Position-by-position preview: Wolverines have blue chips and question marks
Personnel wise, it’s the start of a new era for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
Gone are yesteryear’s faces of the program – Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin – who were fixtures of the Wolverines’ lineup since the start of their freshman season.
Also absent are D.J. Wilson – now a Milwaukee Buck after a breakout season at Michigan – Mark Donnal and Andrew Dakich, who transferred to Clemson and Ohio State, respectively.
But the Wolverines do return two starters from the last year’s Sweet 16 squad in senior guard Muhammed-Ali Abdul-Rahkman and junior center Moritz Wagner, along with fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson.
A capable sophomore class comprised of guards Zavier Simpson and Ibi Watson, as well as center Jon Teske will help to help fill those losses. Three freshmen – all former four-star recruits – could see playing time, too.
Also new to Michigan’s roster are Ohio graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons and former Kentucky small forward Charles Matthews. Both are talented but have yet to prove it at the highest levels of college basketball.
As the Wolverines look to make another deep run in March, the Daily breaks down this year’s roster:
Right now, this is Michigan’s murkiest position with Simpson, Simmons and freshman Eli Brooks all figuring to play – but with unclear minute distributions.
Simpson is the lone returner and started last Friday’s exhibition win against Grand Valley State. The Ohio native is a strong defender and rebounder and seems more confident offensively this fall. Though Simpson doesn’t have much collegiate game experience – he averaged just 8.7 minutes last season – Simpson knows John Beilein’s system, giving him the early upper hand in the point guard competition.
Despite his current backup role, meanwhile, Simmons might be the most talented scorer on Michigan’s roster. In his final year at Ohio, he averaged 15.9 points and 6.5 assists a contest, excelling as a pull-up shooter and slasher. Given sufficient time to completely learn the Wolverines’ offense, Simmons could be the starter sooner rather than later.
Finally, Brooks will likely come off Beilein’s bench to play both point and shooting guard. Against Grand Valley State, Brooks provided a scoring spark to Michigan’s second team, adding five points and an assist in 15 minutes of action.
Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman will start here every game this season, barring injury. The former two-star recruit has flowered into a reliable offensive threat, averaging 9.1 points per game on 46 percent shooting last year. He’s a capable shooter and defender, but, more importantly, he’s the heart and soul of this Michigan team. With the most career minutes played, Abdur-Rahkman looks primed to be announced as a captain.
Behind him are Ibi Watson and freshman Jordan Poole. Despite limited playing time a year ago, Watson looked confident against Grand Valley State, sinking a three and mid-ranger jumper seconds after he entered the game. If he can do the same during the regular season, Watson could be a fixture in the Wolverines’ second team.
On the contrary, if Friday was any indication, Poole could miss Beilein’s regular rotation. The former four-star recruit saw just two minutes of action on Friday, and those came minutes after walk-ons had been unloaded from the bench. Brooks’ emergence also hurts Poole’s prospects of playing significant minutes – at least to begin the year.
Unlike at point guard, Michigan’s forwards are not marked by the question of who plays when. Instead, Charles Matthews, Duncan Robinson and freshman Isaiah Livers will receive nearly all the minutes at the ‘3’ and ‘4’ spots. But the efficacy of each is still a mystery.
Matthews was the Wolverines’ best player throughout the exhibition, combining a mid-range touch with strength in transition for 23 points. At 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, Matthews is also Michigan’s most athletic player, and it shows on the defensive end – he’ll frequently be tasked with guarding the opposition’s best player. But Matthews is still an unproven 3-point shooter, which could present complications in Beilein’s outside-oriented offense. Last Friday provided some clarity in Matthews’ development in that area, however, as he sunk a corner three for the game’s first points.
Robinson, meanwhile, is a classic stretch-four. Despite a slight decrease in minutes and points per game last season thanks to Wilson’s emergence, Robinson was still effective outside, shooting over 42 percent from three. Robinson is undersized, though, causing him some occasional defensive struggles.
Livers is a mix of the two, combining size with a capable jumper. As he did Friday, the former Michigan Mr. Basketball will see action in a back up capacity to start the year.
With all the Wolverines’ departures, Moritz Wagner becomes the most important player on Michigan’s roster. As a skilled center with the ability to handle the ball and shoot, he’s the Wolverines’ go-to option offensively. One could even make the case that Michigan goes as Wagner does. That was evident against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament last March, when Wagner scored 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting en route to a Wolverine victory.
Unlike last season, however, Wagner will have a target on his back now – something that he and Beilein have acknowledged. As a highly emotional player, Wagner needs to remain level-headed to stay on the floor and avoid foul trouble.
Possible weaknesses for Michigan’s front court could come defensively and on the glass, as Wagner and Robinson create an undersized duo. Friday wasn’t a strong start, as Michigan allowed 15 offensive rebounds to a small Lakers lineup.
Filling out the rotation are Jon Teske and redshirt freshman Austin Davis. Teske played just 3.1 minutes per game a season ago, but Beilein has been impressed with the strides Teske has made offensively. These strides were apparent on Friday, as Teske saw 12 minutes of action – compared to Davis’ six – and added two field goals and three assists.
Though clearly the third-string big man, Davis has strength and size and might be forced to eat minutes this season when Wagner and Teske find foul trouble.