Basketball, it is upon us.
After a slew of practices, secret scrimmages, media days and an offseason of the same tired refrains, the Michigan men’s basketball team will take the floor for the first time Friday night against Northwood. This is its lone exhibition game before next Tuesday’s opener against Norfolk State, though the Wolverines faced Toledo in a closed-door scrimmage last week.
There are few conclusions to be drawn from one game, let alone an exhibition, let alone an exhibition against a Timberwolves squad that went below .500 in Division II ball last year.
We already know a good amount from those practices and press conferences, but there are still lingering questions, to some of which the exhibition can start to provide answers. Here are three The Daily will be looking to answer.
How does the rotation shake out?
We think we know the starting five: Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews, Ignas Brazdeikis, Jon Teske. That group started at Michigan’s closed-door scrimmage last week, per The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn, with Brazdeikis being the surprise. On Thursday, Beilein said he thinks he knows the starting five, but wants one more day to be sure.
It was always realistic to think that Brazdeikis would force his way into a starting role eventually, but to do so this soon indicates an impressive grasp of the system. The last time Beilein started a freshman in the opener was in 2014, when Kameron Chatman and Mark Donnal forced their way into the lineup.
Brazdeikis, an explosive downhill player, would add that ability at the expense of more reliable spot-up shooting and experience provided by Livers. Of course, a starting spot doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. Last year, it was Livers who took Duncan Robinson’s job midway through the season, yet Robinson still averaged over 10 more minutes than Livers.
As for the rest of the rotation, Beilein noted that the exhibition will function as a test run for players like Poole and Matthews to see increased minutes.
“We will sub like it’s an exhibition game, but at the same time, we do not wanna lose this game because we threw up our hands and put the last guys on the roster in,” Beilein said. “… My whole idea is that, that game better be out of reach to put the bottom of the lineup in. And so, if it never gets there, then they never get to play. It’s not like a balance.”
How well can Michigan shoot?
The Wolverines made the Final Four last season because of their defense. If they have any chance of making a similar run this year, it will be for the same reason.
Wagner’s shooting forced space to open up. It forced defenses to make an uncomfortable choice between switching or forcing a plodding big guy to defend beyond the arc. It unlocked the Wolverines’ offense. That’s not an overstatement. Teske can shoot 3-pointers in practice, but that’s different than in games, where he has taken two in two years.
On top of that, Michigan loses Robinson, a career 41.9 percent 3-point shooter. Of the aforementioned projected starting five, Poole is the only player who shot above 33 percent — in other words, one point per shot — from beyond the arc last season. Of the incoming freshmen, Nunez and perhaps Castleton look like the best shooters, and they’re the two least likely to get minutes early on.
That’s not to say you should press the panic button. John Beilein can coach offense just fine, and players like Matthews aren’t far from efficiency, as the coach has pointed out. But hitting that threshold is all the more important.
What does Austin Davis look like?
Stuck behind Wagner and Teske last year, Davis played all of 50 minutes. Other than 12 in a blowout win against Alabama A&M, all of those came in short spurts when someone was in foul trouble and Michigan needed simply to survive.
At 6-foot-10, 245 pounds, Davis is a behemoth, yet it’s unclear whether he can hold the backup center job. It’s hard to say what he is on defense — the sample from last year is far too small to draw any conclusions, and his frame won’t make it easy to defend in space.
“His track record is, go in and get in foul trouble right away,” Beilein said. “Just body angles. Just body angles and anticipation. It’s gotten better, but if you’re slow with getting in position and being in position, you’ll be in position to foul.”
Moreover, Johns — and perhaps Castleton — will push Davis for minutes. If the precedent set by Wagner is any indication, there aren’t many to go around. Teske averaged barely over 12 per game last season in the backup slot, nearly all the rest belonging to the German.