With the season less than three weeks away, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein has yet to name his starting point guard. At Big Ten Media Day on Thursday, though, Beilein admitted he is getting closer.
“It’s so competitive right now,” Beilein said. “The intensity is probably like nothing we’ve ever seen.”
Fifth-year senior point guard Jaaron Simmons transferred to Michigan instead of entering the NBA Draft under the assumption, presumably, that he would man the starting role come Nov. 11 against North Florida. And he very well may. But sophomore Zavier Simpson and freshman Eli Brooks are competing for the spot as well, and what once seemed inevitable for Simmons appears to be up for the taking.
Simpson’s minutes steadily increased last season in his role as the backup to Derrick Walton Jr., though his offensive production often sputtered, averaging just 1.6 points per game. Recruited as the heir to Walton’s throne, Simpson saw a wrench thrown in his potential breakout sophomore campaign with Simmons entering the program as a graduate transfer and Brooks shining early in practice. His defensive tenacity, as it did last season, will earn him minutes on a team seeking intensity on that end of the floor.
Youth may well be the only thing limiting Brooks at this point, as the buzz around his freshman season continues to churn. Talk of him starting is no longer purely hypothetical; he seems to be firmly in the mix, and will likely play a major role whether or not he is starting or coming off the bench. If history taught us anything with Trey Burke and Derrick Walton Jr., Beilein will not be afraid to start a freshman if he is ready.
Though he refused to hint at which way he was leaning, Beilein believes the “healthy” competition will ultimately be beneficial for the group as a whole.
“This one is three guys going at it; it’s really tough to even decide because nobody’s making each other look good because the competition is so hard,” Beilein said. “It’ll be good for us when we play against other competition.”
Wolverines will face tough early opponents
“We maybe have the most challenging schedule that certainly I’ve ever had at Michigan or maybe Michigan’s ever had,” Beilein said in his opening statements Thursday.
Clearly the Wolverines’ tough schedule has been on his mind, and justifiably so. In 22 days — from Nov. 20 to Dec. 12 — Michigan will travel to Hawaii, Columbus, North Carolina and Texas, with home games against Indiana and UCLA sprinkled in between.
And then there’s the rest of the Big Ten schedule.
Since the Wolverines have a team that includes many new faces in important positions, it will be important for the experienced players to play well. Fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson said as much on Thursday. He recognizes the challenge as an opportunity for the older players to drive the team to success.
“A lot of these young guys are going to have to grow up quick,” Robinson said. “It’ll probably be on us, as the older guys, to kind of help push them through the adversity in those times.”
Beilein says this past month has been paramount in preparing for the upcoming schedule, saying that preparation now will allow the team an opportunity to spend time “off their feet” when they need to in the future.
Two is better than one
John Beilein and Tom Izzo agree on one thing: Michigan and Michigan State should play each other twice a year.
For the 2017-18 season, the in-state rivalry will happen only once in East Lansing, but after a recent move by the Big Ten to expand conference play from 18 to 20 games, the home-and-home matchup looks to be protected for the following season and near future.
“I think preserving rivalries that people have grown up on in this changing world was a very good move by the Big Ten,” Izzo said. “And I think it’s going to benefit a lot of us and hopefully it will catch fire around the country.”
Added Beilein: “There’s never a doubt in any way, shape or form. And it’s what should be happening. I think it’s the way that — it’s really smart scheduling for us. … It just makes so much sense, both interest-wise, financially, the whole deal. It’s just like a great concept that we’ve both embraced.”
For the rest of the Big Ten, the move was intended to increase the frequency of other in-state rivalries and regional opponents. The change will likely boost the strength-of-schedule across the conference as weaker non-conference games are replaced, which could have implications on NCAA Tournament seeding come March.
Daily Sports Editor Ethan Wolfe also contributed to the reporting of this article.