New York – After four years, the Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin era is over at Michigan.
Gone are the 28.5 points the former captains produced as the team’s two leading scorers last season. More importantly, though, is their vital leadership skills have departed with them.
To fill that crucial void, seniors Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson have both taken it upon themselves to step up.
Abdur-Rahkman said he’s made a concentrated effort throughout the summer and preseason to become more of a leader due to Michigan’s fresh-faced roster, which features nine total freshmen and sophomores.
“I think if you lead by example and by voice, you raise everybody else's level and that's what I've been trying to do because we got a lot of young guys that don't really know what a college practice is like,” Abdur-Rahkman said earlier this week at the Big Ten media day. “But we all love to compete, which is good, so it's easy and they're teachable."
As someone who has played multiple roles from starter to gunner off the bench, Robinson has no problem taking on another one and helping teammates who are trying to “keep their head above water right now.”
“I'm willing to embrace whatever this team needs moving forward and I think being a leader is a big part of that right now,” Robinson said. “I’m just trying to mentor in any way that I can and advising other guys that everyone is valuable. We're going to need everybody at some point this year.”
The Wolverines return four of the eight players who appeared in all 38 games from last season’s Sweet 16 team – junior center Moritz Wagner, sophomore guard Zavier Simpson, Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson. And of those four, only Simpson didn’t play at least 20 minutes per game and has no starting experience.
That means Michigan coach John Beilein will be relying on contributions from new faces in the starting lineup and off the bench, from Ohio University grad transfer Jaaron Simmons and wing Charles Matthews, who sat out last season after transferring from Kentucky, to freshmen Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks.
After playing with Walton and Irvin the past three seasons and making back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament, Abdur-Rahkman knows what leaders demand and what it takes to succeed.
"I've learned a lot knowing that sometimes they're not always going to be happy with you and what you can say to them because you're trying to give constructive criticism, but not everybody responds well to criticism,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “You just got to know how to approach everybody. Everybody is different, so you can yell at some people and then sometimes you got to take somebody to the side and talk to them. You just have to know that balance."
Above all is setting the tone and an example for others to follow, which is why Abdur-Rahkman sets the bar high for himself.
“I just want to be the best player I can be. I hold a high standard for myself and I think that shows,” he said. “I want to lead the team to a championship. That's my goal.”
Behind enemy lines
Michigan will face a former Wolverine during Big Ten play after guard Andrew Dakich opted to finish his career at Ohio State as a grad transfer.
Make no mistake, the move to the rival school hasn’t spared Dakich from some good-natured ribbing from his former teammates.
“There's been some back and forth but we all understand because we're friends first before he was a Buckeye,” Robinson said. “We’ve got to hate him for this year, but after that we'll move past that.”
Dakich spent four years at Michigan and graduated in April, but didn’t play last season to preserve his eligibility for a fifth year. Over his career, he played sparingly off the bench and recorded 22 points, 24 rebounds and 21 assists in 49 career games.
He originally announced he was going to transfer to Quinnipiac before first-year Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann added him to the Buckeyes roster to help provide some relief and experience at point guard.
“We brought him in with the expectation that he's going to have to give us some depth at that position,” Holtmann said. “He's elevated our competitiveness in practice, which has been a good thing.”
Michigan will travel to Columbus on Dec. 4 and host Ohio State in the home finale on Feb. 18.