Five bold predictions for Michigan basketball's 2019-20 season
The winds of change swept through the Michigan basketball program during the offseason.
Gone is John Beilein and his program-record 278 wins. Following him out the door were leading scorers Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews and their collective 39.8 points per game.
In is former Michigan star Juwan Howard — with his wealth of basketball knowledge, shortage of head-coaching experience and push-the-pace style of play — to lead a squad that returns nine players from a 30-win team.
After an intriguing offseason that brought the end of one era and ushered in another, here are five bold projections for Michigan’s 2019-20 season:
Senior guard Zavier Simpson will become the first Wolverine in program history to not only record more than one career triple-double, but he’ll post multiple triple-doubles this season.
Simpson became the sixth Michigan player to achieve the feat when he tallied 11 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds against Ohio State last season, putting him on the short list that includes Gary Grant, Manny Harris, Darius Morris, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr.
Simpson also flirted with the milestone three other times against George Washington (14 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists), Iowa (10 points, eight rebounds, seven assists) and Rutgers (14 points, seven assists, seven rebounds).
Last year, Simpson did a little bit of everything. His 185 rebounds ranked third on the team. His 244 assists were the second-most in a single season in program history, trailing only Trey Burke’s mark of 260 set in 2012-13. He scored in double digits in 17 of Michigan’s 37 games.
Given the production the Wolverines lost and the number of players who will be adjusting to new roles, Simpson will be relied upon to do more as a steadying force on both ends of the floor — and he’ll deliver.
Wagner wins B1G FOY
Ohio State guard DJ Carton, who was heavily recruited by Michigan, was voted the favorite to the win the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award in the media preseason poll.
But no freshman in the conference will impact his team’s success more this season than wing Franz Wagner, which will result in the German product becoming the second consecutive Wolverine to win the award after Brazdeikis did last year.
Wagner, who turned down a deal to play professionally in Germany, has an opportunity to play major minutes right away and is already ahead of the freshman curve than most players his age, according to his teammates and coaches. He also spent the past year playing on a team and in a league where most of the players are older than college seniors, so he won’t be fazed by the competition.
While his absence due to a wrist fracture can’t be overstated, Wagner is expected to suit up by the time Big Ten teams play their first two conference games in early December at the latest. And whenever he returns, he’ll step right into a key role because he provides what Michigan needs — outside shooting and defense — at a position of need.
Lower 3-point percentage
Michigan shot 34.2 percent from 3-point range as a team last season, which was the lowest mark for a Beilein team since 2010. The Wolverines will struggle to top that percentage this season because of the three players who shot above the team average, two are gone.
Poole and Brazdeikis, the team’s top 3-point shooters last season, combined to make 131 deep balls at a 37.9-percent clip. Junior forward Isaiah Livers shot a team-best 42.6 percent from deep but should see increased attention by opposing defenses as he moves from a sixth-man role to a leading one.
The rest of Michigan’s returning players — excluding Livers — shot a combined 27.4 percent (72-for-263) from 3-point range. Granted, sophomores David DeJulius and Adrien Nunez went 2-for-28 and it’s highly unlikely they’ll come anywhere close to repeating that considering they won’t be coming in cold in the closing minutes after sitting all game.
Simpson is a career 29.5-percent 3-point shooter and has yet to show he can consistently knock down outside shots. Senior center Jon Teske and junior guard Eli Brooks also shot below 30 percent from 3.
It’s hard to look at the roster and pinpoint players who will be able to duplicate Brazdeikis’ 39.2 percent and Poole’s 36.9 percent. And a deeper 3-point line certainly won’t help matters.
Defense won’t be top 20
It’s no secret Michigan’s calling card has been its defense the past two years. And this season will be the same. Simpson and Teske, the team’s defensive backbone, are back and Howard has a penchant for defense after serving as the Miami Heat's defensive coordinator.
It just won’t be nearly as good. The reason? There’s no Charles Matthews.
While former assistant coach Luke Yaklich deserves plenty of credit for the job he did helping turn the Wolverines into one of the best defensive teams in the nation, it also helped to have a player like Matthews, who was arguably one of the top wing defenders in the country.
Teske will still be a wall and shot-altering force around the rim and Simpson will continue to pester opposing point guards. But Michigan doesn’t have a lengthy and athletic stopper like Matthews who eats, sleeps and breathes defense and can make life miserable for the opponent’s top perimeter player.
Not so sweet
Michigan’s streak of making the NCAA Tournament will continue but its Sweet 16 run won’t.
While it could be tough sledding at times for the Wolverines as they adjust to Howard’s system, they just need to follow a similar path to the postseason like Ohio State and Minnesota did last year: pick up a couple key wins in non-conference play, earn a few road wins during the Big Ten season and avoid bad losses at home.
Michigan’s schedule offers several chances to rack up resume-building victories before the New Year with home contests against Creighton, Oregon and Iowa, as well as a neutral-site game against Iowa State. There will also be at least one shot at a signature win at Louisville, with the possibility of facing two more top-15 teams in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
As long as the Big Ten is as good as it was a year ago, Michigan will have more opportunities to boost its resume. Minnesota and Ohio State finished the regular season with 19 and 18 wins, respectively, and a sub-.500 mark in conference play last season. So, 18-20 wins and a .500 record in the Big Ten should be enough for Michigan to land in the Nos. 8-10 seed range with a winnable opening-round game but not much else.