- Matt Cox
Key Returners: Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers, Jon Teske
Key Losses: Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson
Key Newcomers: Ignas Brazdeikis, Brandon Johns, David DeJulius, Colin Castleton, Adrien Nunez
Outlook: Before getting into the Wolverines' 2018-19 roster makeup, just know that every season outlook for Michigan starts and ends with John Beilein. It almost doesn't matter who he loses or who he returns on a year-to-year basis - the dude can just flat out coach. Up until last season, the calling card for Beilein's brilliance was his unprecedented offensive innovation. Any opposing coach will attest to how difficult it is to plan for and defend Beilein's intricate offensive schemes, precisely why Michigan is always a threat to go deep in tournament settings where opponents have limited time to prepare. Trying to absorb the Wolverines' complex array of offensive sets in 24-48 hours is like cramming for the bar exam the day before the test.
In his tenth season at the helm in Ann Arbor, Beilein showed the college basketball world that his already sharp basketball brain is still evolving - a scary proposition for Big Ten foes. Never regarded as a defensive mastermind, Beilein and his staff designed and implemented what would blossom into the 3rd best defensive unit in the entire country on a points per possession basis last year. The secret sauce? Baiting opponents into taking inefficient shots.
Any data-driven basketball person knows that 3s and layups are the key to scoring in an efficient manner. Under the direction of assistants Billy Donlon and Luke Yaklich, Michigan has completely revamped its defensive strategy - on the perimeter, the point of emphasis is all about chasing shooters off the 3-point line with the intent of funneling them inside the arc for less efficient 2-point attempts. On the interior, while many teams salivate over having a supreme shot-blocker at the rim, the Michigan bigs focus on altering shots through verticality, as opposed to always trying to swat shots into the 3rd row in hopes of making ESPN's Top-10 plays. This approach helps mitigate foul risk for the Michigan forwards and prevents opponents from scoring efficiently at the charity stripe.
Last year, Michigan executed this holistic defensive approach to near-perfection. And with Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers back to anchor the middle defensively and lockdown on-ball defenders in Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews returning in the backcourt, it's hard to see Michigan's defensive efficiency falling outside of the top-25 nationally - though, after ranking 3rd overall last season, some minor natural regression is to be expected.
The starting lineup will likely feature the aforementioned Teske and Livers upfront with Simpson, Matthews and the silky smooth Jordan Poole rounding out the backcourt. The bench minutes will be almost exclusively dominated by rising sophomore and backup point guard Eli Brooks and four 4-star freshmen, Ignas Brazdeikis, Brandon Johns, David DeJulius and Colin Castleton. Brazdeikis is the one to watch of the incoming class, whose perimeter-oriented game packed into a thick 6'8 220 pound frame could make him a starter from Day 1. The Canadian is far more advanced than most of his freshman peers in both physical maturity and skill polish - he could wind up being a perfect fit at the 4 next to the more paint-plodding Teske at the 5.
Also, Brazdeikis' social media presence is absolutely fire - if you don't follow him on instagram, exit out of this preview right now and look up my guy @_iggy_braz (one of my personal favorites below, just for reference):
Bottom Line: There's no denying that there are some major voids to fill for this 2019 Michigan squad. Mo Wagner was virtually unguardable at times during last year's postseason run and both Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson were models of efficiency as long-range shooters and steady ball handlers. That 3-point shooting precision and crisp decision-making will now fall on the shoulders of Simpson and Matthews, the lone two perimeter veterans on the roster. While Simpson shattered his preseason expectations last year by seizing the starting point guard spot from Brooks and Jaaron Simmons, Matthews' season was plagued by frequent episodes of inconsistency.
The former Kentucky recruit has a world of ability, which was glaringly apparent during his brilliant play for the first five games of the NCAA tournament before he ultimately retreated back to his shell against Villanova in the title game (he posted a 47 O-Rating before fouling out after 33 minutes - yikes). Now, with so much offensive production left on the table with Wagner, Adbur-Rahkman and 'D-Bo' gone, Michigan will be highly leveraged on a drastic improvement from Matthews this year. If his 2017-18 struggles linger into the 2018-19 campaign, Michigan's offense may take a step back - but I'm betting on the John Beilein school of development and Matthews making a legitimate run for Big Ten Player of the Year this season.