This past season, the Wolverines had a magical postseason run. It started with four wins in four days, to capture the Big Ten Tournament Championship. In doing so, they became the lowest seed to ever win. As a 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, Michigan played arguably the most thrilling first round game against Oklahoma State before then upsetting 2 seed Louisville, punching their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen. Although the Wolverines fell to Oregon in their next game – Derrick Walton missing a go-ahead three-point basket at the buzzer – the season was a definitive success.
Turning the page to next season, Michigan’s squad will have a new look. Their two senior leaders, Walton and Zak Irvin, have graduated. Mark Donnal, Sean Lonergan, and Andrew Dakich have all moved on, as well. Finally, and maybe a bit disheartening for Michigan fans, DJ Wilson decided to turn pro. After massive improvements to his game this season, and a strong postseason run (16.3 points and 4.8 rebounds a game), Wilson is hopeful he can be a first round pick come draft time.
This means three starters are gone, who combined for 39.5 of Michigan’s points per game last season. Michigan will have a few new faces to offset the sting of losing so much production. Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews will be eligible to play. Coach Beilien has also signed three incoming freshmen: Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers, and Eli Brooks. The first two are both ranked in ESPN’s top 100, at 49 and 73 respectively. And maybe most importantly, Jaaron Simmons has chosen the Wolverines as a graduate student coming from Ohio.
Ten players will return for Michigan, including Matthews and Austin Davis, who both redshirted last season. Adding in Simmons, the following is a ranking of those players by their ability and importance to the team.
1) Moritz Wagner – Just like Wilson, Wagner improved drastically this past season. He too flirted with the NBA draft, but ultimately decided to return to school. If Wagner had left, Michigan would have definitely taken a huge step back. Instead, he may be the biggest weapon for their team.
2) Charles Matthews – Matthews was ranked No. 42 in the ESPN class of 2015. After a lackluster year, with little playing time at Kentucky, he now has a chance to show why he was a highly rated recruit. Although not the best shooter, Matthews can attack the basket well and should be a lock down defender for the Wolverines.
3) Jaaron Simmons – The point guard averaged 15.9 points and 6.5 assists for the Bobcats and should be a veteran presence to help lead Michigan’s attack. He won’t completely replace Walton, but he should be a great distributor and replace a portion of the scoring Michigan lost.
4) Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman – One of the unsung contributors over the past two seasons. MAAR has improved his shot, and his speed gives him the ability to attack the basket. Although quiet, now a senior, he will need to become a vocal leader for this young Wolverines squad.
5) Duncan Robinson – With the four above, I think Robinson gets a shot to start for Michigan. Although seen as primarily a shooter, Robinson added some diversity to his game last year. He actually needs to shoot more and should shoulder more of the scoring load with Irvin’s departure.
6) Austin Davis – He redshirted last season, but Beilein has raved about Davis’ potential. He could give the Wolverines an interior rebounding force that the team normally lacks. He and Wagner on the floor together could give Michigan intriguing matchups.
7) Xavier Simpson – Walton’s understudy last season, Simpson was slotted to take over starting duties before the arrival of Simmons. With great court vision and his being a solid defensive player, Simpson will probably see his minutes increase. He will have to hold off freshman Brooks for playing time.
8) Jon Teske – Teske was limited to spot duty a season ago. He had foul trouble and usually looked lost on the court. With Donnal having let for Clemson, Michigan will have to hope another year of training has slowed the game down for the big man.
9) Ibi Watson – Watson earned some minutes early in the season, but rarely saw the floor down the stretch. Right now, he is their depth behind Matthews, but both Livers and Poole could pass him on the depth chart depending on who earns the coaches’ trust.
10) Fred Wright-Jones/Brent Hibbits – I’m giving these two a tie since neither will probably see much playing time. Coach Beilein usually plays seven to eight players in the second half of the season, so both Wright-Jones and Hibbits will likely only get minutes in non-conference play, at the end of games that have been decided long before they see the floor.
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