Season in review: 2019-20 men’s basketball

Saturday, March 21, 2020 - 1:41pm

Senior point guard Zavier Simpson's career was cut short by the outbreak of COVID-19.

Senior point guard Zavier Simpson's career was cut short by the outbreak of COVID-19. Buy this photo
Miles Macklin/Daily

For the Michigan men’s basketball team, this week was supposed to unfold differently.

A mere 10 days ago, the Wolverines were under the impression they’d be shipped off to an NCAA Tournament first-round site on Selection Sunday. It might’ve been an uphill climb to survive the tournament’s first weekend, but Michigan felt ready to make some noise under first-year coach Juwan Howard.

Those hopes came crashing down last Thursday, when the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments were each canceled due to COVID-19, bringing Michigan’s season to a sudden end.

With the offseason now upon us, The Daily identifies individuals who stood out during the season, possible early NBA Draft entrants and the potential 2020-21 rotation.

Most valuable player: Senior point guard Zavier Simpson

It wasn’t always pretty, but Simpson was Michigan’s rock throughout the season. Beyond his leadership role as the team’s loudest voice, he posted team-high averages of 12.9 points and 7.9 assists — the latter of which was good for third-most in all of Division I.

According to Synergy, Simpson’s pick-and-roll passing generated a nation-leading 13.7 points per game, making Michigan’s ball screen offense the highest-scoring unit of all Power Five teams. Simpson was always at the forefront of the Wolverines’ offensive gameplan, notching five double-doubles on the season.

Like the team at large, Simpson had his share of highs and lows. His four 3-pointers helped the Wolverines edge Michigan State on Feb. 8 and he poured in a career-high 32 points against Wisconsin on Feb. 27, but his season was tainted by a one-game suspension for a traffic-related incident in January.

Runner-up: Junior forward Isaiah Livers

Livers’ hot shooting guided the Wolverines to a 7-0 start in November that included a pair of top-10 wins, but he ultimately missed 10 games due to various injuries. Playing through ankle discomfort down the stretch, he shot a combined 14-for-47 from the field — including a 6-for-23 mark from behind the arc — over Michigan’s last four games.

Most improved player: Freshman wing Franz Wagner

If you compare Wagner’s statistics from November to his emergence in February, it’s like looking at two different players.

Wagner’s college debut was put on hold in the fall after he fractured his right wrist in practice, and even when he joined the lineup, the lingering impact of the wrist injury was evident in his shooting numbers. He shot just 29 percent from behind the arc in November and December.

Wagner was one of Michigan’s best perimeter defenders all season, but he was able to take his game to the next level once shots started falling in February. With the offensive success came a signature swagger, and there was no looking back from there. Wagner led the Wolverines in scoring over the last five games, averaging 16.6 points on 62 percent shooting en route to Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors.

Runner-up: Redshirt junior center Austin Davis

Back in November, the idea of Davis being a key contributor felt far-fetched. Michigan already had its starting center spot filled by senior Jon Teske, and sophomore forward Colin Castleton appeared to be a viable backup.

But when Davis got a chance in December, he provided a consistent spark off the bench and earned a permanent spot in the rotation. His 69 percent shooting clip was the best among Michigan’s rotational pieces, and a result, he’ll be back for a fifth year in 2020-21.

Will any Wolverines depart early for the NBA?

Don’t be surprised to see Livers or Wagner — or perhaps even both — test the NBA Draft waters this spring.

If Wagner chooses to enter the NBA Draft, his 6-foot-9 stature and two-way game will make him one of the more intriguing 2020 prospects. Livers, on the other hand, will be able to flaunt his athleticism and 3-point shooting stroke in pre-draft workouts if he opts to declare.

Recent NCAA rule changes permit both to test the waters and return to Michigan if there is no financial arrangement with an agent, provided they terminate the relationship with the agent after the process.

What can be expected of next season’s rotation?

As the Wolverines await looming NBA decisions from Wagner and Livers, Howard and his staff are actively recruiting. Michigan appears committed to adding another guard to next season’s roster, whether it be five-star prospect Josh Christopher — the nation’s No. 3 class of 2020 shooting guard, according to the 247 Sports Composite Rankings — or via the grad transfer market, where the Wolverines are reportedly pursuing a pair of Ivy League standouts in Harvard’s Bryce Aiken and Columbia’s Mike Smith.

With Simpson set to graduate, Michigan could benefit from adding another high-level playmaker to its backcourt. Insert Christopher, who would be the program’s highest-rated recruit in over two decades.

Michigan also remains in contention for five-star forward Greg Brown, the No. 9 overall recruit in the 2020 class, though Texas and Memphis are the perceived favorites. With the Wolverines already over the scholarship limit for next season, some form of attrition may be inevitable in the coming weeks.

In the fall, Michigan will welcome what is already the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class. Four-star guard Zeb Jackson has already signed his letter of intent, and five-star power forward Isaiah Todd, four-star center Hunter Dickinson, four-star forward Terrance Williams and three-star wing Jace Howard are all verbally committed, though Todd has flirted with the idea of playing overseas instead of in college.

Howard’s first recruiting class should fit in well alongside a strong foundation of returning players. Even as Livers and Wagner evaluate their NBA options, Eli Brooks and David DeJulius will duke it out for starting point guard duties, while Davis and Brandon Johns Jr. can be valuable contributors off the bench if Todd and Dickinson are starters as freshmen.