Michigan hopes sophomore swingman Zak Irvin will take a step forward next season. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
Following a trip to the championship game in 2013, Michigan was facing a bright future, losing its top two players to the NBA draft. But U-M was returning a strong core of young players and a preseason All-America selection, helping the Wolverines to a preseason top-10 ranking.
After a visit to the Elite Eight last season, Michigan is staring at a more uncertain future, losing its top three players to the NBA draft and its two most experienced players to graduation and transfer.
Although U-M returns what some consider a preseason All-America prospect, there is much more uncertainty around the next group of Wolverines, which will be comprised mostly of a sextet of freshmen and some other players who will have to step up in larger roles if Michigan is going to continue its recent success under coach John Beilein.
Junior guard Caris LeVert, who had foot surgery after last season, is expected to be the go-to player, with the departure of Big Ten player of the year Nik Stauskas, who could be a lottery pick in the NBA draft this month.
LeVert, who started all 37 games and raised his average to 12.9 points, often was U-M’s best defensive player as well as all-around offensive threat. As the most experienced player left in the rotation, he’ll be the focus of most teams’ defensive scouting reports, much like Stauskas was this season.
Like Stauskas and LeVert developed last season after staying the summer and working with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson, much of the attention will be on sophomores Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin to make a similar jump.
Irvin was a valuable reserve and Walton started as a freshman; both will have bigger roles this year.
Irvin could see the type of improvement pattern that Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. did in recent years.
“Right now he becomes very core to the future of Michigan basketball,” assistant coach Jeff Meyer said recently on WTKA’s “Michigan Insider” radio show, featuring all three assistants.
“With Zak, the development piece will be similar to what we’ve seen with Glenn and what we’ve seen with Tim — the ability to improve his ball-handling so that he can not only use the perimeter jumper as an offensive weapon, but be able to keep balancing and attacking the rim, using ball screens and finding success in his midrange game.”
Meyer said the staff has been working with Irvin and Walton, along with redshirt freshman big man Mark Donnal to prepare for this season. With Spike Albrecht and Max Bielfeldt as the only returning players in the rotation, the backcourt will likely carry most of the load until the frontcourt can catch up, having to absorb the losses of Jordan Morgan (graduation) and Jon Horford (transfer to Florida) “As you look at the nucleus coming back, which a year ago an unproven backcourt, we have an experienced backcourt with Derrick, Spike and Caris,” Meyer said. “Whenever you look at college basketball, you start in the backcourt and the point-guard position is critical.”
But as Michigan has had one of the youngest teams in the country in the past few years, the emphasis will be on mentoring younger players and passing on the values and skills to get the freshmen ready to step in and contribute. Having six first-year players — along with Donnal — in the mix likely will have its share of growing pains as they adjust to Beilein’s complex offense.
“It makes it a lot easier when the old are teaching the young for those young guys to grasp things,” assistant coach LaVall Jordan said. “It gives us a good feeling about having a program to have the guys that are returning not only being willing but being capable of pulling those young guys in and getting them up to speed as quick as possible.
“That’s a big part of what we do.”
The freshmen class includes Kameron Chatman, D.J. Wilson, Ricky Doyle, Austin Hatch, Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rakhman and Aubrey Dawkins and although it’s unclear how many will see regular playing time, the best bet is at least Chatman and Doyle can contribute immediately.
At 6-foot-7, Chatman can play several different positions and Wilson is 6-9 with a 7-2 wingspan, which will provide many options on both ends of the court.
“The versatility is exciting for the group coming in. With Kam and D.J., they’re interchangeable,” Jordan said. “Kam is like (Zack) Novak — he played a little everywhere, outside of the center position.”
“D.J. is exciting because he’s got this raw potential. He’s a skilled player for his size; he can handle the ball on the perimeter, he can shoot the basketball from 3 and he can go down and post and rebound and block a shot; he’s active defensively.”
But the biggest question marks might come for the frontcourt, where the Wolverines have the least experience returning.
Morgan was a fifth-year senior and Horford a redshirt junior. With Mitch McGary’s injury last season (back surgery) and subsequent departure to the NBA draft, Bielfeldt was the only big man who had playing experience.
That leaves an opening for Donnal and Doyle to contribute as freshmen.
“Mark has learned some of the rules of rebounding that we try to teach our guys with regard to how they come off and the percentages of where they may go,” assistant coach Bacari Alexander said. “Moving forward, it’s going to be important for him to continue developing strength.”
At 6-10, 255 pounds, Doyle could step right in where McGary left off.
“He’s a contact-seeking big guy who really carves out space well for himself in the post. He has the ability to shoot consistently out to 17 feet,” Alexander said. “He’s shown the ability to shoot threes although that’s not an area of his game that he hunts.
“He’s a guy that will be able help get us into the bonus; he’s a big who can make free throws, has great hands around the rim with hook shots over both shoulders.
“We’re excited about who he can become.”