John Niyo, James Hawkins and Matt Charboneau preview the Michigan State and Michigan college basketball seasons. The Detroit News, The Detroit News
James Hawkins of The Detroit News breaks down five story lines to follow during Michigan basketball’s 2018-19 season.
Nothing is free
Free-throw shooting has traditionally been a strength for Michigan teams under coach John Beilein. The Wolverines shot at least 70 percent from the stripe over Beilein’s first 10 seasons in Ann Arbor and ranked in the top 15 in the nation four times, with three of those occasions coming since the 2013-14 season.
But last season, Michigan ranked 323rd out of 351 Division I teams in free-throw percentage at 66.1 percent. Prior to that, the lowest standing the Wolverines ever had during Beilein’s tenure was 158th in the nation when they shot 70.1 percent in 2012-13.
“It has been a thing that we've taken for granted because we had so many good foul shooters, we didn't practice it as much (last season),” Beilein said. “We probably practiced it 500 percent more knowing that they need to do that.”
Michigan will enter the season without three of its top four foul shooters — Duncan Robinson (89.1 percent), Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (75.2 percent) and Moritz Wagner (69.4 percent) — and with only two players who shot above the team average a year ago — sophomore guard Jordan Poole (82.7 percent) and sophomore forward Isaiah Livers (66.7 percent).
Redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews (55.8 percent) and junior guard Zavier Simpson (51.6 percent) were the two biggest culprits and tended to provide more tension than relief in several late-game situations.
“I don't think either one (Simpson or Matthews) will be confused with Calvin Murphy or Rick Barry or anything, but they're going to be good — much better than they were is the hope,” Beilein said. “And one thing they do is they work at it and that's all we can ask them to. It was really not a team thing as much as those two just had a couple tough games.”
Land of the 3
Michigan has ranked among the nation’s top 3-point shooting teams with 342, 361 and 361 made deep balls, respectively, each of the last three seasons.
And that formula likely isn’t going to change anytime soon, even if the Wolverines have to replace roughly 60 percent of its long-range production.
“That's going to be a big key for us really,” Beilein said. “Where are we going to get those from because it's essential to winning is to have that (3-point shooting).”
Poole is a safe bet to be Michigan’s top 3-point threat and lead the team — perhaps by a wide margin — in made treys. Livers has shown a knack for burying corner 3s and Simpson led the team percentage-wise in the first half last season before he went cold in the second half. Becoming more of a consistent outside shooter is also the one common piece of feedback Matthews received when he went through the NBA pre-draft process, so there could be an uptick in his numbers.
And nobody better knows the type of impact a shooting big man can make like Beilein, so it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see junior center Jon Teske attempt a 3-pointer or two a game.
“We're going to do the old live by the 3, die by the 3,” Beilein said. “We live more than we die, but we have a plan here and you get better shooting as you continue to practice shooting. So, we'll keep doing that.”
Z marks the spot
Speaking of shooting, that was a major area of emphasis for Simpson throughout the offseason.
While there’s no question he’s the heartbeat of the defense, his offense has plenty of room to grow after shooting 46.7 percent from the floor and 28.6 percent from 3-point range.
According to assistant coach DeAndre Haynes, Simpson is one of the best guards at getting downhill and they work on different finishes — “3 o’clock and 9 o’clock layups” — every day so he can take advantage of his opportunities at the glass.
And when it comes to his offense away from the rim, Haynes said the main thing he has focused on with Simpson is fixing his footwork and how he catches and holds the ball before putting up a shot.
“Coach (Beilein) is real big on when you catch it, find the seams, really hold your shot up there,” Haynes said. “We’re trying to find something he's more comfortable with so he's not jumping into every shot. He's doing a one, two step and really focusing on locking in and holding his follow through on his shot.
“His free throws have been up, his 3-point has been up this year (in practice), so we'll see when the lights come on what he does.”
What will Michigan’s defense do for an encore under second-year assistant coach Luke Yaklich?
The Wolverines ranked third in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency — giving up 90.5 points per 100 possessions — and eighth in scoring defense at 63.3 points per game.
KenPom’s preseason rankings project Michigan to once again be better defensively than offensively, ranking 22nd in adjusted defensive efficiency (92.2 points) and 28th in adjusted offensive efficiency (110.1 points).
However, it’s not absurd to think the Wolverines can be an even better defensive team and top last season’s marks. They return tone-setting defenders in Simpson and Matthews and arguably have more versatility and flexibility with several players — like Matthews, Livers and freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis — capable of guarding multiple positions.
And with Teske manning the middle, he immediately brings more of a shot-altering presence, an ability to clog up the paint and the potential for Michigan to be a better shot-blocking and defensive rebounding unit.
The excitement for the 2018-19 season has been building for some time — and that was well before Michigan even played in the national title game in April.
That’s because the Wolverines bring in a talented crop of freshmen who have generated palpable buzz and will garner plenty of attention to see what they bring to a team that returns seven guys with Final Four experience.
Brazdeikis will look to live up to his reputation as a high-volume scorer and is a surefire candidate to play a key role from Day 1. Whether it’s as a starter or sixth man remains to be seen, but he’ll receive a healthy helping of minutes and should be in the running for Big Ten freshman of the year.
For the other four freshmen, though, it might require some patience before they make the type of impact many hope and envision.
Forward Brandon Johns and guard David DeJulius have the potential to carve out reserve roles but will have to beat out more experienced options to see the floor. Beilein compared Johns and DeJulius to Livers and Poole around this time last year and it’s possible both could serve as similar spark plugs off the bench.
Wing Adrien Nunez is known for his outside shooting and provides a catch-and-shoot option, but there likely won’t be many minutes trickling down at the perimeter positions. Similarly, center Colin Castleton offers intrigue as a floor spacer and defender but is logjammed at a spot that includes beefier big men Teske and Austin Davis.