Ricky Doyle establishing himself as Michigan’s go-to big man

Alejandro Zúñiga

Remember when Ricky Doyle played just 20 minutes total through the first three games of the Michigan basketball team’s season?

He had been battling an ankle injury and “another slight problem,” according to coach John Beilein, and he looked too slow and clumsy to be a big-time center when the competition shifted from Hillsdale and Bucknell to Villanova and Syracuse.

But something changed when the Wolverines traveled to Brooklyn for the Legends Classic. Suddenly, the same freshman who had taken a backseat to Mark Donnal and Max Bielfeldt was looking like by far the team’s best option at the five.

It wasn’t that Doyle took over the game against Oregon as much as it was his ability to make plays at all the right moments. He commanded the end of the first half with five points and a block in three minutes, then sealed the win with an offensive rebound, pump-fake and putback.

The Wolverines have played three more games since that night, and Doyle has continued to dominate the team’s production at center. Even though he hasn’t started, the freshman has played more than twice as many minutes than Donnal over that span — and he has earned every one.

He demonstrated as much Tuesday night, when he scored 12 points and grabbed five offensive rebounds against the Orange. Best of all, he helped the Wolverines flow offensively, leading his team with a +12 plus/minus rating.

“Today, obviously, he competed,” Beilein said. “For us to get 17 [offensive] rebounds against Syracuse, people would never believe that.”

Doyle is hauling in 6.4 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes this season and his offensive rebounding percentage of 19.6% is seventh best in the country and best in the Big Ten.

The freshman’s success may seem surprising given his slow start, but it’s not so much to the coaches. The center had two double-double performances this summer in Italy, impressing Beilein’s staff.

“We saw, ‘Oh my goodness, this kid can play above the rim and do some really good things, and he competes,’ ” Beilein said.

Doyle is Michigan’s most physical big man on both ends of the court. Though he doesn’t have a mid-range jumper like Donnal’s, he pounds the offensive glass. And he has soft hands that allow him to corral and score on passes through traffic.

He also appears to share Jordan Morgan’s finishing gene. Michigan doesn’t need its post players to do much more than catch and finish around the basket and Doyle is doing just that. He’s 19-of-27 from the floor, 70%, and all of his production has come just a couple feet from the basket.

He demonstrated that against Syracuse, such as when he received a no-look bounce pass from Spike Albrecht and stuffed a one-handed jam with eight minutes to play. And he had also been the recipient of a behind-the-back feed from Albrecht for a dunk earlier in the second half. Doyle’s control meant he didn’t have to put the ball on the court either time.

“I was in the gutter waiting,” Doyle said. “I saw Spike go behind the back, [and] I just had one thought in my head: Rule No. 1, which down here, it means dunk when you can dunk.

“When he was driving, he kind of looked at me. His eyes were wide open. I was just ready for it.”

As assistant Bacari Alexander said in the preseason, Doyle’s potential is like “a room without a roof.” There are still plenty of places for him to improve. He — along with Donnal and Bielfeldt — was no match for Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas inside, for instance, and Doyle is working with Alexander to keep refining on his low-post offense.

And the Wolverines would certainly like to see Doyle cut down on personal fouls — he had four against Villanova, and three against both Nicholls State and the Orange.

Doyle has been whistled for 5.4 fouls per 40 minutes and that’s a real concern for a Wolverine team that lacks proven frontcourt depth. Put simply, when the freshman is relegated to the bench, the drop in Michigan’s production can be stark.

“Ricky Doyle just turned 18 in May,” Beilein said. “That’s why we see so much promise in him.”

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  • sp1ms

    “I saw Spike go behind the back, [and] I just had one thought in my head: Rule No. 1, which down here, it means dunk when you can dunk.” GREAT quote.

    • Madrox

      I agree, great quote. That is also part of the reason I am so intrigued by what Doyle can bring in the post. I loved J.Mo, Michigan wouldn’t have come close to the success they had without him, but he always seemed to have to go with the layup down low instead of the dunk.

      If Doyle can get those passes and go up strong for a dunk, that would be a nice addition to this offense. It will be interesting to see how Doyle develops over this year and his career, a very interesting mix Michigan hasn’t had much before.

      • MAZS

        I think 90% of Morgan’s baskets were dunks.

        • Madrox

          I am not saying he couldn’t dunk, and I may be using selective memory here, but I feel like he laid it up a lot when he got the ball down low. I feel like I remember yelling a lot about wanting him to go up stronger when he got the ball near the bucket.

          My impression could be wrong, but I am just hopeful Doyle can be a really physical presence down low.

          • Mattski

            He learned to go strong. But fans are hard on players; I remember people beefing about him when he led the conference in FG%. And he was a master of the pick and roll.

          • Madrox

            I can agree with that. And man, do I miss his ability in the pick and roll, he was just so good at that.

          • NorthernBlue

            Yeah, really knew how to set a good screen and roll quickly to the open area to present himself for the pass. Thought his hands were pretty decent too. Had really good feet in every direction which was why he was so good on the defensive end coming out to hedge the pick and roll so well and then recovering. Honestly, I see the instincts with Ricky as well – his feet just need to catch up. I think he is going to improve drastically in terms of moving laterally and becoming a quicker jumper. Guy is going to be the next Jordan Morgan in terms of being a rock in the middle for 4 years.

          • I’m in the same camp as Madrox on this. Definitely loved the quote from Doyle.

            My first thought was of Morgan, because he did tend to settle for layups. I remember saying something to the effect of “a guy that size should go up with intentions of ripping the goal down with every catch.”

            I can’t help but wonder how high his FG percentage would have been in some of those seasons with the same attitude that Doyle appears to have from that quote.

            Don’t get me wrong, I loved Morgan and we wouldn’t be nearly where we are without him. And yes, he was definitely a master of the pick-and-roll, which makes me wish that he was still around to help that part of Doyle’s game develop.

  • Corperryale

    Nice profile. The million dollar question is “When does he start?” It may be a moot point if he’s already getting the lion’s share of minutes but having him in the game from the get-go would allow the team to gain critical momentum from the opening jump. I hope this decision will evolve based on performance and that MD’s start is not pre-determined merely because he had a redshirt year. There is no comparison right now. Reminds me of when Stauskas came off the bench behind Vogrich… Stauskas was simply more effective from day one. Also, all three bigs appear to be foul prone, not just Doyle.

    • Having him come off the bench, but play 25 minutes a game can help him avoid that first foul sometimes too though.

      • Gordon

        Do you have numbers to support that theory? What’s to stop Doyle from getting a foul in his first minute coming off the bench?

        • Nope. And it’s not all that rational if we’re being honest, but I know that Beilein has discussed a similar thing in the past.

          Sometimes he likes to let foul prone players have a chance to watch the start of the game and see how it’s played.

          • rlcBlue

            Right – nobody knows what the refs will call a foul in any given game until they start calling them. Once that’s happened, everybody can adjust their level of physicality, but the guinea pigs are still stuck with those early fouls.

          • Mattski

            Good call (ref). Also, I have no idea why people are so hung up on starting. If it buoys Donnal’s confidence such that he contributes, I’m all for it. We need players.

          • I think there’s something to this, although it’s probably impossible to prove out one way or the other. Some guys just do better if they get a chance to absorb the game a bit from the bench. I think it might be more true in general of shooters and scorers than big men and defense, but I can’t think how you’d prove that one either.

      • Corperryale

        Definitely a good point which I hadn’t considered. But by the same token, one could argue that Morgan should have come off the bench behind Horford, since we needed Morgan more late in games. I don’t know.

      • Mark Worthley

        We’ll get to see how quick Doyle’s learning curve is as he tries to play defense while avoiding fouls.

    • Giebz

      Without any actual numbers in front of me, it seems when watching the games that Doyle’s fouls come near the basket rather than while hard hedging on screens above the three point line as Morgan/Horford were prone to do. A foul around the basket seems like a better use for the team.

  • Trask

    Nothing is going to stop him from getting a foul in the first minute off the bench. But what helps with sitting him for the first few minutes is he gets a chance to watch. He can look to see how the refs are calling the game. He can watch who he’ll be defending and see how he likes to play, and mentally prepare. Being able to sit and watch the game for a little bit can really clear the mind, and be able to be more focused when coming in. Especially useful for a young player.

  • Champswest

    I always thought that Doyle was the center of the future and I guess the future is now. We still need to have Donnal improve since most 5s can’t give much more than 25 “effective” minutes per game.

  • Mattski

    Another supreme Beilein get. Psicekert was right! :) Think we should have t-shirts printed.

    • Madrox

      Ugh, don’t say that, you will somehow manage to summon him here and we will all be worse of for it. But yes, early on Doyle looks like another potential feather in Beilein and companies player development cap.

      Also I don’t think Sanderson’s influence can be mentioned enough. A lot of these guys really seem to transform physically, including Doyle’s early body fat reduction.

  • Jake

    It’s great to see the emergence of Ricky, however I think we all should tamper our expectations and not place too much burden on a 18 year old freshman. As long as he’s showing improvement throughout the season, that’s as good as anyone could have hoped for.

  • John Walsh

    Ricky Doyle has great hands and a soft touch and if you watch his high school mix tape or highlights from Italy you can see that he has offensive skills., skills which are being underutilized. He can do more that just jam and when he becomes an offensive threat that will open up the game and make life easier for Caris, Zak, & Co. He does post up too low which limits his options. Kevin Garnett did the same thing in high school although he always had a tendency to pivot baseline. Move up a couple feet on the lane and the baseline is not another defender and the basket can be attacked right or left. This applies to Ricky Doyle’s defense as well. He needs to box out a little farther out from the basket because too many balls are rebounding over his head. When he does this he can step into a rebound and it will give him greater elevation.I might add that fundamentally he is well schooled generally but still a little hesitant. He anticipates and seems to have done his homework and studied the opponents tendencies. He blocks the driving lanes and moves his feet. His help defense has limited his rebounding potential. He plays defense with his feet not swiping at the ball as someone drives past you. Others could learn from his example. He is learning but appears a quick study.

    Al of the Wolverine recruits have ability. They just need to hone their skills with playing time.Ricky and Cam are off to a good start and D.J. and Mark Donnal will come along. Donnal has a sweet mid range jumper D.J. is athletic with a shot but needs a few ponds and some strength.. Ricky needs to develop his mid range game to realize his potential.

    I would like to see them playing together on occasion at times especially against the zone which they struggled with against Syracuse. Donnal at the high post. Doyle at the low post. Caris and Zak on the wings and Spike or Derrick at the point could be a potent attack. Michigan needs to learn how to attack a zone defense. I also see some real fast break potential with this team which has not been realized. A half court game is half a game. After that the offense is plentiful but the transition defense and help defense needs a lot of work.

  • John Walsh

    An additional point. If Michigan is not going to play help defense and double on good low post players then they are going to have to front these players. You can’t expect Ricky Doyle to defend these players when they get the ball so low in the post because no one can. He uses his body and extends his arms and isn’t prone to a head fake but someone needs to tell him he can jump when he knows a shot is being taken as long as he doesn’t come down with his arms. He might even block a few shots besides altering them.