Shattering expectations would be an understatement for the Michigan men’s basketball team in the 2017-18 season.
After a 26-12 record in 2016-17 that ended in a heartbreaking Sweet Sixteen loss to Oregon, the Wolverines lost three valuable starters in Derrick Walton, D.J. Wilson and Zak Irvin. They were supposed to spend this season retooling, with a solid recruiting class waiting in the wings.
On numerous occasions, that looked to be the case. But as was the theme of the season, Michigan also won in almost every way imaginable — pretty and ugly — to notch a 33-8 record. It was good enough to face Villanova for the Wolverines’ second National Championship appearance in six years. It was good enough to win their second straight Big Ten Tournament. It was good enough to get the most wins in program history.
The Daily reflects on one of the most successful seasons in Michigan basketball history:
The Wolverines provided a few glimpses earlier in the season they could make a run in March, such as two convincing road wins to end the year and two wins over then-top-10 Michigan State teams. But none encapsulated how efficient this team could be on both ends of the court then in the Big Ten Tournament championship.
After getting buried by 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas in Michigan’s previous two games against the Boilermakers, the Wolverines controlled the tempo from start to finish, stymying a top-five offense and shooting 50 percent from the floor. It also offered a posterizing slam in a breakout performance by sophomore center Jon Teske. Unlike the 2016-17 season, there was no intrigue from a scary plane crash or underdog mentality. Michigan won its second consecutive conference tournament championship convincingly and became one of the hottest teams in the country heading into March Madness.
Worst game: Northwestern 61, Michigan 52 on Feb. 6
In this snoozefest in Rosemont, Ill., Michigan shot a measly 38.6 percent from the field, and couldn’t make the necessary stops against a smaller and slower Wildcats’ team. It looked like a contest that would position the Wolverines as a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten squad on the outside looking in.
The silver lining of this game for Michigan, though, is it marked when the Wolverines had had enough of lackluster showings. It was the last loss Michigan had until the National Championship game, and marked the start of an offensive emergence from senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
Best individual performance: Moritz Wagner against Loyola-Chicago in the Final Four
If any game showed why Wagner is making the right call to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, it was his monstrous performance against the Ramblers in the Final Four. The junior center registered a 24-point, 15-rebound output on 10-for-16 shooting in the most significant game of his career. Wagner also recorded three steals to hush the naysayers about his shaky defense. Much of his work also came when Michigan needed it most — facing a three-point deficit with 7:44 remaining in the contest. Wagner scored 11 of the team’s next 15 points to put the game out of reach and secure a spot in the title game.
Most important game: Michigan 64, Houston 63 in Round of 32
Yes, the National Championship game was pretty important. And so was the Final Four, Elite Eight and the Sweet Sixteen. But none of it would have happened without one the most iconic shots in Michigan basketball history. Flailing his legs after a rapid flick of the wrist, freshman guard Jordan Poole converted a 3-point, buzzer-beating prayer to down the Cougars and earn a spot in the One Shining Moment video. In what was an otherwise uninspiring contest, the victory marked a true beginning to the Wolverines’ March Madness run and added another bullet point to the program’s and Beilein’s résumé.
Most improved player: Zavier Simpson
In his freshman season, Simpson looked like a lost puppy on the court, unable to be a trustworthy ball-handler or buy a bucket. For his sophomore campaign, the point guard was still a dog, but for all the right reasons. Labeled a “pitbull” by his teammates, Simpson convincingly grabbed the reins of the starting point guard role on Jan. 6 and ran with it.
He locked down his opponents nightly, earning him consideration as one of the premier on-ball defenders in the country. In the title game, Simpson held National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson to just nine points on 4-for-13 shooting. Offensively, while Simpson still has plenty of room to grow, he overcame his stocky stature to showcase a number of circus scoop shots and dribble penetration over some of the nation’s best shot-blockers — think Haas, Mo Bamba, Jaren Jackson Jr. Given his impact on the court, Simpson is clearly the most improved player on Michigan, even if a statline won’t show it.
Most valuable player: Moritz Wagner
This decision isn’t as easy as it seems. The Wolverines were a Jenga tower that could fall by taking out any one player out of the lineup. But Wagner was at the base of it all. The junior averaged 14.6 points and 7.1 boards after posting just 12.1 points and 4.2 rebounds a season ago. Besides against Loyola-Chicago, Wagner’s standout performances include nine other 20-point games and seven double-doubles. Wagner, as evidenced by his on-court antics, also proved himself to be a capable, vocal leader as a captain. Between his shifty offensive skillset, growing defensive prowess and leadership, he was able to help Michigan to the Final Four, and could soon make an NBA team very happy.
Speaking in formalities, the only next step for Michigan is winning the National Championship. In reality, the goal will just be sustaining a top-tier program that is losing three of its biggest contributors — Abdur-Rahkman and fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson to graduation and, as of Saturday afternoon, Wagner to the NBA. Jaaron Simmons is also graduating, forcing the Wolverines to find a replacement for the backup point guard role. The team is also waiting on an NBA decision by Matthews. Finally, sophomore guard Ibi Watson and walk-on Brett Hibbitts announced their intentions to transfer, opening up roster spots and more playing time in the backup ‘2’ role.
But the new faces coming to Ann Arbor compose one of the best recruiting classes in the Beilein era. Beilein isn’t one to tout rankings, but the five-man class composes four four-stars and one three-star recruit for the 16th-best incoming group in the country, according to 247Sports. All five recruits play one starting role: David DeJulius at point guard, Adrien Nunez at shooting guard, Ignas Brazdeikis at small forward, Brandon Johns at power forward and Colin Castleton at center.
On paper, Michigan is introducing new pieces that can begin replacing the firepower it loses. But it also can look forward to the development of other players who made significant strides this year. Simpson has always held his own on defense, but showed noticeable progression in finding scoring opportunities as the season went on. Teske, who will likely replace Wagner at the ‘5’, grew more and more assertive and even showcased a mid-range jumper late in the year. And the rising sophomores — Poole, Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks — enter the year with a full season of college basketball under their belts.
Next season, the Wolverines will likely find themselves in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll. Unlike most of last season, they will have a target on their backs from the get-go, inviting the possibility of another compelling, new-look Michigan team in 2018-19.