ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — John Beilein is prepared for some growing pains this season.
“I hope I’m not being a Debbie Downer here with this thing,” the Michigan coach said. “Our early schedule, we’re going to be hit with stuff.”
The Wolverines learned firsthand in 2016-17 how quickly a team’s struggles can be forgotten if they play their best basketball at the end of the season. A February push turned into a Big Ten Tournament title in March — and then finally an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance. It was an important run for Beilein’s program, which was coming off a couple uninspiring seasons and needed to capitalize while Derrick Walton was a senior.
Now Walton, Zak Irvin and D.J. Wilson must be replaced, and although Michigan isn’t exactly in a rebuilding mode, a new-look lineup may need some time to develop the necessary chemistry.
Moe Wagner, Michigan’s versatile big man, decided to pass on the NBA and come back to the Wolverines. He’ll be an obvious focal point after averaging 12.1 points a game and shooting 56 percent from the field last season.
“I hate when people say, ‘I added this to my game this summer,'” Wagner said. “I always work on everything, try to improve in every part of the game, try to be as versatile as possible. Obviously, the passing thing is something that I focused on, because I’m aware that it’s going to be a little different this year.”
Wagner, who had only 20 assists last season, will probably receive more attention from opposing teams, and staying out of foul trouble at the defensive end will be important for him.
Here are a few more things to watch at Michigan this season:
Guards Jaaron Simmons and Charles Matthews are expected to play significant roles . Simmons is a graduate transfer from Ohio, and Matthews transferred from Kentucky. Simmons averaged 17.2 points last season while playing for one of the top teams in the Mid-American Conference, and his arrival could help alleviate the loss of Walton in the backcourt.
Michigan heads to Hawaii in November for a tournament that includes LSU, Notre Dame and Wichita State. Not long after returning from that event, the Wolverines travel to North Carolina to take on the defending national champions in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Then the conference season starts in early December with games against Indiana and Ohio State, followed by a return to nonconference play against UCLA and Texas.
“I can’t imagine a tougher Michigan schedule ever, than we have right now. I think when we got here 10 years ago, we were playing an average of 18 or 19 BCS games,” Beilein said. “This is like 24 or 25 BCS games, and we’ve got five in a row — and depending on what happens in Maui, we’re going to have seven or eight done before Christmas.”
BEYOND THE ARC
As usual, Michigan figures to rely heavily on the 3-point shot. Duncan Robinson is back after shooting 42 percent from long range in 2016-17, while Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman are capable outside shooters.
Beilein added assistant Billy Donlon to his staff last season and put him in charge of the team’s defense, which has long been an issue. Michigan did make some strides in that area, but then Donlon left to join Northwestern’s staff. The Wolverines will try to keep making progress at the defensive end without him.
Zavier Simpson, who averaged 8.7 minutes a game backing up Walton last season, now has some experience under his belt, and he probably still won’t be under too much pressure with Simmons in the fold. Freshman guard Eli Brooks could also be a factor after averaging 29.7 points as a high school senior.