Five questions facing Michigan hoops heading into 2019-20 season

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Forward Isaiah Livers (7.9 ppg) is poised to become the focal point on Michigan's basketball team.

The Juwan Howard era is officially underway at Michigan.

The Wolverines held their first official practice last week and will kick off the season next month when they host Saginaw Valley State in an exhibition on Nov. 1.

While it remains to be seen what a Howard-led Michigan team will look like on the court, senior guard Zavier Simpson, senior center Jon Teske, junior forward Isaiah Livers and Howard could provide a sneak peek at Wednesday’s Big Ten basketball media day.

Until then, here are five questions surrounding the Wolverines heading into the 2019-20 season:

How different will the offense look?

Former coach John Beilein’s teams always had the same defining characteristics. The Wolverines launched a high volume of 3-point attempts, committed few turnovers and valued every possession. As a result, Michigan typically worked into the shot clock and played at a slower pace than most teams. Per KenPom, the Wolverines’ averaged between 18.5 and 20.8 seconds per offensive possession since 2010, which ranked as high as No. 243 and as low as No. 338 in the nation. During that same span, the Wolverines ranked higher than No. 314 in the nation in adjusted tempo (possessions per 40 minutes) just twice.

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While Howard is returning to the college level after spending the last 25 years in the NBA — where teams like to run-and-gun and play at a high tempo — former Wolverines Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Terry Mills anticipate Howard keeping a similar style of play like Beilein’s. Mills said he expects Michigan to remain “very fundamentally sound” because that mirrors Howard’s own playing style throughout his career. King added he expects to “see more of the same” because Beilein’s system “is the style of basketball you see played today.”

When it comes to differences, though, Rose said he anticipates there being more pick-and-more action and more dribble handoffs, while King said he thinks there will be a “healthy mix of establishing position in the post.” Earlier this summer when talking about college’s new 3-point line, Howard hinted there could be more post touches coming this season since the deeper arc will give Michigan’s big men more room to operate in the paint.

Will the 'D' rank among the nation's best?

It’s no secret Michigan’s success the last two seasons has stemmed from its defensive prowess. Under former assistant and de facto defensive coordinator Luke Yaklich, the Wolverines ranked second and third in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. But with Yaklich now at Texas and Charles Matthews — who could make a case as one of the top wing defenders in the nation — gone, Michigan will have its work cut out to maintain that level of stinginess.

Still, it’s hard to believe Michigan’s identity and strength won’t revolve around its defense, especially with stalwarts Simpson and Teske back to lead the charge. And Howard, like Yaklich, served as his team’s defensive coordinator during his time with the Miami Heat, which ranked in the top eight in defensive efficiency each of the past three seasons.

Given Michigan’s returning talent and Howard’s background, it should allow for a smooth transition. Yet, it’ll be interesting to see how much Howard tweaks and changes the team’s defensive principles and how his defensive approach differs from the one Yaklich had put in place.

Jon Teske

Where will the scoring come from?

For the third season in a row, Michigan will have to find a way to replace three of its top four scorers. But this time, the task could be a tad more difficult as the Wolverines won’t return a single player who averaged double digits a year ago.

When Ignas Brazdeikis (14.8 points), Jordan Poole (12.8 points) and Charles Matthews (12.2 points) all left early, so did 57.2 percent of Michigan’s offensive production from three players who combined to lead the team in scoring in 30 of its 37 games last season. To make matters worse, Brazdeikis (39.2 percent) and Poole (36.9 percent) were two of Michigan’s top outside shooters from a Beilein-coached team that finished with its lowest 3-point shooting percentage since 2010 at 34.2 percent.

Teske (9.5 points), Simpson (8.8 points) and Livers (7.9 points) are all capable of scoring in double figures, but Livers has the best chance to become the focal point. The Wolverines will also be banking on a combination of the sophomores — David DeJulius, Brandon Johns Jr., Colin Castleton and Adrien Nunez — to become consistent contributors along with freshman Franz Wagner, who could play a significant role right away.

Who is going to play the two?

When it comes to projecting Michigan’s starting lineup, you can already pencil in three players: Simpson at point guard, Teske at center and Livers. What spot Livers fills depends on the type of lineup Howard wants to roll out, though most of Livers’ playing time during his career has come at the four. But due to Livers’ versatility, it wouldn’t be far-fetched for him to slide to the three if Howard opted to start Johns at forward.

Given Wagner’s experience competing in Germany’s top professional club basketball league with Alba Berlin, he’s a front-runner to take one of the perimeter spots due to his outside shooting (39.6 percent on 3s from international distance) and offensive skill set. And at his size (6-foot-8, 205 pounds), he seems to be more of a three than a two.

Howard said in July the starting guard role has no shortage of candidates, with junior Eli Brooks, freshman Cole Bajema, DeJulius, Nunez and Wagner all vying for the job. But of the bunch, only Brooks and DeJulius played in the backcourt alongside Simpson last season.

Will Michigan make it back to the Sweet 16?

When it comes to college basketball, a team’s success is largely measured on how it performs in March. Like it or not, Beilein even acknowledged as much during Michigan's NCAA Tournament run last season.

And when it comes to recent postseason success, not many teams' resumes stack up quite like Michigan's. The Wolverines advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament five times in seven seasons, with a pair of national championship game appearances sprinkled in. That doesn’t even include the three consecutive trips to the Big Ten tournament title game over the past three years.

Simply put, reaching the Sweet 16 evolved from a fantasy to an expectation during Beilein's tenure. It's a high bar that will be passed along to Howard, who is picking up the torch at a program that's coming off back-to-back 30-win seasons and marching ahead with a team that already has a stable foundation in place.

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins