Among the many personnel losses incurred by Michigan at the end of last season were the departures of Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford. While those two didn’t receive as much publicity as Nik Stauskas or Glenn Robinson III (or Mitch McGary when he was healthy), Morgan and Horford provided the Wolverines with valuable depth and experience on their way to a Big Ten regular season title and Elite Eight appearance.
Without those two Michigan will be young in the front court, with redshirt freshman Mark Donnal and true freshman Ricky Doyle competing for minutes. And while Donnal’s emerged during practices, a nagging ankle injury slowed Doyle down some in practice.
Doyle has been battling through a ‘slight’ ankle sprain throughout the last few weeks which has limited him in practice. However, the 6-foot-9 center is expected to be full-go in Michigan’s exhibition opener.
“Ricky has had these little nagging (injuries), he wasn’t going full court until yesterday and then he had another slight problem before that we were just overly cautious with him,” Beilein explained. “So most of the minutes have gone with Mark right now, DJ and Max (Bielfeldt) have had minutes and now Ricky is back at full go. I’m hoping to give Ricky some really good time this upcoming game so he gets in there more.”
Fellow freshman D.J. Wilson and senior Max Bielfeldt are also competing for playing time, and the team’s game against Wayne State will give Beilein and his staff the chance to evaluate their options against outside competition. Guards Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin will likely lead the way for the Wolverines, but they’re going to need those big men as well.
Michigan is ranked 24th in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll.
Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 19 Michigan.
They’ll be good because … : The Wolverines are quite talented on their perimeter. It starts with Caris LeVert, a guy who is going find his name on a lot of preseason all-america teams. A 6-foot-6 guard, LeVert averaged 12.9 points and 2.9 assists in what was somewhat of a breakout sophomore season. A complimentary player a season ago, LeVert is going to be asked to do a lot more as the sole upperclassman in Michigan’s starting lineup. He’ll have to be a go-to scorer and a leader, and it will be fun to see if he can evolve into the role.
The other two starters in Michigan’s back court will be point guard Derrick Walton and sharp-shooter Zak Irvin, both sophomores. We’ll start with Irvin, shot 42.5% from three last season and averaged 6.7 points in just over 15 minutes. He’ll find himself in a much bigger role this year, but given the abilities of LeVert and Walton in pick-and-roll actions, he will still likely be primarily a jump-shooter and floor-spacer. Walton will be the x-factor with this group. The past two seasons, John Beilein’s offense has turned Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas into all-americans — in Burke’s case, the National Player of the Year — and Walton is the guy that will inherit that role this season. He had moments as a freshman, particularly later in the year, which is why Michigan is optimistic about what they will see from his as a sophomore.
Junior Spike Albrecht is back to backup Walton, while the rest of the Wolverine’s back court rotation will be freshmen. Kam Chatman, a top 30 recruit, will likely start at the four, but he’s skilled enough that he can play anywhere on the perimeter. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins — the son of Johnny Dawkins — will see time as well.
But they might disappoint because … : Michigan’s will have one of the youngest rosters in the country, as they have just a single senior in the program — Max Bielfeldt — and he averaged a grand total of 0.8 points as a junior. 12 of the 15 players on the roster are underclassmen and six of the ten players expected to be in the rotation are freshmen, if you include Mark Donnal in that conversation.
Donnal, a redshirt freshman big man that sat out last season even after Mitch McGary injured his back, has had a year to add the strength and athleticism needed to be an anchor in the paint in the Big Ten, and it just so happens that he’s the key to this Wolverine team. With McGary off to the NBA, Jon Horford transferring to Florida and Jordan Morgan graduating, Donnal will be the most experienced low-post player on the roster outside of Bielfeldt. He’s a former Rivals top 150 recruit that entered the program with the reputation for being an elite shooter at the four spot. He’ll now be asked to be Michigan’s answer to the likes of Frank Kaminsky and Branden Dawson. That won’t be easy.
He’ll be joined up front by a pair of true freshmen in Ricky Doyle and D.J. Wilson, both of whom have some promise but ideally would need a year or two before becoming major contributors. They won’t get that luxury.
Outlook: Michigan played in the national title game in 2013 — all of 18 months ago — with a team that started a junior, a sophomore and three freshmen. Every player from that starting lineup has since declared for the NBA Draft with eligibility remaining, and when losing a senior big man to a graduate transfer, you can see why John Beilein has been left in a position where 80% of his roster is made up with underclassmen.
The Wolverines have plenty of question marks this season, a typical by-product of a young roster. But they have quite a bit of talent, particularly on their perimeter, and they have the John Beilein factor; he’s as good of a coach as there is. There may be some growing pains, but the Wolverines should once again finish in the top half of the Big Ten and have a chance to win a couple games in the NCAA tournament.
Kentucky’s buy-in: No team in the country has as much talent on their roster as Kentucky does, but the Wildcats may actually be too deep this season. They’re so deep, in fact, that John Calipari is considering using a platoon system — with five-man shifts — like he is coaching hockey. Eventually, someone’s minutes are going to get cut. Someone is going to have to accept the fact they’re a role player, nothing more than a screener or rebounder or defensive presence. If every Wildcat, from the Harrisons twins to Sam Malone, buys into this idea, Kentucky is going to be very, very tough to beat.
Gonzaga’s defense: Kevin Pangos, now that he’s healthy, is going to have a huge season. Kyle Wiltjer has had a year to develop his body and his game, making him the perfect stretch-four to create space in the paint for Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis. Gary Bell, Byron Wesley, Eric McClellan, Josh Perkins, Kyle Draginis. There’s plenty of talent on the Zags, but the issue will be on defense. When Pangos, Wiltjer and Karnowski are on the floor together, Mark Few will have three defensive question marks. Gonzaga is a Final Four caliber team if they get enough stops.
D’angelo Russell, Ohio State: Aaron Craft is Ohio State’s biggest loss, but right up there, oddly enough, is the loss of LaQuinton Ross. The Buckeyes struggled to score last season, and Ross was their most consistent offensive weapon. Russell heads to Columbus with the reputation of being a big time scorer, and while the Buckeyes should, once again, be stout defensively, they’ll need Russell’s pop on the offensive end.
Devonte’ Graham, Kansas: How long have we been asking questions about the Kansas point guard play? That won’t change this season, as Graham, a freshman, and sophomores Frank Mason and Connor Frankamp will try to take the reins. Graham is the most talented of the three, however, and is expected to take over the role.
Dwayne Polee, San Diego State: Someone is going to have to replace the offensive production that San Diego State loses with the graduation of Xavier Thames. Polee is not the most talented offensive player on the roster, but he showed quite a bit of promise at the end of last season. SDSU reaches a new level if he becomes a threat as a scorer.
Mark Donnal, Michigan: Michigan’s perimeter is loaded this season, but with Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford all departing, Donnal, a redshirt freshman, is now the veteran presence in the paint for John Beilein. Should I mention that he’s also known as being a shooter, and that he redshirted strictly to add strength?
Bryce Alford, UCLA: Alford had promising moments as a freshman with the Bruins, but there were also times where he looked best-suited to being an offensive sparkplug off the bench. This year, the sophomore son of head coach Steve Alford will be handed the reins.
UConn’s big men: UConn has a number of x-factors this season — Can Ryan Boatright be Shabazz or Kemba? How good will Rodney Purvis and Daniel Hamilton be? Is this Omar Calhoun’s bounceback year? But more than anything, UConn’s front line is where the questions lie. Amida Brimah is a terrific shotblocker with the strength of a stalk of bamboo, and Philip Nolan added 25 pounds of muscle but was ‘just a guy’ last season. Losing Deandre Daniels’ inside-outside ability will hurt quite a bit, and while UConn’s guard situation will work itself out, the Huskies need big minutes out of their big men to win the American this year.
Kansas State’s transfers: Marcus Foster has a shot to be a first-team all-american this season, but there are still some questions with his supporting cast. Wesley Iwundu, Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas are all expected to take a step forward, and Malek Harris is a four-star addition, but it is a trio of transfers that could make the difference. Justin Edwards could end up being a double-figure scorer on the wing, while Stephen Hurt and, to a lesser extent, Brandon Bolden give Bruce Weber some much-needed height in the paint.
Bryce Dejean-Jones, Iowa State: There’s no questioning Dejean-Jones’ ability to score. He can fill it up when he gets on a roll. His problem is shot selection, and while Iowa State likes to get up and down the floor, Dejean-Jones is going to be the second or third option offensively for the Cyclones. Can he accept that role?
Here are 10 more x-factors
Kaleb Joseph, Syracuse: For the third straight season, Syracuse will have just one point guard on their roster, and a freshman to boot. If he Tyler Ennis 2.0?
Chris Walker, Florida: A supreme talent at 6-foot-10, for sure, but does he have a clue about how to play basketball?
Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones, Duke: Cook is the senior starter. Tyus Jones is the hot-shot freshman. Both are talented point guards. Can they play together? What if one has their minutes cut?
Kedren Johnson, Memphis: Johnson, who averaged 13.5 points, 3.6 assists and 3.5 boards at Vanderbilt in 2012-2013, is the only guard for Memphis that has ever played Division I basketball.
Wayne Blackshear and Shaqquan Aaron, Louisville: Montrezl Harrell is an all-american, and Terry Rozier might join him this season. Can Blackshear and/or Aaron provide production from the wing?
Yannick Moreira and Keith Frazier, SMU: With no Emmanuel Mudiay, Larry Brown needs these two to improve. Moreira looked great at the FIBA World Cup, while Frazier was a McDonald’s all-american but couldn’t earn a starting spot as a freshman.
Kris Dunn, Providence: Dunn was the No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2012, but he’s yet to be healthy at Providence.
Cullen Neal, New Mexico: Neal was impressive at times as a freshman despite playing on a team with three pros while still recovering from an emergency appendectomy.
Robert Hubbs, Tennessee: The most talented player on a depleted Tennessee roster struggled with injuries as a freshman.
Texas using a 2-3 zone: How effective can Texas be defensively when they have Myles Turner, Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley on the floor together?