Position-by-position preview: New-look Wolverines hope to contend again
Last year, the nucleus of the Michigan men’s basketball team — one that made it all the way to the NCAA national championship game — consisted of center Moritz Wagner, guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and wing Duncan Robinson. Now, all three have left for the pros, making way for younger players to take the spotlight.
This year’s team will look different from a traditional John Beilein team. With the Wolverines’ three top shooters departed, this version of Michigan will be focused more on defense and rim presence. But with three returning starters, veterans ready to step up and the country’s No. 8-ranked recruiting class, the Wolverines should be able to forge a new identity.
The Daily broke down Michigan’s roster:
At the start of last season, the point guard competition was full of intrigue. This year, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sophomore Zavier Simpson took over the starting job in January and ran with it. He’ll likely never be a significant offensive threat, but with his skill set, he doesn’t need to be. His defense and rebounding gives opposing guards fits, and his leadership and personality have made him the heart and soul of the Wolverines.
At shooting guard, sophomore Jordan Poole will be the main starter after a season backing up Abdur-Rakhman. Poole is Michigan’s main threat from beyond the arc, and his skill set will be vital with most of last year’s 3-point threats gone. Last year, turnovers and defensive struggles were obstacles to more playing time, but both have seemed improved in early practices. A newfound maturity, too, could help Poole take his game to the next level.
When either needs a spell, sophomore Eli Brooks figures to be one of the first players off the bench. Brooks — who can play both point and shooting guard — started at point guard at the beginning of last season but by the end had become a little-used bench player. But offseason improvements have paid off. Beilein has praised Brooks’ shooting and defense and mentioned him as one of the Wolverines’ best players in fall practices.
Freshmen David DeJulius (at point guard) and Adrien Nunez (at shooting guard) could also factor into the equation. DeJulius has stood out to Beilein as someone whose body is ready to play at the collegiate level, and Nunez’s shooting prowess could fill a niche when Poole isn’t on the floor.
Redshirt junior Charles Matthews was Michigan’s best player in the postseason, but for most of his tenure with the Wolverines, his missing piece has been consistency. If he can further hone his skills, he could be one of the best players in the conference — he was named to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team — but it’s not a given, and the outcome of Michigan’s season could be predicated on whether that consistency shows up.
Much of the Wolverines’ preseason hype has centered around freshman Ignas Brazdeikis, who Beilein has indicated will start at power forward to begin the season over sophomore Isaiah Livers, who started at the position last year. Brazdeikis is a downhill scoring threat and led the team in points in four preseason exhibition games. He will likely play most of his minutes at power forward, but he’s versatile enough to play small forward — his natural position — and shooting guard, too.
That’s not to say Livers won’t play a large part on this year’s team. He was sidelined for nearly a month of the offseason with an ankle injury, but now that he’s back on the court, he’s preparing to become a swingman. Likely Michigan’s sixth man, Livers could see time at any position besides point guard. His versatile skill set and defensive prowess will ensure he has a high floor and a spot in the rotation, but there could be a learning curve as he adapts to his new role.
With Wagner gone, the Wolverines’ bigs will have an entirely different look. Junior Jon Teske figures to play the majority of the minutes at center, especially with a potential new weapon in his back pocket. During Michigan’s exhibition game against Northwood on Nov. 2, Teske hit a 3-pointer off the pick-and-pop after attempting only one shot from beyond the arc all of last season. Shooting-wise, Teske won’t be Wagner, but that addition to his arsenal could make a big difference, especially if he can learn to stay out of foul trouble.
Backing up Teske will be redshirt sophomore Austin Davis, freshmen Colin Castleton and Brandon Johns. Davis spent last year as the third-string center but should find more playing time in Wagner’s absence.
Johns and Castleton don’t figure to have much of a role in the Wolverines’ rotation early in the season as they develop physically and learn Beilein’s system. But they could serve as depth options off the bench at either power forward or center.