For a program returning its entire starting lineup, Michigan hardly resembles itself.
Three undergraduates transferred over the summer. Two mainstay assistants landed head coaching jobs. Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert, the final remnants of the Wolverines’ 2013 Final Four team, departed. Amid all that change, though, the bricks and mortar of last year’s NCAA Tournament team remain in place. Holding it all up is John Beilein, the 10th-year coach.
All Big Ten predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: John Beilein
2015-16 RECORD (BIG TEN): 23–13 (10–8)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Notre Dame 70–63 in first round
2016-17 PROJECTION: Fifth in Big Ten
G/F Aubrey Dawkins (6.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg)
F Ricky Doyle (3.8 ppg, 2.0 rpg)
G Caris LeVert (16.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.9 apg)
Forwards Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson will own playing time at the 3 and 4 positions. They will shoot and shoot often. More difficult: They’ll also need to defend and rebound.
Irvin seemed poised to come into his own as a junior, but instead spent the season rebounding from back surgery. As a senior, he’ll again be asked to do everything, but Beilein will try to lighten his playing time in hopes of improving his sometimes wayward shooting percentages. Irvin’s importance is paramount, and he must shake some inconsistencies.
Robinson will again be one of the most feared 3-point shooters in the country, but the question is if he can get open consistently and expand his game. The Division III transfer had trouble in league play, shooting 35.2 percent on 3s, while also being a defensive liability.
Depth will be an issue following the transfers of Aubrey Dawkins (UCF) and Kameron Chatman (Detroit). That leaves freshman Ibi Watson and sophomore D.J. Wilson. Watson is a 6'5" wire hanger who can offer length, defense and shooting touch, but he is unproven. Wilson is moving from center to the wing and has much to prove after looking lost a year ago.
At center, Mark Donnal emerged to average 10.6 points and 5.0 rebounds in Big Ten play last year. While Donnal enters the year as the odds-on starter, German sophomore Moritz Wagner might have as high of a ceiling as anyone on the roster. He’ll push Donnal for the job.
Freshmen centers Jon Teske and Austin Davis are both in the picture, but one, likely Davis, will redshirt.
Like Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr. needs to put all the pieces together as a senior. The Detroit native was expected to be the Wolverines’ next star point guard after Trey Burke. Instead, he’s produced a solid, though slightly underwhelming, first three seasons.
Now Walton is the veteran and incoming freshman Xavier Simpson is the heir apparent. Last year’s Ohio Mr. Basketball, Simpson is a crafty and quick natural leader. He’ll push Walton for minutes and often share the backcourt with him, sliding Walton to the 2 spot where he can thrive as a step-in shooter.
Regardless of Simpson’s emergence, though, Walton must answer the bell offensively. After shooting 33.3 and 36.6 percent on 2-point shots as a sophomore and junior, respectively, Walton will need to be a more confident overall scorer. Already the Wolverines’ best rebounder — regardless of position — and a reliable passer, Walton needs to take a final step.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman will start at shooting guard. After filling in for the oft-injured LeVert as a freshman and sophomore, the job is all his. Abdur-Rahkman has a nose for the rim and is the Wolverines’ most aggressive scorer. He’ll work off ball screens this year and must respond by being a facilitator.
Watson could see playing time at shooting guard, but more often than not, Beilein will use a three-man rotation at the two guard spots.
Xavier Simpson will see immediate time at point guard and has drawn comparisons by John Beilein to another playmaker from Ohio: Trey Burke. Ibi Watson is long and athletic and can guard both the 2 and the 3. Despite needing to add weight, he’ll get time. Either Austin Davis or Jon Teske will redshirt, while the other will add depth at center.
After years of staff stability, Beilein replaces assistants Bacari Alexander (Detroit) and LaVall Jordan (Milwaukee) with former Wright State coach Billy Donlon and former Oakland assistant Saddi Washington. An influx of new ideas might be a good thing.
On the roster, transfers wiped out Beilein’s depth and left him with a dangerously shallow rotation. His options, however, are proven and experienced. When it comes to Walton and Irvin, the coach is “very optimistic that it’s going to be a real breakthrough year for both of them.”
Michigan has some nice pieces, but much will have to go right, notably major defensive improvements, for this group to threaten the top of the Big Ten. A return to the NCAA Tournament, though, is not out of the question.