Emerging Frontcourt Providing Michigan With New Ways to Win

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 8th, 2016

Michigan’s 53-50 victory over Texas on Tuesday night was anything but vintage John Beilein basketball. The Wolverines—usually an offensive-leaning unit heavily led by guard play—scored 0.87 points per possession against the Longhorns, with its veteran starting backcourt combining for just 13 points on 4-of-19 shooting. Instead, Beilein’s group relied upon two facets of the game seldom mentioned in the same breath as Michigan basketball: stingy team defense and major offensive production from its big men—namely, sophomores Mortiz Wagner and D.J. Wilson. For a team short on depth and struggling to find a consistent scorer, the newfound production in the paint was a welcome surprise. To understand just how uncharacteristic the victory was, consider this: Michigan had not won a game in which it scored fewer than 0.90 points per possession since February 23, 2008—Beilein’s first year on the job. Much like that contest—a 49-43 win over Illinois—Tuesday’s affair came down to which team could eke out enough late buckets without compromising its defensive intensity. For the Wolverines, both the late buckets and the intensity were supplied by Wagner.

Forward Moritz Wagner was instrumental in Michigan's win on Tuesday (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Forward Moritz Wagner was instrumental in Michigan’s win over Texas (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

“I thought [Wagner] was the best player on the floor tonight,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said afterwards. “He can shoot, he’s 6’11”, he can put the ball on the floor… Tonight he was constantly in attack mode.” Not only did the German import lead Michigan with 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting, he came up with both the go-ahead putback and the game-winning block in the game’s closing seconds, his emotions pouring out as the clock hit zeroes. The sequence was a testament to both his rare offensive skill set and his improving defensive discipline. “Mo’s blocking shots really for the first time in his life,” Beilein said of Wagner. “He’s learning to be a bigger presence at the rim. I think he’s making major steps defensively right now.” Read the rest of this entry »

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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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big Ten Conference Preview: Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio State, Michigan

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 11th, 2016

The ballots have been revealed and the results have been tabulated. Unlike another round of voting that took place this week, there isn’t as much shock value in seeing these results. We at the Big Ten microsite have voted and determined how the league will shake out this season. The second of three segments lists our middle five teams (the bottom tier can be found here).

9. Iowa: The Hawkeyes arguably lost more than any other squad in the Big Ten, with four senior starters moving on from Iowa City. The good news, however, starts with guard Peter Jok staying put for his senior season. Jok will lead an inexperienced crew highlighted by freshman Tyler Cook, and jack-of-all-trades Dom Uhl. The point guard situation here is dicey, but if either Christian Williams or Jordan Bohannon can handle it, this team could still be in the mix for another NCAA Tournament bid. Jok needs to put up large numbers on the offensive end, though, and several secondary scorers need to emerge for this to happen.

Fran McCaffery and his Iowa Hawkeyes are predicted to finish in the middle of the Big Ten. (AP)

Fran McCaffery and his Iowa Hawkeyes are predicted to finish in the middle of the Big Ten. (AP).

Best-Case Scenario: NCAA Tournament Berth

8. Illinois: Things will be much better at Illinois this season if the Illini can simply keep their roster healthy for the first time in two years. The transfer of Kendrick Nunn will sting a bit, but six seniors make this the most experienced roster in the conference. Malcolm Hill is the team’s best player, but the key to the season will be the health of sixth- year seniors Tracy Abrams and Mike Thorne Jr. If that pair can stay on the floor, last season’s 135th ranked defense should be much better and that ugly 15-19 record should also improve.

Best-Case Scenario: 20+ wins and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament Read the rest of this entry »

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Will Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Lead Michigan Back?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on November 8th, 2016

With the final member of the Fresh Five, Caris Levert, now gone from Ann Arbor, the burden shifts to seniors Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton to lead the Wolverines back to the top of the Big Ten. Since the 2012-13 season, there has been at least one Fresh Five player ready to position Michigan as a Big Ten contender. Mitch McGary and Spike Albrecht sparked a run to the National Title game in 2013 before handing the baton to Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, who then left the program for Levert the last two seasons. Irvin and Walton were supposed to be next in line to support his charge but their performances, regardless of Levert’s injuries, haven’t lived up to expectations. A mediocre 16-16 season was followed by a decent 23-13 campaign last year, but the Wolverines haven’t been in serious contention among the Big Ten elite since 2014. As Irvin and Walton enter their senior campaigns, the overriding question is whether the duo can lead Michigan back to prominence.

Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton will have one last shot to bring Michigan back into the Big Ten Elite.

Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton will have one last shot to push Michigan back into the Big Ten elite. (AP)

While Irvin’s strength is in his long-range jumper, he shot a terrible 29 percent from beyond the arc last year. Despite his quick release off the dribble, Big Ten opponents have figured out that he regularly looks to go right for a pull-up at the top of the key. His other primary scoring option is to run pick-and-roll action with Walton for a corner three off the pick-and-roll. Two years ago, Levert’s dribble-drive penetration freed Irvin in the corners but Walton hasn’t been as successful in creating those same opportunities. As a result, Irvin experienced a big dip in offensive production — from 14.8 PPG during his sophomore season to 11.3 PPG last year. Unless Irvin has spent the summer really improving his game off the dribble, he could continue to struggle in finding his spots on that end of the floor. Unlike Burke, who had the gifted offensive services of Mitch McGary and Robinson available, Walton has not had an effective pick-and-roll partner over the last two seasons. Sure, Mark Donnal can set good picks but he doesn’t have the offensive skill set to make a play when the ball comes his way. Duncan Robinson simply hasn’t proven that he is strong enough to execute the pick-and-roll either. Defenders tend to therefore stick with Walton, which is a good strategic bet.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Big Ten Weekend In Review: 03.01.16 Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 1st, 2016

We’re now only 13 games away from complete resolution to the Big Ten regular season, as last weekend’s action, like much of the regular season, gave us some close games sprinkled among a few blowouts. Indiana clinched a share of the regular season crown without playing a game, and the four teams chasing the Hoosiers still have a double-bye in Indianapolis to play for. Here’s are the highlights from the second-to-last weekend of the regular season.

Keita Bates-Diop (right) influenced things offensively and defensively for Ohio State as they knocked off Iowa( Jay LaPrete, AP).

Keita Bates-Diop (right) influenced things offensively and defensively for Ohio State as they knocked off Iowa (Jay LaPrete, AP).

Player of the Weekend: With apologies to Illinois’ Malcolm Hill, who teamed with Kendrick Nunn to look like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen toying with Toni Kukoc in the 1992 Olympics because Minnesota was playing without guards, Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop gets the nod because he essentially out-Uthoffed Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff. He had a highly efficient scoring night with 19 points (8-of-11 shooting) and four blocks as Ohio State came back in the final few minutes to beat Iowa. The surging Buckeyes held an Iowa team that scores 31.4 percent of its points on the season from the three-point line to a quiet 3-of-12 from the perimeter, and Uthoff in particular continued to struggle (16 points on 5-of-14 shooting). Iowa is now in the midst of another late-season swoon.

Super Sub of the Weekend: Before Saturday’s game against Maryland, Purdue sophomore Dakota Mathias had only scored in double figures twice all season. Both of those instances occurred in games where Purdue scored over 100 points against weak competition. But Mathias saved his best game of the year for Saturday as Purdue held off Maryland for a big win in West Lafayette. Mathias has now shot 6-of-11 from distance over his last five games, hitting three treys against the Terrapins en route to a career-high 17 points for the game. One of Purdue’s strengths is its outstanding depth, and in order to make a postseason run, players like Mathias need to step up.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Big Ten M5: 01.22.15 Edition

Posted by Patrick Engel on January 22nd, 2016

morning5_bigten

  1. Former Boilermaker Robbie Hummel is out for the rest of the season after a mid-December labrum tear while playing overseas in Italy. Upon hearing of his injury, Purdue head coach Matt Painter quickly offered his former star player the chance to rehab at his alma mater and help the current Boilermakers squad as an adviser and mentor. He accepted the offer and will travel with the team and hang around the players as much as possible, while also living with Painter and rehabbing. Hummel considers it an internship of sorts to give him a taste of coaching as a post-playing career possibility.
  2. Michigan is holding its own without injured guard Caris LeVert, but John Beilein said Wednesday the senior is making “encouraging” progress with his lower left leg injury and is “doing more and more” on and off the court. The on-court work is still only light ball-handling and shooting, but he just recently has been able to walk without pain. Beilein said he still is not sure of a return date. In LeVert’s absence, Zak Irvin has found his shooting touch after a bad start: he has made 15 of his last 32 three-point attempts (47 percent).
  3. Rutgers hit a new low Monday, losing to Purdue at home by 50 and furthering the team’s perception as a colossal mess with no improvement in sight. But the school is launching a $100 million athletic facilities project called “R B1G Build,” a move designed to help improve the messy state of Rutgers athletics. The school released a video Wednesday that said athletic director Patrick Hobbs, head basketball coach Eddie Jordan and head football coach Chris Ash will each pledge $50,000 toward the effort. The video came a day after New Jersey governor Chris Christie signed a bill that will allow Rutgers to use $25 million in tax credits toward the project.
  4. Nebraska’s surprising 72-71 road win over Michigan State on Wednesday may say more about the reeling Spartans than the Cornhuskers, but it also revealed a Nebraska offense that has improved significantly from last season. Through seven conference games, Nebraska leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage, shooting 49 percent in conference play. Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star writes that the new freedom of movement rules have contributed to the more efficient offense. Shavon Shields scored 28 points in Wednesday’s win, but foul-prone Michigan State gave him plenty of space to score, perhaps in fear of fouling too much.
  5. Indiana is back in the top 25 and riding an 11-game winning streak, including five in a row to open Big Ten play. The team’s second-leading scorer, James Blackmon Jr., hasn’t played since Dec. 22 and will not play for the rest of the season due to injury. The Hoosiers’ hot streak has caused some fans and media to wonder if Indiana is better without Blackmon. The Indianapolis Star’s Zach Osterman considers the idea ridiculous. Instead, he asks the question, is Indiana better because it had to confront and deal with losing Blackmon? He points to its defensive improvement and determination to play better defense as a big reason why the answer is yes.
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Big Ten M5: 01.13.16 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 13th, 2016

morning5_bigten

  1. Northwestern kept its NCAA Tournament hopes alive last night when the Wildcats edged Wisconsin at home, 70-65, its best win of the season so far. They were led by Bryant McIntosh, who scored 28 points, dished out five assists and is emerging as one of the best guards in the league. The sophomore is averaging 15.4 PPG (10th in B1G) and 7.2 APG (first) this year. As for Northwestern’s at-large prospects, the Wildcats have yet to register a win against another likely NCAA Tournament team, so there’s still work ahead. A win at College Park next Tuesday would be a great place to start.
  2. Michigan delivered Maryland its first conference loss of the season when the Wolverines squeaked out a 70-67 victory at home with star Caris Levert still sidelined by a leg injury. Zak Irvin stepped up in Levert’s absence by scoring 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting. This game could represent a season turning point for the Wolverines, a team that had previously been blown out by elite competition. Michigan’s guards were able to stymie the Terrapins’ perimeter offense, as Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon combined to score only 10 points. If John Beilein can get his guys to play that level of defense for the rest of the season, the 3-1 team will become contenders for a Big Ten championship.
  3. On Monday, the Big Ten awarded Iowa‘s Mike Gesell its Player of the Week honors. The senior point guard registered the first double-double of his career in scoring 22 points and dishing 10 assists in a last week’s win over Nebraska. Gesell is playing the best basketball of his life right now — he is averaging 2.5 PPG and 3.0 APG more than last season while also improving his true shooting percentage by 11 percent. There’s no question that Jarrod Uthoff is Iowa’s most important player, but Gesell has emerged as the team’s Robin.
  4. Indiana‘s Thomas Bryant was awarded Freshman of the Week for the second time this season after dominating Ohio State’s frontcourt on Sunday — scoring 18 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in the blowout win. Perhaps the biggest improvement the young center has made during the season is with his defense. During Indiana’s loss to Wake Forest at the Maui Invitational, Bryant was consistently exposed on the pick-and-roll by the Demon Deacons’ Devin Thomas. In Big Ten play, the young Hoosier has gotten better off those screens with the proof being his 93.1 defensive rating during conference games. Indiana’s defense, once thought to be a major liability hindering the team’s success, is now being anchored by one of its youngest players.
  5. One of the most perplexing results of the season to this point is Purdue’s disappointing Sunday loss to Illinois. The Boilermakers were not able to take advantage of the Illini’s thin frontcourt and their top-ranked defense allowed Illinois to shoot 52.9 percent from the three-point line. Juan Crespo from SBNation identifies part of the problem, which is that they don’t have a lineup of five players whom Matt Painter can completely trust. Painter may still need to work on different lineups to prevent some of the offensive stalls that still arise too frequently for the Boilermakers. He’ll have a chance to straighten things out on Thursday night against Penn State.
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Three Keys For Michigan Against Purdue Tonight

Posted by Brendan Brody on January 7th, 2016

Michigan is one of five undefeated teams left in the early stages of Big Ten play, but the Wolverines will face their biggest test of the young conference season when they head to West Lafayette tonight to take on Purdue. The Boilermakers will be looking to bounce back from an upset home loss against Iowa where they had no answer for the Hawkeyes’ talented twosome of Jarrod Uthoff and Mike Gesell. Here are three keys for John Beilein‘s club to pull off what would be its best win of the season.

Michigan will need Marc Donnal to continue his stellar play against Purdue Thursday night. (Getty)

Michigan will need Marc Donnal to continue his stellar play against Purdue tonight. (Getty)

  1. Keep Feeding Marc Donnal: Things against Purdue’s elite front line almost assuredly won’t be as easy as they were for Marc Donnal in wins over Illinois and Penn State where the redshirt sophomore went for 21.0 PPG and 8.5 RPG on 72 percent shooting from the floor. That doesn’t mean that Michigan should abandon a working strategy to get the ball to Donnal for points in the paint. Michigan will have to make shots from the outside (10+ threes would be ideal) to win, but finding some balance against the best team in the country at defending two-point shots will be necessary. Donnal is the key to finding that offensive balance. Read the rest of this entry »
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Finding Michigan’s Winning Formula In Spite of Frontcourt Troubles

Posted by Patrick Engel on November 30th, 2015

Michigan looked like the Michigan of old in a 78-72 win over Texas on Friday night, shooting 58 percent from the floor and scoring 1.26 points per possession. But in both losses to date this season — a loss last Wednesday to Connecticut and a November 20 loss to Xavier — Michigan struggled to rebound, score in the paint or find a reliable scorer outside of do-everything guard Caris LeVert. All of these were familiar struggles for those who watched much of Michigan’s 16-16 season last year. Here’s a closer look at Michigan’s first six games and the best way for the Wolverines to improve some of the maladies that appear to again ail them.

Caris LeVert needs consistency around him for Michigan to win consistently. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Caris LeVert needs consistency around him for Michigan to win consistently. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Let’s start with the team’s most obvious weakness: Michigan’s frontcourt has simply not been very good. There are several, but the most damning statistic is that no Wolverines’ big man is averaging more than 2.7 rebounds per game. To put this into perspective, Derrick Walton, Jr., Michigan’s 6’1″ point guard, has 14 more rebounds than any post player on the roster. Furthermore, Michigan’s offensive rebounding percentage comes in at just 25.8 percent (256th nationally, per KenPom.com). In the two losses that number was even lower — at 19.4 percent and 23.8 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, the Musketeers and Huskies posted respective offensive rebounding percentages of their own of 45.0 percent and 32.3 percent. The Wolverines had an easier time on the glass in wins against Charlotte, Elon and Northern Michigan, but none of those teams possess the length, size and athleticism that Xavier and Connecticut have; perhaps more importantly, none have the length, size and athleticism that Big Ten opponents will have.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Can Perimeter Depth Carry Michigan?

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 2nd, 2015

After a run to the National Championship game in 2012-13 and an Elite Eight appearance a year later, Michigan slumped to a 16-16 record a season ago. Injuries were the biggest obstacle to another postseason jaunt last year, but in a roundabout way they may have helped set the Maize and Blue up for success this year. Aubrey Dawkins averaged 11.4 PPG and shot 46 percent from behind the arc in his last 14 games; Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman averaged 7.9 PPG in his last 14 contests; and leading the way, Zak Irvin scored 14.7 PPG, grabbed 5.6 RPG and dished 2.4 APG. With Derrick Walton Jr. and Caris LeVert both sidelined by injuries, Irvin stepped up and performed as the primary option for the first time in his collegiate career. His emergence along with that of the freshmen didn’t lead to much success a year ago, but it does set things up nicely for John Beilein‘s team this season. Michigan’s perimeter attack is one the most talented and deepest in the B1G; is it good enough for the Wolverines to contend for the league title and return to the NCAA Tournament?

Aubrey Dawkins emerged as a diamond in the rough for Michigan last season (Rick Osentoski, USA Today).

Aubrey Dawkins emerged as a diamond in the rough for Michigan last season (Photo: Rick Osentoski, USA Today).

When a Beilein-coached team (including stops at both Michigan and West Virginia) has finished the season with an adjusted offensive efficiency at 113.9 or greater, it has averaged 26.4 wins per season. It has happened five times now, with accompanying postseason results including a trip to the National Championship game, two Elite Eight appearances, a Sweet Sixteen appearance, and an NIT championship. KenPom projects the Michigan offense as the ninth-best outfit in the country this preseason. Last season, Indiana boasted the ninth-best offense in the country with an adjusted offensive efficiency of 116.7.  With Michigan’s injured set to return and their former backups now bolstered by the confidence and experience of playing featured roles last season, the pieces are in place for another Beilein offensive juggernaut. Read the rest of this entry »

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