- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske, Isaiah Livers, Eli Brooks
Key Losses: Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole
Key Newcomers: Cole Bajema, Franz Wagner
Outlook: John Beilein’s decision to take his talents to the sunny beaches of Cleveland, Ohio, sent shockwaves through the college basketball landscape. Undisputedly one of the best coaches in the country, Beilein revived a Michigan program that was stuck in neutral under Tommy Amaker and led the Wolverines to two Sweet Sixteens, one Elite Eight, and two National Championship appearances in his 12 seasons at the helm. His departure was jarring and had a sizable impact on the school’s 2019 recruiting class, but all hope is not lost in Ann Arbor. Juwan Howard, famed member of the Fab Five and 19-year NBA veteran, steps in to take the reins of his alma mater and appears poised to continue Michigan’s strong basketball tradition. Howard’s press conference alone where he teared up and discussed how he finished his college degree during his NBA rookie season immediately boosted the Wolverines 5-10 spots in my rankings. He has a clear passion for the university and has already made smart hiring decisions by bringing on long-time St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli and former NBA guard Howard Eisley. He inherits a team with two All-Big Ten level players, a key role player, and a host of unknowns.
Howard spent the past six seasons as an assistant for the Miami Heat, so those jumping directly to the “he doesn’t know how to coach the X’s and O’s” take, are misguided. While it’s true Howard has zero experience in the college basketball head coaching department, NBA bench experience and staff members like Martelli should make his transition to the college game a relatively smooth one. Style-wise we aren’t sure what we’ll see from Howard on the offensive end, but I have a hunch we will still see a healthy diet of pick-n-roll, the staple of the Michigan offense under Beilein. The Wolverines ranked 5th in the country last season in percentage of plays used via the pick-n-roll, per Synergy, a set-up that primarily involved point guard Zavier Simpson and center Jon Teske. Simpson’s three-point shooting issues are well-documented, but he was an effective playmaker off ball screens in 2018-19 thanks to his elite passing ability, ball-handling, and court vision. Given his efficiency as a roll man (1.261 PPP, 84th percentile) and sky high volume in that action, Teske was arguably the best in the country in that action, and fellow frontcourt returner Isaiah Livers poured in a scorching 1.394 PPP of his own (93rd percentile). With the strength of that tandem returning, the PnR should be alive and well in Ann Arbor this season, but other facets of the offensive game, like pace, are still a mystery. Beilein’s squads ran a methodical half-court style of offense. With Howard’s NBA background, it’s more than likely we see a jump in tempo in 2019-20, perhaps even a more perimeter-oriented, three-point focused attack with former bench warmers taking on new roles.
Realistically, Michigan’s offense could still struggle despite the excellent pick-n-roll combination. Charles Matthews, Ignas Brazdeikis, and Jordan Poole could all create their own shot in the half-court, and this roster doesn’t appear, at least at this point, to have that type of player. Defensively, though, Michigan could still be elite. Beilein’s last two Wolverine squads each ranked in the top three of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, a result of tenacious on-ball defenders, a focus on denying clean looks from outside the arc, and a talented rim protector inside the paint. Simpson, a Big Ten All-Defense member in 2018-19, is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, and Teske will still act as a force field around the rim down low. Matthews’ departure hurts on this end (as does defensive coaching specialist Luke Yaklich), but the two returning cornerstones are probably enough to keep the Wolverines’ D in the top 20 nationally.
Point guard leaders are the most sought-after commodity in college basketball and Michigan has one of the best in Simpson. The 2nd Team All-Conference member is a steady foundation on which the rest of the Wolverines can stand. I’ve mentioned his defense and his ability to see the floor, but his game management, leadership, and sure-handedness are vital intangibles that can lift a “good” team to “great”. Simpson deservedly gets ridiculed for his poor outside shooting, but at least he seems to be trending in the right direction. Last season he improved his 3P% from 28.9% to 30.8% on a higher volume, but must continue to improve to avoid allowing defenders to simply go under ball screens and dare him to chuck up a (now longer) three. If he becomes respectable from the outside, it will only further unlock opportunities for him to use his craftiness inside the arc, specifically his GORGEOUS running hook shot that has earned him the nickname “Captain Hook”:
Teske, a 7’1” senior, will play Bert to Simpson’s Ernie. The big man seems poised for a huge year as he will undoubtedly step into a more central role in the Wolverine offense. Anecdotally, I was shocked to see Teske’s 3P% at only 29.9% for last season, as it seemed like the big man hit every three he took when I had eyes on a Wolverine game. Despite the low percentage, Teske can be a weapon from the outside on pick-n-pops and he’s also a great finisher near the rim on rolls. It’s also worth noting that Teske’s on/off impact was absolutely insane last season, as Michigan was a ridiculous +0.28 PPP when he was on the floor versus when he sat:
He’ll pair up with Livers in the frontcourt, which will give the Wolverines two outside shooting threats at the 4 and 5 positions. Livers was deadly from downtown his sophomore year, knocking down 42.6% of his 122 attempts, and should see a sizable jump in usage as an upperclassman. There is wide speculation that Howard will opt to play Livers at the 3 and go with sophomore Brandon Johns at the 4. While Livers has the perimeter skills to perhaps pull this off, I can’t imagine this is the best lineup for the Wolverines. A Johns / Teske frontcourt could lead to spacing issues on offense and matchup issues on defense when Livers is left to guard wings.
Eli Brooks is the only other player on the roster that saw over 30% of Michigan’s minutes last season. Beilein kept a notoriously small rotation, primarily a result of his bench’s youth and inexperience. Brooks has been ineffective in his two years in Ann Arbor, but perhaps a shake-up in coaching personnel and less competition for backcourt minutes will help get him over the hump.
Aside from Brooks, Howard will turn to four rising sophomores, a 4-star recruit, and a German legacy to make up for the lost production. That 4-star recruit is Cole Bajema, a 6’7” wing with a silky-smooth style of play and good-looking outside shot. He’ll need to hit the weight room this offseason to be ready for Big Ten play, but he’s a potential source of offense and could start right away in his freshman season. The four sophomores are guards David DeJulius and Adrien Nunez, forward Colin Castleton, and the aforementioned Brandon Johns.
The German legacy is none other than Franz Wagner, brother of the great emotional firebrand Moe Wagner. Wagner comes to Michigan a polished product, a 6’8” wing that can shoot, drive, and defend from either the 2 or 3 spot. With his experience against professionals over in Europe, Wagner is a sure bet to start right away for the Wolverines and provide that missing scoring punch left behind by the departed.
If you’re a betting man, you’re taking one of the four sophomores to break out in 2019-20, and my money is on Johns. Though clearly raw, Johns showed off the potential that made him a top 100 recruit coming out of high school in 2018. He has the size and athleticism to be a solid rebounder and his shot actually looks decent for somebody so “raw”. His biggest issue last season was court awareness, something that should only improve with an extra offseason. Expect Johns to compete for a starting spot (Livers playing the 3 scenario) or play a key role off the pine this season. His fellow big man, Castleton, played limited possessions as a freshman, but it’s hard not to make a comparison to Teske while watching his tape with the way he moves, his (potential) ability to shoot away from the rim, and his ability to be an effective screener in the pick-n-roll.
DeJulius and Nunez have prime opportunities to snag a starting role at the 2-guard spot with the uncertainty surrounding Brooks’ game. DeJulius was a knockdown shooter in high school and put up points in droves, but he’ll have to prove he can stand-up defensively alongside Simpson at just 6’0”. Nunez has the preferable size for a wing or 2-guard and also came into Michigan with the reputation as a shooter. The pair combined to shoot 1/28 from downtown in their freshman seasons, so they’ll need to find their confidence in the offseason.
Bottom Line: Expectations for the Wolverines this season have run the gamut from top 15 to fringe tournament. Here’s Dylan Burkhardt’s take from UMHoops.com (@umhoops):
“Michigan's chaotic offseason makes it tough to define expectations in 2019-20. It feels like a year where Michigan fans might realize just how spoiled they were under John Beilein. The Wolverines have three great players back, but also lose three starters to the NBA. If Beilein was still in Ann Arbor, this would be a classic scenario where he figures out a way to get Michigan back to the NCAA Tournament because that's just what he does. Instead, Juwan Howard takes over as a complete unknown. He brings excitement but nobody has any idea what to expect from him on the bench.”
It’s refreshing hearing a fan (and school expert) talk about his team through a rational and realistic lens, but I’m slightly more bullish on the Wolverines’ prospects in 2019-20. The Howard hire was a home run. His reputation should allow him to come in and earn the respect of his team from day one. A team that respects its coach and wants to win for him is a team that succeeds. Simpson and Teske are two of the best players in the Big Ten, perhaps even the country. With those two leading the way, Michigan’s defense – at the very least – should be enough to keep this team afloat in the conference standings. All it takes is someone like Livers or Johns or Bajema or Wagner to come in and provide Michigan with a punch of offense for the Wolverines to be a top 25 team this season.