For the second consecutive season, coach John Beilein will be tasked with refueling Michigan basketball after losing multiple underclassmen to the NBA Draft. Thankfully for the Wolverines, this problem is a sign of a successful basketball program and coach Beilein and his staff seem to have a keen eye for finding top high school talent with the proper skill set to thrive in their complex offensive system. Coming off of back-to-back Elite Eight’s, Michigan fans are getting used to winning consistently and are expecting this team to be competitive right away and contend for a Big Ten title. It will not be easy to replicate how last year’s young team grew up so quickly before the fan base’s eyes and dominated the competition in Big Ten play. However, the pieces are certainly in place for Michigan to make it happen again. Here are 5 keys to the 2014-15 Michigan basketball season.
Walton as the Next Point Guard Star
As a freshman, point guard Derrick Walton averaged 7.9 points and 2.9 assists while shooting nearly 43% from the field. With Michigan’s scoring talent primarily concentrated on the wings, Walton did exactly what the team needed last year to help get the ball to Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert, and Glenn Robinson when and where they needed it. He showed some flashes of greatness, scoring 19 points in East Lansing and nailing cold-blooded free throw after free throw to seal the game down the stretch. He also dominated in Columbus, scoring 13 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out 6 assists to lead the Wolverines to a crucial mid-February victory over the Buckeyes. However, there were also times when Walton played like a freshman, failing to score versus Wisconsin and notching only 1 point in the non-conference battle with Arizona. This season, Walton will be given more control of the offense, as he will be expected to carry more of the scoring burden with Stauskas and Robinson gone. The upside to Walton’s game is enormous. He’s quick with the ball and could develop into a great passer. He’s a sneaky good rebounder (3 rebounds per game last year) and a fundamentally sound shooter. Sophomore point guards in John Beilein’s system have traditionally seen a huge spike in their offensive production (see Trey Burke and Darius Morris) and Walton may very well be next in line. This team will only go as far Walton takes them, as the spark plug of the offense.
Despite the traditional offensive dominance of the recent Michigan teams, the defense remains a work in progress. The loss of Jordan Morgan at center will be a major blow to a team that already struggled on defense despite Morgan’s presence last season. J-Mo was a leader on that end of the court with a solid understanding of how to guard opposing bigs and grab rebounds despite his lack of size. This year, Beilein will have his work cut out for him in terms of finding the right lineup combination to guard opposing, big men effectively. Freshmen Kam Chatman and DJ Wilson will both likely see time at power forward this year, but as athletic and explosive as they are on offense, their defensive discipline is somewhat of an unknown and will be constantly tested early in the season. Similarly, redshirt Mark Donnal’s defensive ability is a mystery to most fans. He’s presumed to be more of a finesse player with great offensive touch, but his strength and toughness guarding centers will likely need to improve for Michigan to contend for the Big Ten title. Freshman Ricky Doyle may have the most defensive upside of any of the current big men, as his size, strength, and hard-nosed style of play should suit him well for long term defensive success. Learning how to understand defensive concepts, such as positioning and proper help, in addition to developing a comfort level with the speed of Big Ten play, will be key to his early success.
As many as four true freshmen could make the rotation as Michigan tries to replace the offensive void left by the departure of Stauskas and Robinson at the wings. The aforementioned Kam Chatman is likely to start the season at power forward. He possesses an all-around offensive skill set, as he can play both on the post and outside; the coaches rave about his IQ and decision making despite his youth. DJ Wilson, on the other hand, was set back a little by his broken finger, which forced him out of Michigan’s late summer Europe trip. His strengths are his athleticism and length, as he’s commonly regarded as a fearless, explosive player that could compliment Chatman’s IQ and touch very well. Aubrey Dawkins, son of Stanford head basketball coach Johnny Dawkins, is another athletic leaper who can also shoot and rebound out of the guard position. He could see time off the bench as either shooting guard or small forward, spelling LeVert or Zak Irvin. Finally, Muhammad Ali Abdur Rankman is probably the rawest of the four wings that have been brought in. He’s got a good handle in traffic and can finish at the rim with authority. At 6’4”, he may see time at either guard spots or even as small forward. The story of his recruitment is quite unique, as he was put on Beilein’s radar through a former high school basketball coach and old friend of Beilein’s. The level at which these freshman can produce early in the season will be a key determinant of the success of the basketball team.
With each season here at Michigan, coach Beilein has become more comfortable increasing the difficulty of the non-conference slate and challenging his young players with early exposure to difficult road atmospheres. Last season, Michigan had the opportunity to travel to Iowa State and Duke in addition to hosting #1-ranked Arizona. This year will be no different. Michigan will now travel to Tuscon, Arizona to face the #2-ranked Wildcats, in addition to hosting SMU and Syracuse. Before Thanksgiving, Michigan will participate in the Legends Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where they will face Oregon and either VCU or Villanova. With a number of freshman expected to play big minutes early on, Michigan may struggle in these tough contests at the beginning of the season. Michigan was 8-4 last year at the conclusion of non-conference play and it wouldn’t surprise many if they likewise dropped a couple of these early games due to growing pains. Switching over to the conference slate, things may lighten up with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland into the conference schedule, which effectively decreases the number of “double-plays” in the schedule. Unfortunately, Michigan has home-and-homes with both Ohio State and Michigan State, two teams ranked above the Wolverines in the preseason polls. However, Michigan lucked out in getting their only contests with Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa at home. Other than OSU and MSU, Michigan’s road slate is very manageable with the next toughest road opponent being Indiana. This will likely translate into a similar route to success as last year’s. Expect Michigan to struggle early in their tough non-conference schedule but things have been set up nicely in Big Ten play for Michigan to pile up wins and contend for a conference title.
Last year, Michigan had a dependable superstar they could turn to when they needed a basket down the stretch of big games in Stauskas. They also had a roster full of players with Final Four experience. Alongside Stauskas, Robinson, Walton, LeVert and even Spike Albrecht all hit big shots in big games. This year with Stauskas and Robinson gone, those duties with fall primarily in the hands of LeVert, Walton and possibly Zak Irvin. Their ability to close games successfully will be crucial toward turning this team into a title contender. Irvin showed glimpses of big shot-making abilities last season and his long-range shooting will always be an asset, especially if teams take the ball out of Walton or LeVert’s hands. Walton will have the ball in his hands frequently but this will be the first time that defenses focus primarily on guarding him, as most defenses prioritized other players last season. At the beginning of the season, Caris LeVert will be tasked with shouldering most of the late-game scoring. He proved last season he could score 1-on-1 against the Big Ten’s best. This season, he’ll need to be more consistent and have the mental strength to carry the offensive load at times, knowing that defenses will load up to take away his strengths. Michigan successfully found their closers last season and they will need to do the same if they have any aspirations of defending their Big Ten title this year.