Offseason Storylines: Can Michigan’s big men step up?

Dylan Burkhardt

Basketball season is a couple of months away and over the next few weeks we’ll run down some of the biggest storylines facing the 2015-16 Michigan Wolverines. In this edition, we discuss Michigan’s frontcourt and what’s next for Ricky Doyle, Mark Donnal, DJ Wilson and Mortiz Wagner.

There’s no questioning the wealth of guard talent on Michigan’s roster. Caris LeVert is a projected first round pick, Zak Irvin transformed his game late in his sophomore season, Derrick Walton is a reliable Big Ten lead guard, while Spike Albrecht flourished in the ball screen game during Walton’s absence. Even unheralded sophomores Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins emerged in Big Ten play last year.

But someone needs to play in the frontcourt and the burning question facing the 2015-16 Wolverines is whether the big men can step up. Michigan’s roster options standing 6-foot-9 or taller include two sophomores (one redshirt) and two freshmen (one redshirt) and all of them have questions to answer.

With four McDonald’s All-American big men entering the league — Maryland’s Diamond Stone, Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan, Indiana’s Thomas Bryant and Michigan State’s Deyonta Davis — along with returning post players like AJ Hammons, Isaac Haas, Alex Olah and Adam Woodbury back for another year, the importance of steady post play will be vital.

Freshmen centers that aren’t All-Americans generally don’t fare well in the Big Ten, so in that respect Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal were in well over the head to begin with. Both players took their fair share of lumps throughout their freshman years. Donnal looked over-matched physically and failed to influence the game with his highly touted jump shot. Doyle showed flashes of brilliance — big early games vs. Oregon and Syracuse and several impressive performances early on in Big Ten play  — but eventually conditioning caught up to him and his performance plateaued.

By the end of last season, Michigan’s most-reliable big man was the one that John Beilein and his staff chose to let walk — across the conference — as Max Bielfeldt will suit up for Indiana this season. The move was a gamble on Doyle, Donnal, Wilson and Wagner’s inevitable future.

Interior defense must improve

Michigan has never been known for a dominant interior defense under John Beilein, but the best Beilein teams in Ann Arbor have graded out favorably in several key metrics. The Wolverines don’t necessarily have to block many shots, but they need to be solid on the defensive glass, play sound post defense and prevent easy layups.

In 2014-15, Michigan had the Big Ten’s worst post-up defense and ranked in just the 7th percentile nationally. The Wolverines surrendered .961 points per possession (including pass outs) in the low post last season according to Synergy Sports, Michigan also allowed a 51.8% two-point shooting percentage in Big Ten play, third-worst in the conference, and allowed opponents to rebound a third of their misses.

While Michigan’s never had a great interior defense, these Big Ten ranks over the last several years show that the Wolverines have at least managed to be average.

big ten interior d

Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal both struggled defensive in their first season. Doyle’s defensive rebounding rate of 11.9% was only better than Spike Albrecht, Aubrey Dawkins, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman in the Wolverine rotation.

DJ Wilson is an intriguing option to bolster the front court with his length and shot blocking potential, but does he have the strength to battle at the five for extended stretches? Moritz Wagner has shown promise, but entering his freshman season listed at 6-foot-10 and 210 pounds, it’s hard to imagine him making an impact with his low-post defense.

Doyle’s offense shows promise

Offensively, Michigan’s expectations at the center role are fairly straightforward. If you can catch and finish effectively than the rest of the offense can shoulder the heavy lifting.

Ricky Doyle was an effective finisher in the pick-and-roll game last season, shooting 70% when he caught the ball rolling to the hoop. He shot a better-than-average 61% on his two-point attempts for the season and he was also an impressive offensive rebounder. Overall his freshman offensive base shows more than enough promise to envision him blossoming as a sophomore.

Even Mark Donnal’s final stats showed some promise. He performed well in limited ball screen action, made 37% of his three-point attempts and finished at a 57% clip inside. Those numbers feel a bit hollow given his limited role, but they are all solid statistically.

DJ Wilson and Mortiz Wagner are x-factors offensively as both have been touted as fours down the line, but could be forced to play five at some point early in their careers.

Rebounding guards need to help

Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton are two of the best rebounding guards in the Big Ten, if not the country, and they will play a critical part in Michigan’s defensive rebounding approach. Similarly, the versatility and size of some of the other Wolverines wings — Duncan Robinson at 6-foot-8, Kameron Chatman at 6-foot-7, Zak Irvin at 6-foot-6 — should all help on the defensive glass.

Michigan has relied on guard rebounding in the past — planning for their bigs to box out and the guards clean up the loose balls — as it is an approach that suits the Wolverines’ roster and also can generate to increased transition and unsettled situations on offense.

Bottom line

Ricky Doyle’s name hasn’t received much buzz this offseason, but the 6-foot-9, 250 pound sophomore could be the most important player on the roster. The Wolverines need more minutes from Doyle, who accounted for just 44% of Michigan’s minutes last season.

But Doyle can’t do it all alone and Michigan’s ceiling this year will likely be determined not only by how reliable Doyle is over the course of the entire year, but who else can step up. Down the stretch last season, it was Max Bielfeldt that accounted for over 50% of minutes at the five spot and he played well enough to deserve them.

Wilson with his increased size is the x-factor in the equation. He can provide an entirely different aspect with his versatility and length, but defining expectations for the redshirt freshman who saw action in just a handful of games is tough to do.

Michigan has pieces in place, but after a learning season last year it doesn’t have time to be patient. The future is now for the Wolverines’ young frontcourt.

  • geoffclarke

    Looking forward to seeing how the big men do this year. Going to be tough in the B1G. Hopefully Doyle steps up his game…he seems like a driven kid so I kind of expect him to be much improved. Nothing against Donnal, but I hope Wilson earns the minutes as the backup. Just think he brings more to the table.

    • Jon Sohn

      Wilson may be good over time, but hasn’t proven anything yet. I understand he was a freshman but he looked completely lost out there. Most highly touted freshman demonstrate more understanding.

  • Champswest

    Perhaps our best option will be playing two bigs. Wilson or Wagner along side Doyle/Donnal would give us an extra big down low on defense.

    • Trask

      Beilein has consistently said that Wilson is a 4 long term, and no doubt Wagner is too, esp. with 1 or 2 clear centers coming in next year.

    • MChem83

      Beilein has consistently avoided playing a lineup with two bigs (i.e. a center and a true power forward), even against big strong teams like Kentucky. And with so many potentially good smaller options at the 3/4 in Irvin, Dawkins, Robinson and Chatman, I don’t see that changing this year. If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll see Doyle for 25-30 minutes at the 5, and the rest split among Wilson, Donnal and Wagner. If Wilson is any good at all, Donnal will spend very little time on the floor. He is just not a Big Ten level contributor. Wagner will get some spot play once BT play starts, but probably not much more this year. With Teske and Davis coming in next year, someone will transfer, almost certainly.

  • Kenny

    My hunch is that Wagner might be our most effective back-up at 5.

    • Chezaroo

      If he’s our best option as a backup 5, than Wilson and Donnal will be transferring at years end. Hes a 4.

      • Kenny

        just a hunch. If Novak can play 4, I don’t see why Wagner cannot play 5.

        • MAZS

          There’s nothing in Wagner’s game that suggest Novak–certainly not the grittiness that allowed Novak to play the 4. Wagner brings other skill-type tools to his game.

          • Kenny

            In fact, Wagner has the grittiness that I do not see in Donnal and Wilson, and he has time to add some weight before the season starts.

          • MAZS

            We’re obviously looking at different tape.

        • GTFOmycourt

          Strong lower body needs to there. Wagner looks tall and way too skinny. Better to have a short Biefeldt body type guarding centers rather than a skinny kid. I think Doyle will be backed up by Wilson until the other centers arrive next year.

      • Kenny

        and I won’t be surprise to see Donnal transferring after this season and was a bit surprised that he is staying for now.

  • Wayman Britt

    I hope Doyle is in better shape, because UM will need him to play more minutes. I think he can play adequate defense. I see Wilson slowly gaining more minutes over Donnal. Donnal was too soft last year and that is something you just don’t turn on. If Donnal wants to see more minutes he has to be able to make 3 pointers. That is his trademark, but last year he did not show it. Wagner needs a year in the weight room.

    • Mattski

      Would be very cool if a) Wilson emerges and b) Donnal could provide a change-up by hitting some. I’m optimistic; Doyle WILL be in better shape, Donnal was showing a few signs late last year, and I’ve always loved Wilson’s potential.

  • Chezaroo

    Its all about Doyle and his conditioning. We will get minimal if any help at all from the triumvirate of Donnal, Wilson, and Wagner when it comes to defending the post. As far as defensive rebounding, it can’t get any worse, can it? Having a healthy Derek and Caris will be a bonus on the glass for sure.

  • GTFOmycourt

    Exactly Mazs. In my opinion, the two big scenario will not be happening this year. Next year however, I think we will see Wilson and Wagner playing alongside a center–if that counts.

    • Champswest

      When Purdue rolls out a lineup with a seven footer AND a 6’10” power forward, who is going to guard them? Irvin? Dawkins? I don’t expect a two big lineup a lot, but I could see it against certain teams.

      • GTFOmycourt

        For that situation my guess is Irvin will play defense against the power forward as good as he can. Wilson will be saved for backing up Doyle. Perhaps Beilein will hope, as he has done in the past that the mismatch the other way will make it worth it to play a smaller power forward.

  • Wayman Britt

    Hey Mr. Winston and Mr. Bridges did you see who was voted the best offensive coach in the nation, who wouldn’t want to play for that coach.

    • bobohle

      I saw that also. Cudos to John Belein. Too bad this didn’t come out before Jaylen Brown went to Cal. Something like this should help with recruiting elite players. Can’t hurt anyway.

      • bobohle

        Sorry for the typo–should be JOHN BEILEIN.

  • Jon Sohn

    just read this, very solid analysis. agree 100%