Michigan Starts Finding Answers on Opening Weekend

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 14th, 2016

When Michigan was again forced to adjust to life without star shooting guard Caris LeVert — whose college career ended after suffering a season-ending leg injury last December — it posed two silver linings. On the one hand, it was a blessing in disguise. The Wolverines still snuck into the NCAA Tournament, and the increased workload for guards Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin gave the experienced duo more to build on entering 2016-17. LeVert’s exit, however, also marked the first in a series of unforeseen departures which have created more questions than answers entering this season, even with the team’s starting five fully intact. If its opening weekend victory over IUPUI is any indication, Michigan’s questions will take some time to fully answer—but the blueprint for progress is there.

Derrick Walton and the Wolverines looked sharp over the final 30 minutes vs. IUPUI. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Derrick Walton and the Wolverines looked sharp over the final 30 minutes vs. IUPUI. (Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports)

Emerging Frontcourt Depth

The Wolverines’ chief concern is depth, and not just because LeVert is gone. 2013 Final Four hero Spike Albrecht briefly retired last December because of a hip injury before eventually heading to Purdue. In April, guard Aubrey Dawkins (6.5 PPG) transferred to Central Florida to play for his father. A month later, frontcourt role players Ricky Doyle and Kameron Chatman—whose clutch triple against Indiana last March helped Michigan reach the Dance—also departed. The spate of transfers has left John Beilein with a short and inexperienced bench; on Sunday, only seven players saw meaningful minutes. The good news? One of those players, forward D.J. Wilson, looked like a breakout star. After barely seeing the floor last season, the springy sophomore scored seven points and ripped down 14 rebounds in a career-high 30 minutes against the Jaguars, providing a much needed spark off the bench.

“When we recruited him, this is what we hoped,” his head coach said afterward. “He’s developed his body, and now his mindset is to… get after loose balls.” Wilson’s emergence as an athletic playmaker, together with German forward Mortiz Wagner’s skill (13 points, six rebounds), should provide Michigan with enough frontcourt depth (in addition to starters Mark Donnal and Duncan Robinson) to help mitigate the offseason departures. Backcourt depth, however, remains an issue: Walton and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman were each forced to play 36 minutes on Sunday, with freshmen Ibi Watson (nine minutes) and Xavier Simpson (six minutes) providing next-to-nothing in relief. According to Beilein, backup guard play remains a work in progress. “If we can just find somebody to give us minutes off the bench… we’re still working with [Simpson]; still working with [Watson].”

John Beilein is Pleased with his Freshman Point Guard's Development (AP Photo)

The Trey Burke days seems like ages ago for John Beilein and Michigan, but so far, so good for 2016-17. (AP Photo)

The Billy Donlon Effect

Defense hasn’t exactly been the Wolverines’ strength under John Beilein—only twice in his nine seasons has Michigan ranked fifth or better in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency. The hiring of former Wright State coach Billy Donlon could change that. During his six years in the Horizon League, Donlon’s teams finished among the conference’s three best defensive units five different times, including a stingy 2013 campaign in which the Raiders ranked 35th nationally. His lane-clogging, man-to-man packline approach—more physical in nature than what the low-foul Wolverines traditionally employ—already looked to be taking hold on Sunday. IUPUI, which attacked the basket with success early, had much more difficulty reaching the paint during the second half, often swarmed by Maize and Blue when they got there. Of course, Beilein too sees this as a work in progress—“Donnal can plug gaps; Wagner needs to do better job,” he said afterwards—but the improvement was evident; Michigan held its second-straight opponent to under a point per possession, something it accomplished just 38 percent of the time last season. If guys like Wagner and Robinson can learn to rotate and close gaps like Donnal, the Wolverines have a chance to shore up some of their defensive issues.

Half-Court Creation

As our own Deepak Jayanti points out, Irvin—and, to some degree, Michigan’s entire half-court offense—struggled at times last season without LeVert’s shot-creating dribble-penetration. After Sunday’s effort, it’s hard to tell whether the Wolverines have found an answer there—Irvin (1-of-8 three-point attempts vs. Howard and IUPUI) still seems most comfortable hoisting elbow jumpers—but there were signs of encouragement. Both Walton and Abdur-Rahkman (when he was fully engaged) looked like capable creators off the bounce, willing to attack the lane and find open teammates. Through two games, Walton is drawing a very solid 5.1 fouls per 40 minutes. What’s more, the 6’11” Wagner showed flashes of offensive dynamism at center, using an array of crafty moved around the rim and at one point stepping out for a three-pointer. Even if Irvin plateaus, it’s hard to see Michigan’s offense finishing anywhere but the top half of the league in efficiency this season.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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