Mailbag: Starting lineup, recruiting thoughts, frontcourt rotation

Dylan Burkhardt

Michigan 80, Michigan State 75-11
Dustin Johnston

The UM Hoops Mailbag is a collection of questions tweeted (@umhoops), e-mailed or sent via our Facebook page. Submit your questions and we’ll answer as many as we can. 

Carl Bleich: If you had to project a starting line up on Nov 1 what would it be? If you had to project a starting lineup on Feb 1 what would it be?

Right now, before the August trip to Italy, I would go with Derrick Walton, Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin, Kameron Chatman, Mark Donnal.

Walton, LeVert and Irvin seem like no-brainers and Chatman and Donnal seem like the most logical fits at the four and five spots right now. Chatman is a natural left-handed player – ideal for the four spot on the right wing – and Donnal seems to have the most ideal blend of talent and experience with the redshirt year.

Fast forwarding to February, I could very easily see the same lineup, but if there are changes they would likely be in the frontcourt. DJ Wilson or Ricky Doyle could both play their way into the rotation which would mean: a) They are playing really great or b) Mark Donnal or Kameron Chatman is struggling. Doyle could give a more traditional interior scorer down low, and looks like he’s already made progress physically, while Wilson has the length (but not the muscle) to potentially play either spot down low in a pinch.

xGoblue37x: Do you think Michigan BB gets a 2016 commitment before a 2015 commitment?

This seems like the reasonable – or likely — scenario right now. Jalen Coleman, Jalen Brunson and Eric Davis are in no hurry to make their college decisions and aren’t expected to decide before the fall. Coleman plans to trim his list soon, but he’s never been in a rush.

Michigan is going to hand out several offers for the class of 2016 on Sunday and there are two prospects who have Michigan very high on their lists: Derryck Thornton Jr. and Seth Towns.

Many others will get offers and I would expect Michigan to push for some early commitments on the June 15th date – similar to Mark Donnal and Austin Hatch in 2011 – to start to recruit other 2016 prospects including TJ Leaf, Tyus Battle and others. Thinking back to June 2011, it was Hatch and Donnal on the phone with Monte Morris trying to push for an early commitment. Things didn’t work out exactly how Michigan planned, but expect any early commitment to take the lead as a recruiter if John Beilein can grab someone early.

There are also more options in that class right now and it’s likely that by the end of the summer, Michigan will have more 2016 offers outstanding than 2015 offers.

JakeGrubbs1: How heavy a push do you see if Michigan misses on both the Jalen’s? Will they go after other targets or shift their focus to 2016?

I’ve said before that Jalen Coleman is likely the top 2015 target on the board – he’ll be a priority until he makes his college decision. Jalen Brunson is still a great player, but other schools seem to have the momentum in his recruitment right now – namely Illinois (where he visited this week), Temple and Villanova.

I think Michigan is in a position where it doesn’t have to gamble on the class of 2015. The Wolverines can be careful with who they offer because they feel strongly about a lot of their class of 2016 targets. Michigan’s immediate numbers concerns are somewhat quelled by the addition of Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins, which means that the Wolverines don’t have to chase just to fill a spot. Expect July to be an important month of evaluation – remember last year DJ Wilson and Donte Grantham weren’t even on the radar before July and ended up being some of Michigan’s top targets in August – as the live evaluation period opens up again.

Look for Michigan to evaluate carefully and find prospects that John Beilein likes, but not rush into anything. As that evaluation goes on, any early class of 2016 commitments have the ability to change the picture for 2015s as well.

Alex Cook: How do you anticipate the minutes at the 4 / 5 to break down? Just how immensely important is Mark Donnal’s foul rate?

Sticking with a similar thought process as in the first question, I think Europe will be critical to figuring out who can provide viable minutes down low.

Mark Donnal, Ricky Doyle and Max Bielfeldt all project to the five spot in my eyes. Fouls are always important, but just how important they are for any individual player depends on how ready the others are to give competent minutes.

Kameron Chatman is a perfect fit for the four spot. Zak Irvin has proven that he play that spot in a pinch and even Aubrey Dawkins could step in and provide enough athleticism there.

DJ Wilson is the x-factor. He’s extremely skinny, but he can get off the floor and stretch opposing bigs away from the hoop. He’s obviously the most natural fit for the four position, but if Donnal, Bielfeldt and Doyle struggle, then perhaps he gets thrown into the five spot as well.

geoffclark: Who is more likely to have a better sophomore year: Walton or Irvin?

This is a fun question because I think both players only showed only a fraction of their games as freshmen. For the most part, that was due to as much to the composition of the team as much as it was to their own shortcomings. Michigan had its playmakers last season and John Beilein never needed to throw Zak Irvin or Derrick Walton into that role. Does that mean they weren’t capable? Not necessarily.

I’m going with Derrick Walton. I think he’s ready to step up and take on a leadership role and really start to show some ownership of the program from the point guard spot. There aren’t a lot of dominant personalities on next year’s roster (LeVert and Irvin don’t really fit the bill) and Walton has the ability to take on that role. Look for Walton to take the reins and start to increase his scoring usage in the form of a Yogi Ferrell and possibly step up as Michigan’s No. 2 scorer.

‏Josh_Sabo: How well does Kameron Chatman have to play for Michigan to compete for the B1G title?

Considering I just projected him as a likely starter, he obviously needs to play well. However, I’m not sure he’s the most critical cog to Michigan’s success. I expect his usage rate to be more similar to Glenn Robinson III as a freshman – meaning he’s a complementary piece to Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin. The onus is on that trio to carry Michigan’s offense next season and any contributions that the Wolverines get from other players is simply a bonus. There isn’t much room on a roster for a fourth major scoring threat and that should allow Chatman to ease into his offensive responsibilities. That’s a nice luxury because Chatman’s game isn’t necessarily that of the Alpha-scorer, he’s much more of a passer and a player that can pick his spots.

While some sort of improvement from LeVert,Walton and Irvin can be reasonably assumed – the greatest unknown is at the five spot. Michigan has only question marks at that position and it’s tough to see this team competing for the Big Ten unless someone steps up to provide a reliable pick-and-roll threat, defense and rebounding option.

eddieben: With the loss of many meaningful minutes this offseason, I’m particularly concerned that the defense will continue to languish. What areas of the defense do you think can get better? Do you anticipate different defensive schemes to match this year’s personnel (more/less zone, 1-3-1 vs 2-3, etc)? Obviously we have lost a lot of rebounds with graduation, a transfer, and early entries, but it’s the on-ball defense that was always the weakest link last year. Is there hope that that can be improved?

Last year’s Michigan team had the worst defense (by KenPom ranking) of the John Beilein era. It was the worst defense on a Beilein-coached team since his 2003 West Virginia team went 14-15. But Michigan was still won the Big Ten outright by three games and was a 25-foot three-pointer away from the Final Four. I’m convinced that replenishing the elite offense (which has been best in the country for two years running) will have a bigger effect on next season’s results. This is a program that has become reliant on having an elite offense and it’s tough to complain with that strategy given the results.

Michigan lost Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan, Mitch McGary and Jon Horford from last year’s roster.

Stauskas was by most measures a below-average defender. Glenn Robinson III provided an elite level of athleticism, but was never the difference maker on the glass that Michigan coveted. Despite the fact that both players could be picked in the first-round of the NBA Draft later this month, those are losses that Michigan can recover from adequately.

The frontcourt losses are more concerning. Jordan Morgan was the anchor of the defense for four years and Mitch McGary is an elite defensive rebounder when he’s healthy. Relying almost entirely on an unproven frontcourt has the tendency to be a disaster. Michigan had managed to be at least competent on the defensive glass in recent seasons and its ability to tread water on the glass will be critical.

MGoBlueAdam: With the addition of Donnal to the lineup will we see more pick and roll or pick and pop this year? Or will the offense be tweaked to accommodate having 5 shooters on the floor?

John Beilein has always loved three-point shooting bigs and somehow he’s only really had one or two in Ann Arbor (DeShawn Sims and Evan Smotrycz come to mind). If Donnal plays the kind of game that we saw from him during high school, he would certainly add a new element to the Michigan offense. The pick-and-pop was never a big threat previously, but I have no doubt that it would be if Donnal proves himself as a 35%+ perimeter shooter.

Whoever plays the five spot will need to develop chemistry with Derrick Walton and Caris LeVert because the ability to create some of that ball screen offense at the rim has been critical in recent seasons and LeVert and Walton both struggled at times last season to find the roll man.

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  • Dana

    The defense question is intriguing. There is potential for great improvement surprisingly. Walton and Irvin should be more comfortable and stronger. LeVert gets better all the time. All 3 have what is necessary to be very good perimeter defenders. Perimeter defense seemed to lack last season. We will probably lose some rebounds from the 5 but we should gain some at the 4. And both will add height.

    • MAZS

      Largely disagree. The 1-3 spots may be better with more experience, but there is little reason to assume better rebounding or defense out of the 4 & 5 spots. Your losing the best defender on the team–Morgan–from a man standpoint and certainly in the team context. I’d be happy with a defensive push at the 4. Assuming Donnal and Chatman are the 5 & 4, we are only adding about 1 inch per position It is highly doubtful they will be better rebounders in year 1.

  • Chezaroo

    There is no where to go but up this year when it comes to perimeter defense! Despite what we’ve been fed about Caris’s supposed defensive prowess, he was sorely lacking in this area last year. Walton and Irvin were even worse IMO. Even though Irvin was touted as a solid stopper in HS, he has shown no ability to stay in front of his man so far, and to me his lateral quickness is very suspect. Will more reps and increased minutes allow for improvement? One would think, but my gosh all three have got to take a significant leap this year sans Matador part two is staring us squarely in the face. Not to mention no JMO, there to bail them out. Whether it was the new rules or our system to not foul, we couldn’t stay in front of anyone last year, and that’s the hard to accept truth. JBs worst defensive unit ever.

    • MAZS

      and yet somehow…we were one 3 pointer away from the Final four s/

      • Chezaroo

        Offensive efficiency was a program best last year. As long as that continues we will always be dangerous. But at some point you have to be able to stop someone when the shots aren’t falling.

  • mustelid

    I don’t see Max playing the 5 this year… really much at all. If he is pressed in to playing the 5 for any reason other than donnal/doyle fouling out, it is possible that he will be shorter than the players at the 2/3&4. If we have dawkins/ chatman/ dj wilson playing. how can you play someone at the 5 who is only the second tallest player on the floor.

    • Bielfeldt has played the five almost all of his time at Michigan. He’s not the tallest, but he’s a rebounder and he’s not really skilled enough to play the four or quick enough to guard fours.

      • Mustelid

        which is why i see him getting a firm handshake next year, after another year of only averaging 2 minutes per game =/ Unless the Beilein hype is real, and that he is “unguardable”.

  • Truth

    I hope that Doyle will be starting by New Year’s. I don’t doubt that Donnal will be more polished from day one, but when you already have the shooters that Michigan does, a Poor Man’s Mitch McGary ultimately has more utility than a Rich Man’s Evan Smotrycz. My hope is that Doyle surprises everyone and we never have to hear about how we can’t handle some mediocre team like Purdue or Texas just because they have a plus-sized guy in the post.

    • Mustelid

      I’m with you, I am hoping that Doyle can put in ~30ish minutes per game, with ~10 coming from donnal at the 5, and the other 15 minutes of donnals game is at the 4. Allowing a true two big man lineup with a “big man” 3 point threat. Allow Chatman to play a lot of 3 guard (honestly thinking he pushes Irvin this year, not to say that Irvin isn’t good or won’t play a lot, just great competition between two good players). I think that Beliein has put himself in a position to have vast options when it comes to positional flexibility, and we’ll start to see it this year.

  • Adam St Patrick

    I’d be surprised if there’s anyone left who doesn’t realize Michigan is going to take an offense-first approach but like it or not they’ve still got to run five guys out there on the other end, and I wonder if Beilein’s approach there is evolving. I’m sure Beilein will continue to look for brilliant shooters, and thanks to Nik and bless him and a long NBA career beckons, but I do wonder if we’ll see a guy like that again who just can’t/won’t. Beilein said last year that he wanted a more physical team on D, and this year despite the numbers I saw that at times.

    • UMHoopsFan

      I’m confident that JB & Co would take another Nik 11 times out of 10. Nik, by the way, played a lot of minutes the year before, when the defense was significantly better. The defense is likely to improve even if we are lucky enough to have more guys “like that” – as noted in the mailbag, this was JB’s worst defense is a long time and his worst at Michigan.

  • Frank Chuck

    What lacked last season was rebounding (and that was compounded by a porous perimeter defense).

    Defense – like offense – is measured in terms of PPP. If we had limited 2nd chance opportunities by rebounding better on defense, our defensive ranking would’ve been much improved.

    With better rebounding, our overall defense wouldn’t have been great but it would’ve been respectable. We lost the Kentucky game because Michigan, a subpar-to-average defensive rebounding team, went up against the #1 offensive rebounding team. 2014 Kentucky’s offense was built around 2nd chance points.