Last year’s Michigan Wolverines were one of the surprise teams in college basketball, upsetting No. 13 Purdue and No. 24 Wisconsin on their way to winning the Big Ten Tournament, and followed that up with three of the most entertaining games of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, highlighted by a 92-91 win over Oklahoma State in the opening round.
After up-ending the 2-seed Louisville Cardinals and advancing to the Sweet 16, the miracle run for Michigan came to an end when they lost a heart-breaker to 3-seed Oregon.
Enter a new year and a lot of change. Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin have graduated, and D.J. Wilson foregone the rest of his college eligibility for the NBA. The good news is that Moritz “Moe” Wagner, one of the most versatile big men in college hoops, is back for another year after testing the NBA Draft waters. He brings with him his 40 percent shooting from deep. The 6-foot-11 junior averaged over 11 points and four rebounds a game, numbers that are expected to increase this year.
Michigan also has incoming freshmen: 6-foot point guard Eli Brooks, 6-foot-4 shooting guard Jordan Poole, and 6-foot-7 guard/forward Isaiah Livers. The Wolverines also have some additional reinforcements in the form of transfers, namely guards Charles Matthews from Kentucky (sat out the 2016-17 season), and Jaaron Simmons from Ohio (grad transfer).
So let’s break down Michigan’s team, shall we?
With Walton gone, the point guard position is up for grabs. It’ll be hard to replicate what Walton did in terms of his versatility and production. Graduate-transfer Jaaron Simmons averaged 15 points and seven assists per game in his two years at Ohio, and is the most-likely candidate to take over at the point guard position given his numbers and experience. However, sophomore Zavier Simpson and incoming freshman Eli Brooks could battle for the starting spot if Simmons doesn’t perform as well in the Big Ten as he did in the MAC.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman showed plenty of promise last year while playing over 30 minutes a game, and should get the starting shooting guard, especially if he shows improvement on his scoring, which was just under 10 points per game last year.
If he doesn’t show improvement there are a plethora of wingers waiting to take his spot in Charles Matthews (6-6, Jr), Ibi Watson (6-5, So), and Jordan Poole (6-4 Fr).
Another point of emphasis will be the small forward position with Zak Irvin no longer setting up shop there. And while it could be Charles Matthews, there are others who could fulfill the role if Matthews does not shine out the gate. Freshman Isaiah Livers (6-7) will have an opportunity to prove his worth immediately, as well as Ibi Watson (also listed above).
At power forward/center, it’s an obvious choice, Moe Wagner is the guy, he’s also probably THE GUY for Michigan basketball overall this year. He added some beef to his frame, and we’ll see if his numbers improve from last year but the smart money is that they will.
If he plays center, Duncan Robinson could be manning the four. The former Division III transfer and fifth-year senior didn’t produce quite as much as he did in his first year with the Wolverines in 2015-16, so he and John Beilein will be hoping for a bounce-back. Waiting in the wings to give minutes and fouls are Jon Teske (7-1 sophomore), Austin Davis (6-10 sophomore), and Brent Hibbits (6-8 junior).
Beilein has talent, both returning and new, and he’s proven to be one of the best coaches in the BigTen. If he can find Walton’s replacement quickly, Michigan will be a very dangerous team, both in the regular season and come tournament time (barring injuries of course). If the Wolverines struggle in the backcourt, it will force Beilein to rely on Wagner and Robinson far too much, possibly burning them out before March Madness comes along.
The Wolverines begin their 2017-18 season at home this Saturday (11/11) against North Florida. The Ospreys will be playing a second game in as many days after playing Michigan State the day before.