After back-to-back runs that saw the Wolverines make the 2013 national title game and the 2014 Elite Eight, Michigan basketball dipped back to the pack in 2015 and 2016. The roster was depleted by early NBA entries and injuries. In that pocket of time, John Beilein learned a thing or two about keeping a train on the tracks.
“Now we are going to continue to keep this thing going where it is,” says the coach, who was pursued by the Detroit Pistons this summer before opting to return to Ann Arbor.
Michigan is coming off trips to the 2017 Sweet 16 and the 2018 national championship game. Last year’s loss to Villanova ended a 33–8 campaign that established Beilein’s program, again, as one of the nation’s best and Beilein as the best coach in school history — now with a record 248 wins at U-M.
One of the lessons learned: how to overcome losing players to the NBA. In the last two years, it was D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner. Asked if he’s more adept at dealing with early departures, Beilein quickly replies, “Yeah, for sure.” This season will test the theory. Michigan has two assets: young talent and Beilein’s coaching.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: John Beilein
2017-18 RECORD (BIG TEN): 33-8 (13-5)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Villanova 79-62 in the National Championship Game
G Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (12.9 ppg)
G Duncan Robinson (9.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg)
F Moritz Wagner (14.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg)
Wagner, selected 25th overall by the Lakers, is gone, opening a door for 7'1" Jon Teske. He’s more of a true post center than Wagner and a better defensive presence. This is his chance to prove he can be a Big Ten starter. He’ll be backed up by freshman Colin Castleton, a stretch center with plenty of upside, and sophomore Austin Davis, an unproven banger.
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The 4 position is loaded with talent but loses marksman Duncan Robinson. Isaiah Livers, who started 22 games a year ago, is versatile but needs to ramp up his assertiveness as a sophomore. Incoming freshmen Ignas Brazdeikis and Brandon Johns are highly skilled and will garner heavy minutes.
Brazdeikis, a 6'7" Canadian who models his game after Gordon Hayward, is a natural scorer and can play either forward position. Johns, an explosive 6'8" athlete and high-level shooter, can do the same.
With such versatility, there’s a chance Beilein opts for a small-ball lineup. “It depends on who the best players are,” says the coach. “We’ve become extremely chameleon and adaptive to what we’re going to do.”
Like Beilein, Charles Matthews had his own flirtation with the NBA before opting to return to school. He’ll be Michigan’s centerpiece in 2018-19 and one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten. The redshirt junior has to improve his foul shooting and ball handling with NBA scouts watching closely.
Jordan Poole, the buzzer-beating hero of last season’s second-round win over Houston, will step into a starter’s role. His 3-point shooting is beyond reproach, but now his offense must expand to include creating his own shot and facilitating for others.
Freshman Adrien Nunez, a gifted shooter, and the aforementioned Brazdeikis and Johns could see reserve minutes on the wings.
Zavier Simpson will be Michigan’s emotional leader and the best defensive point guard in the Big Ten. The question is whether he can improve his shooting and expand his offensive role. Freshman David DeJulius, a four-star recruit from Detroit, will try to cut into Simpson’s minutes.
The story of Michigan’s run to the 2018 Final Four was defense. If that remains as the team’s identity, and the freshmen grow up quickly, another top-three Big Ten finish is within reach. Michigan has to replace a combined 366 games played and 3,499 career points from Wagner, Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, but the pieces are in place to keep moving forward.
Postseason Prediction: Two & Out
Big Ten Prediction: 2nd