offense will be pretty good – something that can’t be said of the defense. Billy Donlon isn’t a widely-known name around the Big Ten, but he might be the most important person to Michigan’s hopes this season. If the Wolverines can play defense – a big “if” – they could perhaps be the biggest surprise in the conference.