Here are five story lines that could shape Michigan’s basketball season.
1. Replacing D.J. Wilson
This is one of the biggest question marks for Michigan coach John Beilein. Wilson made an impact on both ends of the floor as the team’s top rebounder and shot blocker and fourth-leading scorer, and his production will be difficult to replace with one player.
The obvious solution is to plug fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson back into the starting spot, a role he held at the beginning of last season before being replaced by Wilson. While his offense isn’t an issue, Robinson said he’s put an onus on improving his defense with assistant coach Luke Yaklich throughout the offseason and preseason.
As long as Robinson’s defense is adequate, he should be a viable option to fill the void at the four. But if he turns into a liability and teams attack him like they have the past two seasons, it could open the door for major minutes for freshman Isaiah Livers, who Beilein said has similar skills and shooting ability as Wilson.
2. Take the point
Point guard play has played a paramount role on Beilein’s most successful teams. And with the starting job still up for grabs among grad transfer Jaaron Simmons, sophomore Zavier Simpson and freshman Eli Brooks, it’s a battle that might not be settled until Big Ten play rolls around.
Simpson earned the start in Michigan’s lone exhibition against Grand Valley State and helped lead the Wolverines to a victory, but he had his share of good and bad moments like Simmons while Brooks spent most of his time at the two.
However, it’s hard to imagine Beilein brought in his first grad transfer at Michigan to just come off the bench. It could end up being a situation where Simpson starts early in the nonconference schedule as Simmons becomes more comfortable in the system before taking over when conference play starts.
3. From hunter to hunted
Junior center Moritz Wagner isn’t flying under the radar anymore. In fact, Wagner will garner plenty of attention from opposing defenses and will likely draw his fair share of double teams, something he didn’t have to deal with much last season.
How Wagner handles being the top target will go a long way this season. And as teams will look to take the ball out of his hands, one area he’ll need to dramatically improve is his passing. Last season, Wagner finished with 20 assists in 908 minutes. This year he’ll have to do a better job of finding the open man when he’s drawing multiple defenders and keeping his head up when he drives to the rim for possible kick outs.
4. Getting defensive
Last season, Michigan’s defense was a work in progress under former assistant coach Billy Donlon during the early portion of the Big Ten slate. The Wolverines were lit up over the first five games, allowing opponents to shoot 53.4 percent from the field and 55.3 percent on 3-pointers, before they finally got things under control.
With Donlon now at Northwestern, Beilein will be relying on Yaklich’s expertise to manage the team’s defense like he did at Illinois State last year, when the Redbirds ranked fifth in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (37.9 percent) and seventh in scoring defense (61.3 points).
The Wolverines won’t be afforded as much time to get their act together, though, with Big Ten play starting in early December in the midst of brutal stretch against No. 9 North Carolina, No. 21 UCLA and Texas.
5. Stay healthy
From the 2013-14 season to 2015-16, Beilein and the Wolverines couldn’t catch a break as they had to overcome the loss of future first-round NBA picks due to injury. One year it was Mitch McGary followed by Caris LeVert the next two.
Last year, though, Michigan had eight players appear in all 38 games, with Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin and Wagner starting every contest. But with only three players on the roster who have logged major minutes and have any real game experience, Beilein is knocking on wood that the injury bug stays away for a second straight season.
“Last year we were very blessed and we needed it, but there's a couple positions if we get an injury it's going to be a long season,” Beilein said. “We don't have that type of depth right now. We're staying away from even talking and thinking about it.”