Position-by-position preview: Experience and youth come together for Wolverines
A summer and preseason where all attention and focus could be put on the court rather than on the training table couldn’t have come at a better time for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
Michigan coach John Beilein, for the first time in recent years, was able to work with his entire squad with little to no distractions from injuries through the summer. With a roster that a brings a mix of veteran experience and youthful talent, Beilein needed that health to bring the Wolverines together as they seek their sixth NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years.
While there was major personnel turnover in the offseason — the Wolverines lost Caris LeVert to graduation and Spike Albrecht, Ricky Doyle, Aubrey Dawkins and Kameron Chatman to transfers — Michigan returns the starting five that fell to Notre Dame in the round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament. In addition, the Wolverines have brought in four freshmen who will be expected to contribute at high levels early in their careers.
With many old faces and some new, the Daily breaks down Michigan’s roster:
Senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. will undoubtedly be the Wolverines’ vocal and emotional leader. The 6-foot-1 point guard is coming off his best season in Ann Arbor, averaging 11.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last year while also tallying career highs in assists and steals. Walton will be expected to surpass those numbers this season, especially in scoring, as he will be sharing the responsibilities at the point with freshman Xavier Simpson and playing at the ‘2’ more.
Junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Michigan’s most improved player a season ago, is hoping to build off the momentum he found in conference play. Abdur-Rahkman ended up starting 25 games due to LeVert’s injury, and grew more confident in his role in every appearance. The 6-foot-4 guard ended up shooting 45 percent from the field and 37 percent from behind the arc, and may be heavily relied on when Michigan needs points in a hurry. As the Wolverines’ only true shooting guard, if Abdur-Rahkman finds himself in foul trouble or out with an injury, Beilein may need to call upon Walton, senior guard Zak Irvin or redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson to fill in temporarily at the ‘2.’
Simpson will also be a boost for Michigan’s guard rotation coming off the bench. The 6-foot guard won’t feature as a prominent scorer but has the combination of explosivity and vision that will open up other options on the court. Beilein is keen to play Simpson and Walton together, with the freshman at the point, when Michigan needs to push tempo and be quicker on defense. Look for Simpson to post numbers similar to those Walton contributed his freshman year — averaging eight points and three assists — while playing 20 minutes each game.
Irvin is going to have to bounce back from a disappointing junior year in a big way. The 6-foot-6 senior shot just 30 percent from deep and saw over a two-point drop in his scoring average. Unlike last year, when he underwent a summer back procedure, Irvin had the entire off-season to prepare and train. The Wolverines expect his 3-point percentage to return to somewhere around his career average of 36 percent along with growth in other areas of his game as well. The question still persists if Irvin can live up to the potential he’s shown in flashes throughout his career. It’ll come down to his final season to prove than he can be the guy Beilein can rely on to consistently find points for Michigan.
After establishing himself in his first season in Ann Arbor, Robinson will aspire to become more than a deep threat. Beilein hopes the 6-foot-8 guard can not only continue to shoot 45 percent from behind the arc, but also drive to the basket and be more physical on offense. Of the 134 field goals Robinson made last season, 95 of them were 3-pointers. The Wolverines need that proportion to shrink, or Beilein believes Robinson will be too predictable and guarded too heavily on the perimeter. Michigan also expects Robinson’s defensive abilities to improve from a year ago. The senior showed weaknesses while guarding opponents and rebounding, and the Wolverines hope a summer in the weight room will help Robinson out-muscle opponents and improve his quickness while guarding perimeter players as well.
Freshman forward Ibi Watson will give Michigan something different off the bench. The 6-foot-5 freshman looked sharp in the Wolverines’ exhibition against Armstrong State, scoring seven points on 3-for-8 shooting while leading the team with three steals. Irvin and Robinson have had issues defensively in the past. If Watson can prove to be less of a liability than his teammates were, he could see a rise in minutes.
Flying under the radar as a potential major contributor at the ‘4’ is redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson. Averaging six minutes per game, the 6-foot-10 forward was used sparingly last season and was often seen as a rebounding liability. After a healthy offseason, Wilson is stronger than ever and more willing to crash the boards and get the Wolverines the rebounds they may desperately need. Wilson could feature prominently in Big Ten play as he matches up better with some of the taller teams in the league and is a more traditional power forward than anyone else on the roster.
Sophomore forward Moritz Wagner’s summer in the gym looks like it has won him the starting role over senior forward Mark Donnal. The work the 6-foot-10 sophomore put in showed in his 15-point performance over the Pirates on Friday, as Wagner showed off his improved offensive skills and understanding of the system. Wagner still may have issues on the defensive end though. Last season he wasn’t boxing out and constantly found himself in foul trouble. Beilein hopes his improved strength will help Wagner overcome his defensive problems, but for now, Michigan will be relying on the forward’s offensive promise to make up for his defensive liabilities.
The Wolverines hope that Donnal can grow into a role as a better defensive option to Wagner. The 6-foot-9 forward was Michigan’s most efficient rebounder at the post, grabbing four rebounds per game. But Donnal struggled to make a consistent impact, especially when he came off the bench. Having Wagner ahead of him could potentially raise Donnal’s game as he battles for minutes, but it could also harm his confidence as the season wears on.
It won’t help Donnal that the competition for third in the post rotation has been intense as well. Beilein is planning on asking either freshman center Jon Teske or freshman forward Austin Davis to redshirt, while the other will feature in his plans. Based on minutes from Friday’s exhibition, Teske seems to have the edge on Davis. The 7-footer has height that will immediately help Michigan make up any size deficit they may have at center, while helping with shot blocking as well.