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No. 23 Michigan Wolverines: Reigning runners-up need every bit of Beilein’s brilliance

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 23 Michigan.


For the second time in six years, John Beilein will enter a season as college basketball’s reigning national runner-up.

And for the second time in six years, he’ll do so after seeing his best offensive weapons head to the NBA ranks. In 2013, Beilein lost National Player of the Year Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway to the league, and his program didn’t miss a beat. Michigan won 28 games in 2013-14, winning the outright Big Ten regular season title before coming within one Aaron Harrison jumper of getting back to the Final Four.

This year, Beilein will be looking to find a way to replace the production he got from Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson from a team that was, frankly, unlike anything we have seen from Beilein in his career. Beilein’s reputation as an offensive mastermind precedes him. In three of the previous five season, his Michigan team had finished as one of the nation’s top four offenses, according to KenPom.com. But prior to last season, Beilein also had a reputation for being a coach that prioritized small-ball lineups and the offensive side of the ball over defensive stability.

He had never had a team that finished higher than 37th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. Last season, Michigan finished 3rd.

This season, the Wolverines lose their three best offensive weapons from a team that already had question marks on that end of the floor.

Beilein is one of the masterminds of the small-ball movement and the three-point revolution, and he is going to have his work cut out for him this year.

MOREPreseason Top 25 | NBC Sports All-Americans | Preview Schedule

MICHIGAN WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

Defensively, this team should be just as good as they were last season, if not better.

Zavier Simpson is the head of the snake. A pitbull at the point, Simpson is somewhere between Aaron Craft and T.J. McConnell when it comes to setting the tone for his team defensively. He has his flaws as a player — and, trust me, we’ll get into that — but when it comes to leadership, Simpson is at a level that very few players in the country can reach. His communication, his ability to hold teammates accountable, the example that he sets on a day-in, day-out basis, those are things that cannot be taught. Simpson has them, and when combined with his ability to get in the head of opposing point guards, it’s hard to quantify his value to this team.

But believe me, he matters.

Likewise, Charles Matthews also profiles as a talented wing defender. Combine him with Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers and Brandon Johns Jr., and the Wolverines will once again have a roster with more perimeter athleticism than we’re used to seeing out of a John Beilein team. Put another way, Michigan has an elite defender at the point and a wing that should be able to slow down any perimeter player they face. Throw in a couple of athletic, versatile pieces alongside them, and you get a team that is going to be a nightmare to run offense against.

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Charles Matthews (Harry How/Getty Images)

The reason Mo Wagner needed to return to school for his junior season was because of his issues on the defensive end of the floor, and while no one is ever going to confuse him with Anthony Davis, Wagner eventually developed into one of the nation’s best defensive rebounders. Jon Teske and Austin Davis should, in theory, be able to cover that loss — both posted good defensive rebounding numbers in limited minutes — which is important for a Michigan defense that doesn’t force a ton of turnovers or block all that many shots. Their forte is making you take tough shots and ending possessions after one shot.

But the biggest reason I think the Wolverines will once again be an elite defensive unit is that Luke Yaklich is back on staff for his second season. For my money, his addition was the story of Michigan’s 2017-18 season. Yaklich, who spent four years at Illinois State after a long high school coaching career, is Michigan’s defensive coordinator. I detailed how that works and why it was necessary last spring, and that story still holds.

With Yaklich coaching up this personnel, I fully expect the Wolverines to be one of the nation’s top five defenses.

Zavier Simpson (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

BUT MICHIGAN IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

I am just not sold on this team being all that good offensively.

For starters, Michigan was just OK offensively last season. They finished the year ranked 35th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, and they will enter this season having lost their best shooter (Robinson), their best playmaker (Abdur-Rahkman) and the centerpiece of their offense, a 6-foot-11 center that shot 39.2 percent from three and was drafted in the first round (Wagner).

In total, Michigan made 361 threes last season. Those three players made 214 of them, or 59 percent. Michigan’s returning players shot a combined 32.4 percent from beyond the arc last season, a number that would have ranked outside the top 300 in college basketball last season.

We saw what happened when Michigan struggled from beyond the arc during their run to the national title game. Outside of their blowout win over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, when Michigan shot 14-for-24 from beyond the arc, they were 27-for-119 (22.7%) from distance in five NCAA tournament games and finished those five games averaging 0.95 points-per-possession. If it wasn’t for Jordan Poole (ironically) hitting a 30-foot three at the buzzer, they would not have made it out of the first weekend of the tournament, and I think it is fair to point out that they did not play a team seeded higher than No. 6 before losing to Villanova by 17 points in the final.

Should I mention that nine of the 14 threes they made against Texas A&M were made by Wagner, Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson?

When Michigan isn’t shooting the ball well, they aren’t all that good offensively. In three games during a tour of Spain in August, Michigan, as a team, shot just 7-for-40 (17.5%) from three, and only three players made at least one three-pointer.

Their issues, however, go beyond simply being able to make shots from beyond the arc.

Matthews did not take the leap forward that many expected of him. Beilein has thrived with wing players that can operate in ball-screen actions — think Nik Stauskas, or Caris LeVert, or Tim Hardaway Jr. — and it stood to reason that, after spending a year as a redshirt under Beilein’s tutelage, Matthews would find a way to work into a similar role. He was good last season, averaging 13.0 points and 2.4 assists, but he didn’t look anything like a guy that was capable of carrying the water for a Beilein offense.

Neither did Simpson, to be frank. He just was not a guy that could be relied upon to be much of an offensive spark last season. The continued development of those two will be critical for the Wolverines, as will the emergence of Poole and Livers into bigger roles this year. Poole looks like he could be in line for a breakout sophomore season after averaging 6.0 points as a freshman, while Livers is precisely the kind of athletic four-man with three-point range that Beilein has had so much success with in the past.

Ignas Brazdeikis (Cameron Browne, USA Basketball)

THE X-FACTOR

The one guy that I have not yet mentioned is Ignas Brazdeikis, a 6-foot-7 Lithuanian (by way of Canada) freshman that led the Wolverines in scoring and rebounding on their trip to Spain. He’s older than a typical freshman (he’ll turn 20 during the season) and has a build that has, according to The Athletic, forced Michigan’s strength coach to ban him from hitting the bench press. He’s ambidextrous around the rim, he’s a versatile offensive weapon that can play on the wing or at the four, and he has the explosion to finish above the rim.

Freshmen haven’t played a major role for Beilein in recent years, but it should be noted that he won a Big Ten title in 2012 when Burke started at the point as a freshman, and he reached the national title game with Stauskas, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson Jr. all starting as freshman. When a player is good enough to step in and contribute immediately, Beilein has not shied away from letting him, and Brazdeikis may end up being the guy that can do that.

He is likely not going to help this group be a better three-point shooting team — he did not even attempt a three in Spain — but don’t be surprised when he ends up working his way into the starting lineup; I think that leading this team in scoring is in his range of outcomes.

And if Brazdeikis does end up being that good, then Michigan might have the go-to guy they need.

Jordan Poole #2,Isaiah Livers #4 and Zavier Simpson #3 (Elsa/Getty Images)

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The Wolverines are team that I think has both a high floor and a high ceiling heading into the new season.

There is no doubt in my mind that they are going to be one of the best defenses in college basketball. Last year, 17 of the top 18 teams in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric made the NCAA tournament; UCF, who lost their three best players to injury, was the only team that didn’t. Of the team that ranked in the top ten, the only team that didn’t win at least one game in the NCAA tournament was Virginia.

In the 17 seasons that KenPom has data for, no more than two of the top ten teams in his adjusted defensive efficiency metric have missed the NCAA tournament, and only five times in that span has less than 90 percent of the top ten gone dancing.

Odds are pretty good Michigan is headed back to the NCAA tournament.

And, frankly, I think there’s a chance they can get there as Big Ten regular season champions. A lot has to happen — Matthews needs to embrace being a go-to guy; Poole and Livers have to take significant steps forward; Brazdeikis needs to adjust to life in the Big Ten immediately; Simpson needs to lead the charge of improved three-point shooting — but all of those things are, individually, fairly likely to occur.

That’s before you add in the Beilein factor.

Having him as an offensive tactician immediately makes a team better offensively.

I’d put my money on this group likely ending up as a No. 6 or 7 seed with a chance to get to the second weekend because of the way that they can defend, but I wouldn’t put it past Beilein finding a way to get this group to end the year as a top three seed once again.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Miami lands Florida grad-transfer Keith Stone

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Keith Stone is leaving the SEC but not the state of Florida.

The former Gator will finish his career at Miami as a graduate transfer, he announced Monday via social media.

The 6-foot-8 Stone is from Deerfield, Fla., less than an hour’s ride from Miami Beach. He averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season before tearing his ACL in January. With Dewan Hernandez, Ebuka Izundu, and Anthony Lawrence all gone from the Canes, Stone could be in line for a major role right from the jump if his knee gets back to full strength.

Miami went 14-18 last season to finish under .500 for the first time in Jim Larranaga’s eight seasons, and it was just the second time the Canes failed to win at least 20 games.

Kyle Guy says he’s staying in the draft, will not return to Virginia

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Kyle Guy is off to the professional ranks.

The Virginia junior had already declared for the NBA draft, but announced Monday that he plans to stay in the draft and not return to the Cavaliers next season, as he would be allowed to under NCAA rules.

“I am officially keeping my name in the draft. I know it’s the right step after much prayer and thought with my family,” Guy wrote on social media.

Players retain the option to return to school up until the end of next month, but Guy’s announcement makes it clear he has no intention of utilizing that avenue as he plows ahead toward a professional career after being named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player as Virginia won its first-ever national championship earlier this month in Minneapolis.

The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 15.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in Virginia’s slow-paced offense while shooting 49.5 percent from 3-point range. Right now, Guy’s draft ceiling would appear to be in the second round with going undrafted a possibility as well. If he does make it at the next level, it’s pretty clear it’ll be the 3-point shooting that gets and keeps him there in a league that covets that skill now more than ever.

For Virginia, Guy’s decision simply crystalizes what was likely the reality already – they’re going to have a completely remade roster, which certainly isn’t uncommon for national championship winners. There’s a reason no one since Florida in 2006 and 2007 has repeated as champions. With Guy gone and Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite all having declared, Tony Bennett and Co. could be looking at more modest expectations following the greatest season in program history.

Duke adds to 2019 class with top-30 guard Cassius Stanley

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Duke’s already monster 2019 class got even stronger Monday.

Cassius Stanley, a four-star guard from California, pledged to the Blue Devils to give them their fifth recruit rated in the top-35 nationally in the class.

“I’ll be joining the brotherhood. Go Duke,” Stanley said in his announcement video posted to social media.

“He wants to come in and start or contribute as a starter on a highly competitive team,” Jerome Stanley, Cassius’ father, told 247Sports. “He’s used to winning and he plans to come in there and win. He doesn’t plan to be a project, he wants to step on the floor immediately and help them win.”

Stanley’s commitment only further reinforces how strong Duke is on the recruiting trail as it now has five-stars Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore signed along with top-40 Boogie Ellis of San Diego.

The Blue Devils may have lost their high-profile trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, but with these major additions along with Tre Jones, Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell slated to return, they’ll be looking at another top-10 (and maybe higher) preseason ranking after a disappointing Elite Eight departure from the NCAA tournament last month.

Udoka Azubuike returning to Kansas for senior season

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Injuries have robbed Kansas center Udoka Azubuike of nearly two full seasons of college basketball. They also likely played a major part on while he’ll be back for his fourth year on campus.

The 7-footer will return to Lawrence and the Jayhawks for his senior season rather than declare for the NBA draft, the school announced Monday.

“We’re all very excited about Udoka making the decision not to enter the draft,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement released by the school. “Unfortunately for him, injury is the reason as he still cannot participate (at) what would be the NBA combine or workouts for the NBA teams. We really anticipated that this would be the year he would enter the draft but that was also based on him having an injury-free year.”

Azubuike was averaging 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 70.5 percent from the field before a wrist injury cut his season short in January after just nine games. He also played just 11 games as a freshman due to injury.

In his lone full healthy season, Azubuike averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds per game as he made 77 percent of his shots from the field, making him nearly an unstoppable force for teams across the Big 12. His return makes Kansas, the 10th-ranked team in our preseason Top 25, an even stronger favorite to regain its Big 12 crown after Texas Tech and Kansas State shared the league title last year to deprive Kansas of its spot atop the league for the first time in 14 years as it battled injuries, suspensions and lackluster play.

The 21 most important ‘stay-or-go’ NBA draft early entry decisions

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This single most important and influential decision when if came to this year’s NBA draft belonged to Cassius Winston.

The Grand Maester of the Michigan State offense, Winston put together an All-American season as he led Michigan State to the 2019 Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and a trip to the Final Four. Over the weekend, the 6-foot point guard announced that he will be returning to school for his senior season, immediately ensuring that the Spartans will be the No. 1 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25 and locking them in as favorites to win next year’s national title.

But he is far from the only important decision that is left to be made in this year’s NBA draft process. At 11:59 p.m. on April 21st, the deadline to declare for the NBA draft came and went. The players who put there name into the mix — more than 130 that we know of — will have until May 29th to pull their names out of the draft.

Here are 21 decisions that will have the biggest impact on the 2019-2020 college basketball season.

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

KERRY BLACKSHEAR

Blackshear might be the single-most influential player in all of college basketball, but to figure out where he is going to have influence, the 6-foot-10, 250 pound forward has a couple of decisions to make. For starters, he has declared for the NBA draft, and given that he is 22 years old and more or less fully developed as a player, now may be the best time for him to make the jump to the professional ranks. If he does decide to return to school, he’s going to have to decide where to play: He’s a redshirt junior and a graduate transfer, which means that the Virginia Tech big man may end up being a former Virginia Tech big man. Every school in college basketball will want to get involved. We’ll see where he ends up.

IGNAS BRAZDEIKIS and JORDAN POOLE, Michigan

Michigan essentially had two players on their roster last season that you could trust to be threats on the offensive end of the floor night in and night out: Poole and Brazdeikis. Now it looks like there is a real chance that both of them to could end following Charles Matthews lead and remain in the NBA draft despite the fact that neither look like they will be a first round pick.

That’s a major concern for John Beilein, because with Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers all back, Michigan will have a case to be the preseason No. 1 team in the country if both Iggy and Swaggy Poole return. If both end up gone, the Wolverines may never break 60 points in a game next year.

DEVON DOTSON, QUENTIN GRIMES and UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas

This one is tricky because we have yet to get official word on whether or not Azubuike has actually declared for the draft*; he did last season and ultimately opted to return to school. Of the three, I think Dotson is probably the most important, as the Jayhawks don’t have anyone nearly as good as he is at the point. If Azubuike opts to enter the draft, Bill Self does still have David McCormack on his roster, who will be an adequate replacement. Grimes is the x-factor here. A former top ten recruit, I think he’s probably the most likely to keep his name in the draft this year even if it’s as a second round pick. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best plan of action — I do think there is still a chance that he could come back to Kansas and play his way into the first round with a big sophomore year — but I get it. If he’s gone, the Jayhawks do have some perimeter pieces that will be able to fill the void in Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett.

With all three back, we’re talking about Kansas as the surefire best team in the Big 12 and potentially as a top five team. If they’re all gone, then it is going to be a long, long season in Lawrence.

*(Since this posting, Azubuike has announced that he is returning to school.)

Grant Williams (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

GRANT WILLIAMS and JORDAN BONE, Tennessee

This may sound counterintuitive, but I think that it is true: Bone is the more likely of the two to leave school this year, but Williams would have a much bigger impact on the Tennessee program if he opts to return. Bone was a bit inconsistent as a junior, but when he was at his best, he was the best guard in the SEC. Losing that hurts, but the truth is that with Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden and Josiah James in the mix, there is enough backcourt talent in Knoxville to withstand his departure.

I’m not sure that is true with Williams. Tennessee does have some big bodies on their roster, but Williams would be in the conversation with Cassius Winston for preseason National Player of the Year if he opts to come back to Tennessee for another run at a national title. And with Williams back, they would very much be in that conversation. As it stands, Tennessee is No. 22 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

A source close to the situation told NBC Sports that they think there’s a “50-50” chance that Williams is back.

KYLE GUY and MAMADI DIAKITE, Virginia

I fully expect that both Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter will remain in the NBA draft for good. That leaves Guy and Diakite as the players who are up in the air. Everyone should know about Guy by now. The reigning Final Four MOP, Guy led Virginia in scoring last season and is one of the best shooters in all of college basketball. For a program that lacks perimeter depth, Guy’s return would obviously be enormous.

But Diakite’s return is just as impactful. He’s such a monster on the defensive end of the floor, and I’m not sure people realize just how good he is. His offensive game is coming along, but the value is that he would be a perfect pairing next to Jay Huff if Virginia wants to play big and that he is versatile enough to defend on the perimeter if needed when Virginia plays small. It’s not a coincidence that the most productive six-game stretch of Diakite’s career came during the run to the NCAA title, when he averaged 10.5 points, 8.2 boards and 2.7 blocks.

Kyle Guy (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

There are a few Louisville players that have declared for the NBA draft, but for my money, Nwora is the one that matters the most, and it is not close. One of college basketball’s most improved players, Nwora is will be a first-team All-ACC player and a potential All-American if he comes back. He will be the veteran scorer that the Cardinals need as Chris Mack brings in a loaded, six-man recruiting class. With Nwora back, the Cards will be a top ten team.

KILLIAN TILLIE and ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga

Assuming that Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are both gone, Tillie becomes the most important player on Gonzaga’s frontcourt if he opts to return to school. And Norvell slides right in as the projected leading scorer. Frankly, with those two and Corey Kispert on the roster, I think the Zags will have more than enough scoring to keep things rolling as their talented six-man recruiting class gets some experience.

The reason they are as low on this list as they are is that I still think there is a ceiling to what Gonzaga can be because of their point guard situation. Right now, they are in a position where they’ll have to decide between freshman Brock Ravet and sophomores Greg Foster Jr. and Joel Ayayi. I would not be surprised if there was a grad transfer that was in the mix here at some point.

ANTHONY COWAN, Maryland

The Terps already got word that they are getting Jalen Smith back for his sophomore season. With the rest of last year’s promising recruiting class in the mix — Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, Ricky Lindo — the only thing they need to ensure that they are a preseason top ten team is their star point guard. Cowan, if he returns, will be in the mix for preseason All-American honors.

MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

This one isn’t difficult. Seton Hall returns basically everyone from last season if Powell comes back. They should still be relevant in the Big East if he doesn’t, but he was arguably the most dangerous scorer in college basketball this side of Markus Howard last year, and assuming he’s back in the fold, we have the Pirates at No. 12 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

Myles Powell (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

PAYTON PRITCHARD and KENNY WOOTEN, Oregon

Assuming that Louis King ends up staying in the draft, Pritchard and Wooten are the two guys that will matter for Oregon next season. They are the two pieces that allow Dana Altman’s system to work the way that it is supposed to work — a high-scoring lead guard and an uber-athletic five that can protect the rim and finish lobs. With both of them back, I think Oregon is a top 10-15 team and the best team in the Pac-12.

E.J. MONTGOMERY, Kentucky

Montgomery is interesting here. He’s super-talented, and he plays a position for Kentucky where the Wildcats are going to really lack some depth this season, but we’ve yet to see him prove that he is anything more than ‘loaded with potential’ at the SEC level. I think Kentucky needs him because they need to keep bodies in their frontcourt, but I’m on a wait-and-see mode before I decide just how much of an impact I think that he is going to make.

CHUMA OKEKE and JARED HARPER, Auburn

I would make the argument that these two were the two most important players on Auburn’s team this past season. If I had to guess, I would say that Okeke is probably gone. He proved just how good he is this past season, and his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in the NCAA tournament likely won’t be complete until December. If he returns to school, it might end up being a two-year decision, but if he comes back and is fully healthy, he is miles better than Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and the other options the Tigers have in their frontcourt.

Harper is a bit more up in the air, and while he was terrific this past season, especially in March, I do think that J’Von McCormick’s emergence has given Bruce Pearl some breathing room. He can do a lot of the things that Harper does, just not quite as well.

NEEMIAS QUETA, Utah State

Utah State is currently the No. 16 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25, and much of that has to do with the fact that we are assuming Queta ends up returning to school. His size, his ability to protect the rim and how well he finishes makes him extremely valuable in the Mountain West and helps the Aggies matchup with teams from bigger conferences.