Low-ranking Wolverines determined to 'prove people wrong' again
Rosemont, Ill. — Underestimating the Wolverines has become a preseason tradition.
In fact, it’s all senior guard Zavier Simpson and senior center Jon Teske have known since they’ve been at Michigan.
“I’ve been through it three times,” Simpson said Wednesday at Big Ten basketball media day. “I don't know why that is. I'm not sure why people rank us low. At the end of the day, that's their opinion.”
Michigan entered the 2016-17 season unranked and cracked the Top 25 twice. That team ended up winning the Big Ten tournament title and was a shot away from reaching the Elite Eight.
In 2017-18, the Wolverines didn’t make an appearance in the Top 25 until the 10th week of the season. That team went on to win 14 of its final 15 games en route to its second straight Big Ten tournament title and a trip to the national title game.
Last season, the Wolverines started out No. 19 in the national rankings. That team opened the season with a program-record 17 straight wins before missing out on a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, being denied an unprecedented third consecutive conference tournament crown and falling short of reaching the Elite Eight.
It appeared things would be different this year — at least at one point. After the 2018-19 season wrapped up, Michigan was ranked in the top 10 in several outlets’ way-too-early predictions for 2019-20. But the Wolverines tumbled out of most preseason rankings altogether after Jordan Poole, Ignas Brazdeikis and Charles Matthews left early, and former coach John Beilein headed to the NBA.
Now Michigan, who was picked by the media to finish fifth in the Big Ten, finds itself in a familiar position — as the team that will have to prove once again it can replace several key pieces without missing a beat.
But for a squad that lost its top three scorers, a majority of its 3-point shooting, arguably one of the top wing defenders in the nation and the program's all-time winningest coach, junior forward Isaiah Livers still has a familiar feeling.
“We did lose some terrific, great players that contributed really well last year, but I wouldn't say it's going to be a problem,” said Livers, who pointed out the Wolverines were predicted to finish in the middle of the Big Ten pack his first year and they ended up being one of the two teams left standing in the NCAA Tournament.
“I feel as confident in this team as I did last year's team and my freshman year's team.”
When asked why, Livers said the answer “came naturally without even thinking about it.”
“I think it's a good thing that I'm confident in this team," he said. “Freshman year I came in with a lot of veterans and now we only have three (players with) real game-time minutes.”
The Wolverines bring back nine scholarship players from last season’s squad that went 30-7 and was ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation. As Livers pointed out, only three of the returners received significant playing time — Teske, Simpson and Livers — and none averaged double figures in scoring.
And without a doubt, first-time coach Juwan Howard is going to rely heavily on the experienced trio to help maintain the program’s winning ways.
“We’ve got some guys they (younger players) can lean on and guys that can help them through those tough moments, tough times,” Howard said. “I was once a freshman and it didn't happen right away. I had Eric Riley, a guy who I was fighting for his position but talk about a pure individual. He was still teaching me and not into himself. He was giving and feeding more into the team. I have those type of guys. I have feeders — guys that are giving more to the team, helping and serving one another. It's a coach's dream.”
In addition to Howard, there are new faces on the coaching staff in assistants Phil Martelli and Howard Eisley, as well as on the roster in freshmen Cole Bajema and Franz Wagner, the younger brother of former Michigan standout Moritz Wagner, whom Howard called a “five-star” talent.
Despite the question marks about how the offensive production will be replaced and how Howard, an unproven head coach, will fare, Howard is adamant the program won’t take a step back.
“We have competitors. We have guys that are prideful. We have guys that know they're being counted out,” Howard said. “Let's be real about it, you lose (the majority) of your scoring and a team like that — Jordan Poole who could've stayed in school and been a junior, Charles Matthews could've had another year, Iggy would've been a sophomore this year. Those guys are gone now. We can't look back.
“What we have now we have to move forward with, so it's next man up. We're going to compete and we're going to compete hard. We're not going to give up.”
And as far as Teske is concerned, the Wolverines have all the necessary ingredients required to keep the ball rolling and, once again, defy the early predictions.
“I just think the guys we have in our locker room and the coaches we now have, we trust each other, we believe in each other, we’re going to hold each other accountable,” Teske said. “We're brothers so if we see something go wrong we're going to tell you about it and we're going to keep each other together.
“There’s a lot of talk on the outside, but we know we're going to come in every day to practice and do our business. Whether people want to talk about us or not, we don't really mind. We're just going to continue to work every day, get better and continue to go out and prove people wrong.”