A look ahead: Michigan basketball has bright future
Kansas City, Mo. — It was a sinking feeling D.J. Wilson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman hadn’t experienced in a long time.
After all the highs during a whirlwind month that saw Michigan win the Big Ten tournament title and pull out back-to-back thrilling victories in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines were dealt a gut-wrenching low Thursday night when No. 3 seed Oregon dashed their Final Four dreams in the Sweet 16.
Following the season-ending, one-point loss, several Wolverines sat motionless at their lockers and gazed at the floor, while others buried their faces in their hands or towel to hide their anguish. Derrick Walton Jr.’s voice cracked as he answered questions, Moritz Wagner spoke just above a whisper, and tears welled up in Zak Irvin’s eyes.
The feel-good story that had garnered national attention after the team’s charter flight skidded off a runaway March 8 had unexpectedly written its final chapter.
“I’m going to remember the feeling and recall it next year,” Wagner said. “I’ll remember all the resiliency that this team had and how incredible this team was connected on and off the court.”
But what pained Wagner the most was that it signaled the end for Michigan’s five-man senior class, one that played a part in three NCAA Tournament appearances as well as a Big Ten regular-season and tournament title. While Walton and Irvin reached the finish line of their college careers, Andrew Dakich, Sean Lonergan and Mark Donnal still have a year of eligibility left and likely will finish their careers elsewhere.
“I think (the seniors) set a great foundation and just paved the way for us,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “They taught us a lot along the way and hopefully we can learn from them, use it and apply it to next season and try to make it even further.”
With the Walton and Irvin era over, Michigan will have to replace its top two scorers and, more importantly, its two leaders, which is no easy task. Yet there’s plenty of optimism amongst the players that they have the personnel and dealt with adversity that will serve them well and set the bar higher.
However, the biggest question is whether Wilson and Wagner, who were both full-time starters for the first time, decide to bolt early for the NBA or return for another year. If they leave, Michigan will have major holes to fill in the lineup and will lose the bulk of its scoring and starting experience.
But if they both come back, the Wolverines will return three starters — Wagner, Wilson and Abdur-Rahkman — as well as plenty of depth and size in the frontcourt with freshmen centers Jon Teske (7-foot) and Austin Davis (6-10) and transfer Charles Matthews (6-6) all set to take on larger roles.
And after spending a year learning and studying the offense behind Walton, freshman Xavier Simpson, who showed flashes throughout the season, will step in and take over the reins at point guard.
“We could be a great team,” Wilson said. “The pieces that we have now plus Charles, we’ll be a dangerous team.”
The Wolverines also will return sharpshooter Duncan Robinson, who led Michigan with a 42.4 shooting percentage from 3-point range, along with 6-8 forward Brent Hibbitts and 6-5 wing Ibi Watson, who both played sparingly.
Throw signees Isaiah Livers, a 6-8 forward and Michigan’s Mr. Basketball; Jordan Poole, a 6-4 guard; and Eli Brooks, a 6-1 guard, into the mix and a full offseason to work on assistant coach Billy Donlon’s defense, there’s no reason to believe the Wolverines won’t have another deep March run on their minds.
“There’s so many good pieces still left on this team,” Irvin said. “This team has a lot of potential. I know that they’ll be hungry going into next year and the incoming freshmen as well. As well as we were playing at the end of the year, this team is capable of doing some special things.”
MICHIGAN’S 2017-18 OUTLOOK
■G Derrick Walton Jr.: The heart of the team, he carried Michigan down the stretch and led the late-season surge that resulted in a Sweet 16 appearance.
■F Zak Irvin: The second-leading scorer bounced back from a rough patch midway through Big Ten play and hit several clutch shots during the team’s postseason run.
■F Mark Donnal: He provided depth as the backup center but saw his playing time decrease in the second half of the season. He has one year of eligibility left and will likely seek a grad transfer elsewhere.
■F Sean Lonergan: He appeared in 17 games and played sparingly but had an important role on scout team. Like Donnal, has a year of eligibility remaining after redshirting as a junior.
■G Andrew Dakich: Redshirted this season and was a vocal player-coach on the bench. Still has one year of eligibility left to play elsewhere.
Who might be gone?
■C Moritz Wagner: An offensive weapon who can score from anywhere on the court, he put himself on the NBA radar with a couple big postseason performances. However, he’s far from a finished product when it comes to rebounding and defense.
■F D.J. Wilson: After playing out of position last year, he thrived at the four with his ability to stretch the floor. Like Wagner, his postseason play on the big stage has him mulling a decision about his future but could benefit with another year in college to get stronger and improve his game.
Who will be back?
■G Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: A solid defender and scorer, he will likely need to take on a larger offensive role and step up as one of the vocal leaders of the team.
■F Duncan Robinson: The sharpshooter could work his way back into the starting lineup but needs to improve his defense and work on creating his own shot off the dribble.
■F Brent Hibbitts: He appeared in 10 games and spent much of the season on the scout and practice team, but provides another big body in the frontcourt.
■G/F Charles Matthews: After sitting out the season due to transfer rules, he could step in and fill Irvin’s spot in the starting lineup. He’s been lauded by coach John Beilein as an elite defender and among one of the team’s best.
■G Fred Wright-Jones: The walk-on from Detroit played in 13 games and could be the elder voice to help the younger guards learn the team’s system.
■G Xavier Simpson: Regarded as the team’s best on-ball defender, he has shown great court vision and will receive the bulk of the playing time at point guard. Has a fearlessness driving to the rim but could improve his 3-point shooting.
■C Jon Teske: As the third big man, he received spotty minutes throughout the season and got lost on defense at times. He’ll compete for the backup spot and has shown the ability to knock down mid-range shots.
■C Austin Davis: He opted to redshirt, which coach John Beilein regretted later in the season. Coaches and teammates raved about his ability to grab every rebound and alter shots on consistent basis, and he will compete with Teske for playing time.
■G/F Ibi Watson: The 6-5 wing received playing time in 19 games but will need to improve his defense and 3-point shooting in order to work his way into the rotation.
■F Isaiah Livers: Michigan’s Mr. Basketball has the agility, scoring ability and versatility to play the three and four at both ends.
■G Jordan Poole: The crown jewel of the class, the 6-4 Poole is a shooter who could come make an immediate impact and become another offensive weapon.
■G Eli Brooks: The 6-1 Brooks could be the first out of the signees to see the court. His strength is his court vision and decision-making, which could help him play early as a backup behind Simpson.
Who might be arriving?
■C Mohamed Bamba: The 6-11 Bamba has Michigan among his final teams along with Duke, Kentucky and Texas, but the Wolverines appear to be a long shot. The five-star is expected to make his decision in late spring.