Offseason Storylines: How will Michigan leverage its depth?

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 depth and how John Beilein will manage his rotation.

Previously: Can Michigan’s big men step up?

John Gasaway published an article at ESPN recently that named Michigan the third most experienced team in college basketball.

While John Beilein does finally have a couple of seniors in his rotation, the roster still features only four upperclassmen so the headline was a bit of an eyebrow raiser. A closer look revealed that Gasaway’s methodology relied on returning minutes and usage rate rather than actual age. While Michigan’s traditional experience is up for debate, its returning minutes and production measures aren’t.

Michigan returns its entire roster other than Max Bielfeldt next season and John Beilein could have his deepest roster since arriving in Ann Arbor. Depth is obviously a luxury, but it also presents unique set of challenges for the Wolverines.

Beilein has traditionally favored a tight rotation during his tenure in Ann Arbor. He’s only played his bench for more than 30% of available minutes in three seasons — usually when he was unsure of the correct rotation and usually on bad teams. When he has eight players he likes, he generally isn’t shy about riding those eight.

Here’s a look at bench minutes under Beilein with data from

bench minutes

Michigan played its bench for a larger percentage of minutes than any season under John Beilein last year and the decision was driven by necessity rather than choice. In mid-December of last season the Wolverines were ranked just 317th nationally in bench minutes.

The 269 spot climb in bench minutes wasn’t smooth — it featured a stretch of seven losses in eight games — but it could be invaluable going forward. If Michigan wasn’t snake-bitten by injuries then players like Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman wouldn’t be nearly as prepared to play critical roles this season. On the other hand, Derrick Walton and Caris LeVert are back which means that Michigan’s sophomores aren’t going to have the opportunity to play anywhere close to as many minutes as they saw over the final two months of last season.

For John Beilein and his staff, this will present a challenge to ride his future pro and work his highly touted point guard back into the mix, but still find situations for Spike Albrecht to excel or find shots within the offense for Aubrey Dawkins or Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.

Options to experiment

While John Beilein isn’t likely to go with a Kentucky-style platoon system any time soon, he’ll have the ability to experiment with different rotations and combinations early on.

This could be especially valuable in the front court where the Wolverines seem to have as many questions as potential answers. With Max Bielfeldt in Bloomington, Michigan will rely on some combination of Ricky Doyle, Mark Donnal, DJ Wilson and Moritz Wagner to handle the 40 available minutes at the five. I’d expect Doyle to command the majority of those minutes, but the rest are as good as up for grabs.

Overall, I still expect Michigan to be more likely to opt for small ball than a bigger lineup. Two point guard looks with Derrick Walton and Spike Albrecht should continue to be a fixture, but there are other options as well. I love the idea of experimenting with a tall lineup of Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin and Aubrey Dawkins at the one through four. Pair that big guard lineup with a lengthy center like DJ Wilson and suddenly there’s a potentially dangerous 1-3-1 zone lineup to tinker with.

Injury concerns

Zak Irvin just underwent back surgery and Spike Albrecht, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton are all recovering from injuries or surgeries over the offseason or late last season. While it’s easy to point to Michigan’s depth on paper in September, the Wolverines aren’t entering the season completely healthy either.

LeVert and Walton are back in workouts and Spike Albrecht is expected to be cleared for full contact before the season. Irvin’s timeline calls for a return near the start of the season, but specifics on his back procedure haven’t been made available.

Having Abdur-Rahkman, Dawkins and Kam Chatman on the wings should give Michigan the luxury to ease its upperclassmen back into the rotation gradually rather than playing them 35+ minutes per game right out of the gate.

Bottom line

Last February, Michigan was relying on walk-ons to provide rotation minutes off the bench in Big Ten play. This year, the Wolverines will have four bench players who started at least ten games last season. That’s a luxury that few teams have in this day and age of transfers and attrition.

I’d be shocked if Michigan didn’t settle on a steady eight or nine man rotation by January, but after last season’s disaster the safety blanket of some added experience will be a welcome sight to Michigan fans.

The real key for Michigan to click could be in working out the balance in shots rather than minutes. Early on last season, Caris LeVert looked like he was trying to do everything and like he didn’t have much help. Now he does with Zak Irvin demonstrating marked improvement late in last season and the sophomore class all having made critical impacts in at least a couple Big Ten games.

  • mikey_mac

    Let’s put out some Usage % guesses for the rotation, then …
    Hopefully no one comes close to 25% on this deep of a team.
    LeVert – 20%
    Irvin – 20%
    Walton – 14%
    Dawkins – 13%
    Albrecht – 11%
    Doyle – 8%
    Abdur-Rahkman – 6%
    Rest of team – 8%

    • Interesting discussion..I’d be shocked if Caris’ usage wasn’t closer to 25%, but I guess it is possible.

      Remember that usage and depth aren’t exactly correlated. You could play 10 minutes per game and have a 30% usage. Usage measures the percentage of possessions while on the floor.

      • mikey_mac

        LeVert’s usage was that high last year when the team was struggling, so it’s hard to see that as an approach JB will condone. Irvin and Walton are too good of options (and secretly, LeVert is not nearly good enough of one) for LeVert to take a quarter of the team’s shots.

    • toblav

      If Dawkins starts then Robinson is the light-it-up-off-the-bench guy, so he gets his shots. . . point being that the depth here is off the charts. It was brave to attempt usage %. I won’t.

  • UMHoopsFan

    Sort of a two-part issue: (1) how big is the rotation, and (2) who gets the spots in the rotation. Could depend on injuries and how many guys just play so well JB & Co can’t keep ’em off the floor.

    Walton, LeVert, Irvin, Doyle, Spike, and Dawkins seem like locks. I’d be pretty surprised if Robinson can’t find some minutes somewhere. That’s 7. Throw in at least one more big, that’s 8, and I’d also be surprised if Chatman didn’t get every opportunity. That’s 9. That’s why I think it’ll be hard for Rakhman to get time if everyone is healthy, but he should find some situational minutes. And do we really see two of Wagner, Wilson, and Donnal ride the pine? Going to be fun and to watch and good to have this problem for once.

  • X-7

    Rotation Variations:
    420 RD (or)
    420 Triple DJ. Length; 1-3-1 Press option.
    21 Irvin 4
    22 Robinson 2
    23 LeVert 1
    24 Dawkins 3
    RD 5 (or)
    DJ 5

  • geoffclarke

    3-man rotation at the 1 & 2: Walton, LeVert, Albrecht
    3-man rotation at the 3/4: Irvin, Robinson, Dawkins
    2-man rotation at the 5: Doyle, Wilson

    Hard not to give Abdur-Rahkman meaningful minutes as we will ABSOLUTELY need him in 2016-17 to play a substantial role.

    Chatman and Wagner will have to prove that they’re a net positive to even have a chance to convince Beilein to expand the rotation. Either will at least have to shoot well as well as bring more to the table.

    Donnal will get spot minutes at the 5 in case of injury or foul trouble.

    But we even have depth and experience at walk-on with Lonergan and Dakich!

    • UMHoopsFan

      Re: Rakhman, I don’t think they’ll base minutes this year on what the team may need in 16-17. Also, we very well may have Walton, Irvin, Robinson, Simpson, Watson, and Chatman in 16-17, so I don’t think we’ll be struggling to fill backcourt minutes.

  • Champswest

    The situational lineup that I would like to see is 1. Abdur-Rahkman, 2. LeVert, 3. Robinson, 4. Wagner and 5. Wilson. Roll that out for a zone defense.

    • Corperryale

      That is a very interesting line up with tons of length and versatility. Thinking outside of the box!

  • Kenny

    Three big question marks:

    1. I will bet my money on Wagner being the most competent back-up of Doyle at 5. Although he needs add more weight, he is tall and not afraid of contact. Wilson looked very tentative in very limited minutes he played at 5 last season and likely to be behind Donnal.

    2. we will discover how deadly is Robinson from long range. If Dawkins maintains his stroke from last season, have Robinson/Hawkins on the floor together will open a lot of space for others to attack the basket and opportunities for easy basket from backdoor. But both have to prove that they are not liabilities on defense.

    3. It is also interesting to see how Beilein is going to use Chatman, who has to attack the basket to prove his worthiness. Irvin’s surgery will give Chatman some opportunities at the beginning of the season and he has to take full advantage of it. I think that he is more of a 2/3 than a 3/4.

    • geoffclarke

      Backup 5 will definitely be interesting. Donnal obviously has more experience, but sounds like Wilson and Wagner are having the better summer. Should be fun to see how it shakes out. While you have Wilson at the bottom of the depth chart, I personally think he’s the primary backup to Doyle.

      Chatman just has to prove that he can finish, both from inside and outside. He’s got nice tools, but I haven’t heard anything about how his summer is going. Could be telling. His best chance for future success on this team is probably getting leaner, stronger, and try to make an impact at the 2. Tighten up the handle too.

      • 93Grad

        I can’t see Chatman ever manning the 2 spot. He is way too slow and would get killed on D. He could be an ok at the 4 if he can add weight and strength. I frankly seem as a guy without a position on this team and not a great fit for this offense unless he can make major strides in several areas.

  • 93Grad

    JB has already said that he will be playing 9-10 men this season which is a departure from the norm.

  • GTFOmycourt

    I absolutely hope a platoon style substitution is considered. Something like a 27 minute/ 13 minute split. It would create health competition between players on the first, second and third teams. It would create player cohesion on the various teams. For our opponents it will feel like they are playing different teams which creates confusion….I don’t know if it is feasible at the five spot….because I expect our centers will need more frequent rests….but I definitely think it would be fun to play on a team within a team….I think it would be fun to watch platoon style too!

    • GTFOmycourt

      I am glad to hear JB is not planning to run such a short bench. One of my theories is that part of Izzo’s success in March is his perennial depth. As well as his uncanny ability to manipulate players perceptions of themselves–stringing 4 star players on by making them beleive they are 3 star players when it is convenient for Izzo–as well as his ability to give their clipped wings back when Izzo needs them due to other players getting injured. We recruited deep. We should play deep!

      • GTFOmycourt

        My point being a coach needs to keep his 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th man happy otherwise 8- 11 will not be quality players year to year. A coach can keep those players happy by playing them. Another option is to manipulate how 8-11 perceive their value/ quality. I don’t think JB would do the latter which is one of the reasons I beleive he is such a decent and good coach/ person.

        • Corperryale

          I agree with this approach. As with last year, there is so much emphasis on the so-called Big Three when our young “role players” have given us such a spark. Robinson, Wilson and Wagner are still unknown quantities while obviously Chatman and Donnal will have to improve significantly to earn their minutes (I hold out hope for Chatman’s development). But I cannot imagine that Spike, Rahk, and Dawkins will be entirely content to take a back seat after all they have done for this team so far. Michigan’s strength is it’s depth (for once). I hope we exploit this advantage rather than returning to old orthodoxies and hero ball. While I am not expecting a platoon system, I think we have a lot of weapons and the key will be keeping everyone fresh BUT in rhythm.

  • Mattski

    Good provocative stuff. Would love to see both the small and tall lineups–John Beilein is going to drive opponents crazy this season. Very happy if the rumors that Wagner’s looking good prove to be true.

  • Corperryale

    Rahkman never gets enough respect. He is a very creative and athletic player who may be the best attacker of rims that we have (even if he still needs some work on the deep ball). Also an active, feisty defender. He will play. Hopefully more than anybody expects.

    • zeroskie

      I agree. And with Simpson on the roster next year we could see a very fiesty defense from our backcourt.

  • Some great discussion in here guys… Good stuff. I think all of the options are going to make the first few weeks of the season really interesting. Michigan is gonna need that depth in Atlantis playing three games in three days as well.

    Two years ago in Puerto Rico I thought they were completely out of gas by the end of that tournament.

  • shielste

    And let’s not forget how MAAR and Aubrey delivered at the charity stripe:
    Dawkins: 20-23
    Rahkman: 14-15

    To have that possibly come off the bench…wow.

    Not to forget about Spike at 90%+ and Walton and LeVert at 80%+.

    There is so much Beilein can do this year with his lineup. Whatever he chooses, I trust him. Even pulling someone in the 1st half for having 2 fouls, b/c we actually have the depth this year to make that work!

    Go Blue!