Seven months and 17 days ago, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s season ended at the hands of Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Now, the doors to Crisler Center are set to open again, as the Wolverines will begin the 2016 season with an exhibition against Armstrong State on Friday night.
“It’s not the real thing yet, but it is time to go out and really play against somebody else,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “It’s been a good preseason. I wouldn’t say it’s been a great one. I watched the video and we have some issues, still making similar mistakes over and over again. We’ve just got to keep cleaning it up and cleaning it up.”
Though Michigan may have a long way to go before it can call itself a complete team, the Pirates are an underwhelming Division II opponent competing in the Peach Belt Conference — where they notched a 12-15 record last year. To make matters worse, they lost their three leading scorers — Herbert Graham, Shaquille Mitchell and Nicholas Scott — to graduation.
The matchup is more compelling given that former Wolverine star Cazzie Russell is an assistant coach at Armstrong State, a small school of about 7,000 students in Savannah, Ga. Regardless, this game has all the ingredients for a blowout in favor of Michigan.
Even though it’s only an exhibition game, there are still many questions surrounding the Wolverines entering the season. Here are four things to look for on Friday:
1. Who will thrive at the ‘5’?
Sophomore Moritz Wagner and senior Mark Donnal have been competing for the starting spot at center throughout the preseason, and that competition is still going strong. According to Beilein, Wagner’s skill level and shooting ability have currently put him ahead of Donnal in the quest to assume the starting role.
Still, there are tradeoffs that come with Wagner at center. Donnal is more experienced, a better defender and, most importantly, a more effective rebounder — something that could be paramount for a Michigan team which has struggled in that category in the past.
Beilein indicated his choice of a starter may fluctuate depending on what the Wolverines need in specific games, but Wagner and Donnal’s performances Friday night could set the tone for who receives the nod going forward.
“I wouldn’t say they’re neck and neck,” Beilein said. “But I think we’ll know in the next couple of days who is a gamer, who can do things in games.”
2. What impact will Michigan’s freshman class have?
The exhibition against Armstrong State gives the freshman class an opportunity to play without losing a year of eligibility, and it should serve as a barometer for Beilein to judge what he has seen in practice so far.
Jon Teske has impressed with his basketball IQ and skill set so far, and as the Wolverines’ only 7-footer, his size certainly stands out. Beilein touted Austin Davis as the best rebounder on the team right now but acknowledged he still needs to acclimate to the speed of the game.
Throughout preseason, Xavier Simpson has drawn defensive comparisons to senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. and will likely make the biggest splash as a freshman. Beilein has played him alongside Walton in scrimmages this year, and indicated that he likes the option of playing a quick defensive lineup with Simpson, Walton, redshirt sophomore DJ Wilson and senior forward Zak Irvin.
Ibi Watson will also be in the mix at guard, and Friday night could serve as an indication of which freshmen could contribute immediately this season.
3. How will DJ Wilson look at the ‘4’?
Wilson has had a rocky start to his career in Ann Arbor, redshirting his freshman year after suffering an injury and failing to carve out playing time for himself during his sophomore campaign.
But after a smooth transition from center to power forward, Beilein suggested that Wilson should have significant time on the court.
Wilson has grown visibly stronger in the offseason, and Beilein has seen his new power forward reap the benefits.
“We go back two years, and I said this to Moritz yesterday, that DJ didn’t get a rebound ever in practice when he came,” Beilein said. “… All of a sudden he’s getting traffic rebounds.
“Don’t confuse him with Dennis Rodman yet, but he will go in and stick his nose in there like you’ve never seen him do before, and we’re encouraging that. That would be a big change, if we can rebound and defend out of that ‘4’ position. It’s going to be huge for us.”
4. Is this the debut of a new-look defense?
Since assistant coach Billy Donlon arrived in Ann Arbor, Beilein has placed the bulk of the defensive responsibilities on his shoulders. Defense has been the emphasis this preseason, and Friday’s game will be the first chance to see how far Michigan has come since allowing opposing teams to shoot at a 47 percent clip last season.
Beilein is hoping the Wolverines can be more aggressive in forcing turnovers and better dictate how the opposing offense plays. Donlon is trying to more effectively strike a balance between foul trouble and smart fouls this season, so don’t be surprised to see Michigan be more physical on the defensive end.
The Pirates are far from the perfect measuring stick, but the matchup could shed some light on the Wolverines’ defensive approach going forward.