- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Moritz Wagner, Duncan Robinson, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman
Key Losses: D.J. Wilson, Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin
Key Newcomers: Jaaron Simmons (Ohio), Charles Matthews (Kentucky), Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers
Postseason Projection: 6 - 9 seed
Outlook: On February 4, 2017, the Michigan Wolverines lost to Ohio State at home and sat at 14-9 overall with a paltry 4-6 record in the Big Ten; making the Big Dance was anything but a surety. Then Michael Jordan came to Ann Arbor (I assume) and gave the Wolverines a few bottles of his “Secret Stuff”. After that date, John Beilein’s squad went on an absolute tear, winning 10 of their next 12 on their way to capturing the school’s second ever Big Ten Tournament championship and eventually finishing the season with a respectable loss in the Sweet Sixteen. Michigan’s uber-efficient offensive attack was the catalyst to their winning ways; the Wolverines finished the year ranked 4th in offensive efficiency (per KenPom) thanks to the ball handling of Derrick Walton and sharpshooting of just about every player on the roster. Along with Walton, Michigan loses Zak Irvin and D.J. Wilson this season, or about 53% of their scoring. Despite the losses, Beilein still has a talented team this year in Ann Arbor thanks to a couple shiny new imports and a big German guy in the middle; the new-look Wolverines should be a fun squad to watch.
Point guard play is important in John Beilein’s methodical half-court system. Walton was one of the steadiest ball handlers in the country and was an excellent penetrator and distributor. Replacing Walton this season will be Ohio graduate transfer Jaaron Simmons, a dynamic playmaker who should be able to make up at least the majority of the production left behind by Walton. Ohio’s offense revolved around Simmons last season; most possessions materialized as a result of a Simmons isolation or pick-n-roll. Michigan won’t be quite as reliant on Simmons for scoring as Ohio was, but his playmaking and distributing ability will be vital. Simmons has ranked in the top ten nationally in assists per game each of the last two seasons, and his speed and vision is reminiscent of Walton. The Wolverines offense will be in good hands.
Joining Simmons in the backcourt will be another new face in Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews. Matthews was ESPN’s #42 recruit coming out of high school back in 2015 but he couldn’t muster more than about 10 minutes per game on the Wildcat roster. Kentucky’s loss is Michigan’s gain, as Matthews should immediately slot into a starting wing spot. He’s a hard-nosed slasher with elite athleticism and also appeared to have added quite a bit of muscle to his frame from his freshman year at Kentucky.
Senior vets Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson will man the other two wing spots. Aside from owning his own law firm with NFL running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Abdur-Rahkman enjoys the distinction of being the Wolverines’ most important perimeter defender, but it was his offense that really took a step forward last season. Abdur-Rahkman has increased his scoring, rebounding, assists, and field goal percentage across every area of the floor in each of his past three years. His smart shot selection has led to his improved efficiency, and we should expect to see another jump in his counting numbers as he assumes a larger offensive role without Zak Irvin.
Duncan Robinson is on the floor for one reason: shooting the long ball. Robinson connected on 42.4% of his total three-point attempts last season (he’s a career 44% three-point shooter) and a scorching 51.8% from the corners. His playing time saw a dramatic decrease last year with the emergence of D.J. Wilson and Beilein’s apparent realization that Robinson really isn’t the strongest defender. Robinson should see his minutes creep back up this season with Michigan’s relative lack of 4-man depth.
By far the most important returning Wolverine is Mo Wagner, Beilein’s German center who withdrew his name from the NBA Draft this offseason much to the relief of the Big Blue faithful. Wagner is the type of player that you hate with a bitter passion if you’re on the opposing team – he was easily one of the scrappiest, hard-working forwards I watched last season. His most memorable performance last year was against Louisville in the Round of 32 where he scorched the Cardinal big men with an array of post spins on his way to notching 26 points on 13 shot attempts. Wagner is so valuable because the impact he has on every facet of the game; he shot an impressive slash of .661/.395/.726 while leading the Wolverines in steals on the other end.
Wagner should be the focal point of the Wolverine attack this year, and will get plenty of isolation / post opportunities through one of Michigan’s favorite sets on offense:
Michigan overloads one side of the floor while Wagner sets a down screen for the opposite wing:
The ball is reversed leaving Wagner all alone on side of the floor to wreak havoc on his ill-prepared defender:
As usual, Beilein again has a strong crop of recruits coming in highlighted by ESPN Top-100 freshmen Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers. Poole comes out of the infamous high school powerhouse, La Lumiere, and might be the best shooter in the class of 2017. He’ll provide shooting off the pine, which could be sorely needed in the backcourt. Livers, Michigan’s 2017 Mr. Basketball, is a versatile power forward that could challenge Robinson for a starting spot later in the year.
Xavier Simpson and Ibi Watson, two seldom-used sophomores, will take bigger roles off the bench this year as well. Both have tons defensive potential on the wing.
Bottom Line: Michigan lost most of their core from last season, but Beilein has brought in adequate reinforcements to be competitive once again this year. If Simmons can give about 80-90% of what Walton gave, if Matthews lives up to his recruiting pedigree, and if Wagner continues his exponential trajectory into a first round NBA prospect, the Wolverines will compete for a top three conference finish and should find themselves firmly in the Big Dance come March.