Offseason storylines: Can Michigan overcome its youth again?

Dylan Burkhardt
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Basketball season is around the corner and over the next several weeks we’ll rundown some of the biggest storylines facing the 2014-15 Michigan Wolverines. In this edition we look at Michigan’s youth and whether the Wolverines will struggle with another young roster.  (Photo: Michigan Basketball)

Michigan is going to have one of the youngest rosters in the Big Ten once again this season. The Wolverines return just two starters from last year’s Big Ten Championship squad and seven of their 12 eligible scholarship players have freshman eligibility. Two freshmen are expected to start and many others will play critical roles. John Beilein could have his youngest roster yet in Ann Arbor despite the fact that the Wolverines have ranked 300th or worse in experience four times in eight years and have never ranked better than 207th.

As a program, the Wolverines are stuck in a constant cycle of youth. Transfers and attrition have played a small part in the equation, but the NBA Draft has been the catalyst. In the last five years, seven Wolverines have opted to enter the NBA Draft before exhausting their eligibility. (Despite having consistently young rosters, Michigan has also graded out favorably in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Ranking metric to track graduation rate.)

John Beilein has managed to build a dominant program in the Big Ten despite constantly recycling his roster. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten with 40 wins over the last three seasons and had the youngest team in the league in 2013 and 2014.

Projecting a rough lineup rotation for the 2014-15 season points toward having a roster comparable to the 2012-13 team. That means the 2014-15 Wolverines should be comparable to the 2012-13 Wolverines in terms of experience. That team went to the National Championship and was a tip-in away from a Big Ten title, but was also the Big Ten’s youngest team since 2009 Indiana, who went 6-25 (1-17).

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The numbers show that there’s very little correlation between experience and Big Ten success. Since 2009, the conference’s best teams haven’t always been the oldest. There have been several good young teams and a handful of bad old teams to buck conventional wisdom. However, Michigan’s young teams been among the league’s most productive over the last five years.

The follow scatterplot shows conference efficiency margin plotted against average experience with Michigan’s last five seasons labeled.

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While there isn’t significant correlation, it’s clear that Michigan’s last two seasons have redefined what a young team can accomplish in the Big Ten. The 2013 and 2014 teams were the most successful young teams in the conference by a wide margin. The Wolverines’ two-year cycle of player growth hasn’t caught up to them just yet, but could this be the year?

On paper, expecting Michigan (and its freshman) to exceed expectations once again seems unfair. The Wolverines have a deep freshman class, but only one player is ranked in the top-50 nationally (Kameron Chatman) and many flew well below the radar and weren’t added until late in the recruiting cycle (Aubrey Dawkins, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman).

Schools known for succeeding with young rosters are generally able to do it because they have NBA talent. It’s no coincidence that all five starters from Michigan’s 2013 team are now on NBA rosters. Right now, this roster doesn’t appear to have as many future pros. The Wolverines have Caris LeVert – arguably the top draft prospect in the Big Ten – but the other 11 players on the roster aren’t popping up on many other draft boards just yet.

It feels like everyone other than Wisconsin is either reloading their roster or hoping to make a big improvement in 2015, so Michigan should still be able to compete in the league, but where should expectations be set? A core of Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton is still very good. But the biggest difference between this Michigan team and other recent teams could be the absence of Jordan Morgan.

Morgan was the constant in Michigan’s rotation, locker room and roster over the past four years. He anchored the defense, took care of the defensive glass and provided leadership. In his place, Michigan will rely on redshirt freshman Mark Donnal and true freshmen Ricky Doyle and DJ Wilson. The good news is that Morgan was also a freshman once and he played the same role then.

Michigan has proven that it’s possible for freshman to overachieve, but the fact that the Wolverines will be forced to do it once again this season is enough reason to pause and reconsider the outlook of the 2014-15 campaign.

  • MIchiganNYCHoops

    Dylan, quick fix: Seven of twelve scholarship players have freshman eligibility. An even crazier statistic.

  • AADave

    I agree that expectations shouldn’t be too high with so many young players. But this team has plenty of talent to succeed at an elite level especially with an elite coach like Beilein. The starting backcourt consists of a top 35 recruit (Walton) and a now likely NBA first rounder (Levert). A 5 star top 25 recruit (Irvin) is the likely starting 3 and another top 30 recruit (Chatman) is the likely starting 4. We have two top 100 recruits (Donnal and Wilson) and another top 150 recruit (Doyle) manning the 5 spot. On paper, we have much more talent at the 5 than we had with Horford/Morgan last year.

    And we have great depth with Albrecht, Bielfeldt and the new additions.

    Of course, it all depends on chemistry and whether these new players are as good as advertised. It may still be a rough rebuilding year but it should be fun to watch this group grow and mature under Beilein.

  • UMHoopsFan

    Six reasons for optimism: (1) many of the freshman-eligible plays might be well-suited to immediate impact: Donnal had his redshirt year in the program, Dawkins is a coach’s son and took an extra year in HS, MAAR is old for his class, Doyle is a player’s kid and was on campus early; (2) the Italy trip gave almost all the players more coaching and experience early on; (3) JB & co tend to recruit guys with high basketball IQs who will pick things up quickly; (4) the freshmen don’t have to lead either on the court or off it; (5) there are generally some fall backs — i.e., if Donnal struggles in a game or for a stretch, Doyle is there (and Wilson), and vice versa, and Dawkins and Wilson could both be used to back up the wings, etc.; and (6) this is just a hunch, but freshman might be quicker at picking up offense than defense, and Michigan has shown it can be good enough defensively to overcome some defensive woes.
    Not saying there won’t be bumps in the road or that we’ll necessarily see a repeat of the past 2-3 years, but I do see, in addition to this staff’s proven ability to work with young teams, some reasons to think the team could have a pretty good year.

  • DingoBlue

    Unrelated topic, the forum is no longer accessible to me. I’m getting “welcome to nginx” messages.

    • Having some server issues sorry — going to need a little while to reslve.

      • DingoBlue

        No problem. Just wanted to make sure it wasn’t something on my end. Thanks for the effort to keep the site and forums running!

        • Hopefully should be coming back up online soon. Until it does it might redirect to the homepage. Sorry guys.

  • mistersuits

    As lovable as this team and these players are it’s hard not to predict some amount of regression from the previous two years’ success. Especially with zero experience in the front-court.

    However, it should most definitely be a NCAA tournament team and you would expect Beilein to have his guys playing to their potential come March. I could see the Wolverines being somewhere between a 5 to 8 seed that no one wants to face.

  • It’s nice to see Jordan Morgan’s contribution over the past four seasons acknowledged. As much as he is beloved around here, I believe he is under appreciated. That kid was a ROCK and I believe that will find it harder to replace his contribution than any other name to have left here in many, many years. Including Trey Burke.

    You have to go back a generation or more, maybe all the way to maybe Joe Johnson, Steve Grote and Wayman to come up with a guy who made more big defensive plays in more games that mattered. And by that metric, he might just be the greatest defensive big to have ever played here.

    That’s not even bothering to mention the relentlessly solid screens and the textbook rolls to the hoop.

    Jordan Morgan is absolutely in my line up for Michigan’s greatest starting 5.

    • Champswest

      I hear that there was a guy who played with Cazzie back in the day named Bill Buntin who was a pretty fair center. He even has a jersey hanging in Crisler.
      I do agree that Morgan will be a huge loss. His defense and leadership will be missed more than Nik’s scoring or Robinson’s dunks.

      • As much as I hate to admit it, I saw him play twice at Yost. He was a load and a post up nightmare. It was a completely different game in those days tho, especially the way we played it. It’s close, but I’d take Morgan maybe because he’s fresh in my mind.

        Tarpley was an outstanding big as well, but neither of those guys made the plays at the defensive end that Morgan did.

  • Champswest

    I think that our youth will be a problem this year. We have been young in the past, but we had Burke/Hardaway and Stauskas/Morgan to rely on. I am not sure that LeVert, Irvin and Walton are up to that role.

  • Wayman Britt

    I agree it will be hard for UM’s freshman to exceed expectations this year, but you never know. I agree with Dylan that we don’t have as many potential pros as in years past. Not that UM will be terrible, just that NBA talent is low. Here’s to a great 2016 class to get at least two sure pros.

  • JohnNavarreIsMyHero

    Based on what I see from the overall strength of the Big Ten, I think we are a Top 4 team along with Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Ohio State.

    We aren’t the only team breaking in new players. Also, we have a VERY good top 3 in Levert, Walton, and Irvin to lead this team.

    We are young and have the best coach in the conference. Beilein makes no excuses, just produces results.

    GO BLUE!

  • Truth

    I see this as a reloading year, not a rebuilding one. Chatman will surprise a lot of people; his smooth game will draw favourable comparisons to guys like Harrison Barnes (hopefully he will make a bigger impact than Barnes did for UNC, though). Also encouraged by the talented supporting cast, and wouldn’t be surprised if there was a future LeVert among Dawkins, MAAR and Wilson. As last year, they could have a rocky road through the non-conference schedule (though I’d love to see them be competitive at Arizona) but they should light it up again in the Big Ten. Just hope the AD’s current PR disaster doesn’t bleed over to basketball and hurt 2015/16 recruiting.