Mailbag: Defense, Assistants, Offers and More

Dylan Burkhardt

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. 

JBlair52: What defensive changes do you think may happen in preparation for next season?

This is the million dollar question facing next season: How much can Michigan’s defense improve while returning five starters from bad defense a season ago.

I really think that Billy Donlon can make a significant impact. Beilein sounds like someone serious about making changes — Michigan’s defense has been bad before, but I’ve never heard him go on the record and harp on the need for change on that end of the floor like we’ve seen this spring — and hiring Donlon, who has a reputation for energy and defense, seems like a sign that he’s serious about making changes.

While Beilein isn’t really the type to just hand over the keys to a ‘defensive coordinator’, I think that Donlon’s head coaching experience could give him some real influence over what we see next season, similar to how LaVall Jordan brought the ball screen game into the picture early in his tenure.

Donlon’s teams at Wright State played a pack line system similar to Virginia, Wisconsin, Xavier and others, but his defenses appeared to have the unique ability to turn teams over while playing what’s generally regarded as a containing defense. There’s no question that the pack line defense can work in the Big Ten — just look at Wisconsin — and maybe Donlon can provide some insight as to how to crack it, as Michigan’s offense has struggled more against the pack line than any other defensive system.

Burke_Does_Work: How about something no longer directly UM related; which former assistant (Lavall or Bacari) has the better head coaching gig and overall chance of success?

I don’t think there’s any question that both Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan are ready for head coaching gigs. I think Alexander is stepping into a better situation considering his playing days and connections to Detroit, whereas Milwaukee appears to have plenty of drama in its athletic department.

But I think in the immediate-term, even in a potentially worse situation, Jordan might be more ready to find immediate success as a head coach. I love his temperament and demeanor in the head coaching role and think that his work with guards at Michigan could translate very quickly to Milwaukee.

mgobluehoops23: What is your best guess for next years staring 5 and first 3 off the bench?

This seems fairly straightforward right now. Starting with Derrick Walton, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson, Zak Irvin and Moritz Wagner while bringing Xavier Simpson, DJ Wilson and Mark Donnal off the bench.

@CT_In_TC: how many offers go out on June 15?

This depends a bit on who visits over the next month, but the two names near the top of the list appear to be Kevin Easley and Brandon Johns. Easley visited this month and the mutual interest is very strong. Johns, a Lansing native, has had Michigan court side at many of his games this spring on the Nike EYBL circuit.

One interesting development is that Michigan’s College Practice Camp was moved to August this summer. That camp had felt like almost an ‘offer try out’ camp over the last few years, because it generally fell the week before the June 15th offer date, peaking with the class of 2016 when so many talented players camped in June. The August date might buy Beilein and his staff some more time to evaluate kids before getting an in-person look in August.

We’ll dive more into the class of 2018 with a full hot board update in the coming days, but the key for any early offer will be an unofficial visit to campus, similar to the one that Easley took earlier this month.

The other complicating factor is what happens in the class of 2017 and even 2016. There are undoubtedly more scholarship offers to go out in the 2017 class which will really shape the needs going forward.

Champions: Position changes? We know DJ is moving to the 4, is there anyone else?

There are basically four, maybe even three, positions in Michigan’s offense: point guard, off guard, wing and big man. In actuality, the only position that isn’t really interchangeable in any way shape or form is the five. Just about everyone else on the roster has already played multiple positions, whether as a luxury or out of necessity.

‘Position changes’ might depend more on how you see someone already. For example, Zak Irvin played the majority of his minutes at the four last season, but he was also the natural candidate to slide to the two offensively if Michigan needed the depth.

DJ Wilson playing on the wing definitely qualifies as a position change because last year he played around two-thirds of his minutes at the five and ended up buried on the depth chart while splitting time between the four and five. Wilson clearly has potential, but has never looked comfortable in two years in Ann Arbor — perhaps more focus could help.

The only other positional question mark is who backs up Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman — the lone true off guard on the roster. Two point guard lineups are an option, Zak Irvin sliding to the two is another and Ibi Watson could even contribute in that role.

@thadam_Hammer Does the season hinge on DJ Wilson’s player development? If he is bad or gets hurt Michigan would be playing 2 bigs or Ibi at the 4

No, this season is going to hinge on how much better last year’s starting five plus Moritz Wagner can get. That group played major minutes last year and it is going to play major minutes again this year. That’s going to be the core of this team.

Wilson is naturally important for depth, but the backup four behind Zak Irvin was an issue last season as well. Dawkins provided significant offense, but he was a liability on defense and was almost unplayable in many games because of it.

mgobluehoops23: What do each of the new assistants offer the most?

Saddi Washington brings strong in-state ties that Michigan lost on its roster with the departures of Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan. Washington, a Lansing native, has been coaching in the state for over the last decade and has developed a reputation. John Beilein discussed Washington’s connections in a recent radio interview, noting that whenever he wanted to know what’s happening in a given recruitment he could go to Saddi and and get the lowdown at any AAU event.

On the court as a coach, Washington is known more for his poise (think LaVall Jordan) while Billy Donlon is just the opposite: all energy. Donlon’s reputation is not so much on the recruiting trail, but as a coach on the defensive side of the ball. Just 39 years old, he’s already been a head coach for 6 years at Wright State. Donlon had a top three defense in the Horizon League in five of the six seasons he coached there and had two defenses in the top 50 nationally.

Champions: Will either Davis or Teske redshirt?

I’d expect one of them to redshirt in order to provide some class balance. The problem is that I’m not quite sure who. Austin Davis’ conditioning and mobility is a work in progress while Jon Teske is just too skinny. Maybe you go with the more rugged Davis as the No. 3 big man off the bench and let Teske add muscle, or you go with the shot blocker who can provide something more unique off the bench.

MrLG: With Aubrey gone, who is the top dunker on the squad? I watched the Ibi video posted today, he could be a contender next year.

Maybe the better question is how many guys on the team can dunk? In all seriousness, this isn’t the most athletic roster. I don’t think Zak Irvin, Duncan Robinson or Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman would win many dunk contests so Ibi Watson is definitely a candidate in that regard. I guess DJ Wilson would be the other on the active roster, but this points out why adding a player like Harold Baruti to the roster could be valuable.

@CT_In_TC: Could Wagner play 4 in Beilein’s system?

At some point in his career, I think he certainly has the skills to play the four, but at this point in time I’m not really sure that is best for him or Michigan. His bread-and-butter this season is going to be his ability to face up and exploit slower five men. He’s not going to do that on the wing against many players at this level yet.

This offseason for Wagner needs to be all about learning how to play as a face-up five, focusing on the ins and outs of the pick-and-roll game on offense and defense, and staying out of foul trouble. If he can do all of that and give Michigan consistent minutes at the five, the Wolverines will be a better team for it.

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  • Corperryale

    Re dunking, the lack of dunkitude — though often dismissed as a purely aesthetic concern — speaks to bigger systemic issues about the lack of athleticism in the program. That said, I suspect MAAR probably has a lot more dunks up his sleeve than we know about, so he would be my pick over Watson. If they bring in Baruti, he will be the best — and most frequent — dunker, hands down. If he does come, let’s home they give him the latitude to dunk early and often in transition and on put backs, rather than just the usual one-alley-oop per game that we’ve gotten used to.

    Also, I am glad you feel so optimistic that Wagner starts over Donnal. That’s how it should be, but I know how JB tends to favor the experienced option over developing the one with more upside. Regarding the third center (since Wilson is a four, we’re told), I think Teske should play. Even if he is as raw — or rawer — than Davis, he brings something different in terms of shot blocking that we have needed for years. Why wait to start benefitting from his length?

    • GTFOmycourt

      I don’t think Teske will or should red shirt before Davis.

      • AC1997

        I think Davis is far more ready physically to play 5-10 emergency minutes at the 5 when we need someone to clog the lane or get some rebounds. I think of Davis like Doyle and I think of Teske more like Wilson. Neither are really ready to contribute, but in a small role I think Davis is more physically ready.

        Also, it is likely that Davis has a lower “ceiling” as a prospect (think Morgan) compared to Teske (think…..well…..uh…..Eric Riley?). I’d rather give Teske a year of seasoning and weight training so he’s able to contribute for the next few years than Davis who is probably always going to be a lunch-pail back-up.

        • GTFOmycourt

          I have heard a lot of people say Davis is more ready in terms of size/weight/strength but I am not sure. Davis was carrying a lot of bad weight. He is down to 235 and to my eyes he still looks like he is carrying bad weight. After he sheds a few more pounds he will not really be very big. Teske on the other hand has no bad weight and is about the same weight but relative to his upper body and shoulders his legs do not look skinny. The truth is they both have some work to do on their bodies. I do wonder if a heavier Davis is going to be a way to slow Davis because at this point calling him “big country” is kind of a misnomer.

          • AC1997

            Agree that neither is totally ready, as most high school seniors (especially big men) are.

            I still say that Davis is Doyle 2.0. He’s from a smaller school, generic 3-star, around 6’9″ tall, around 230-240 but not really in college shape yet. Both were mostly below-the-rim players who are lunch pail guys but not stars. If I told you that freshman Doyle was going to play 5-10 min as the third center (which he would have if McGary and Horford had stayed) then you’d be thrilled. Instead he had to start….which didn’t go well.

            Long term I think the goal would be for a Wagner/Teske pairing with Davis as the third guy. But I think Teske is just going to struggle more early.

    • AC1997

      I agree with your comments on dunking. Being a pure dunker itself isn’t particularly valuable to a team (eg: Brent Petway). But when you’re someone who’s job it is to convert easy baskets around the rim (Donnal, Doyle, Irvin) and you have to settle for layups then you’re going to have more of those miss or get blocked. GR3 fit well in his role despite his limited offensive game because the shots he did take at the rim were high percentage – same with McGary. I think Wagner is a huge improvement over Donnal/Doyle in this area, but unless Watson is good enough to earn minutes or they sign another wing I don’t see it otherwise changing much.

      • A2MIKE

        I think this is why you have to sign Baruti, he essentially becomes an insurance policy on Wilson not developing/being ready and provides much needed depth.

        • A2MIKE

          Also, it would be amazing if they did sign Baruti, and you could play those two at the 4 exclusively and use Walton, MAAR, Irvin as your starting 1-2-3 and bring Robinson off the bench. Duncan really should be a 6th man. I think that team could be very potent offensively, and much improved defensively. First and foremost, they need to sign Baruti, or someone similar to fit that niche.

          • I’d be pretty shocked if Wilson or Baruti started over Irvin or Duncan.

          • A2MIKE

            I wasn’t saying that it would happen, but that it would be great if it did happen.

          • AC1997

            I think what you’re trying to say is that Michigan would be better off with a true stretch-4 so that Irvin could play his natural position and Robinson could be the 6th man (still playing a ton of minutes). Honestly, that’s what the plan was when the NBA players left and Beilein recruited Wilson and Chatman. The problem is that both have underperformed greatly.

            I honestly think Beilein wants a bigger guy playing the 4 but hasn’t been able to find them. The issue right now is that Wilson just hasn’t shown he deserves minutes yet and Baruti is a very raw prospect. It made total sense to give all the forward minutes to Robinson, Irvin, and Dawkins last year.

  • ChiMan

    Dylan, I think the other question that many of us have is if you’re hearing anything else about any possible Grad transfers or late 2016 signee’s? I’m starting to think more and more that we might bank the two scholarships and the thought of our short bench next season is giving me shudders. Any rumblings you’re hearing?

    • bobohle

      I echo your comments. Nothing has come out yet since Baruti’s visit.

      • Concerns with Baruti are academic because he’s only been in HS in the USA for the last two years — so there’s a lot to sort out there.

  • Quick Darshan

    I could see Donnal starting to keep Wagner out of foul trouble so he can close games.

  • AC1997

    Dylan – A couple of questions for you:

    1 – By the end of the season, who is averaging more minutes per game within the rotation – Watson or Wilson? (I’m skeptical of how much Wilson can improve and contribute at the 4 based on what I’ve seen and I think even for defensive purposes and some rest for the wings we could see Watson get a few min per game.)

    2 – How good do you expect Simpson to be relative to past Beilein PG as a freshman? I’m curious how his role will evolve as the season goes on because never has the heir apparent at PG ever been able to come off the bench before (Morris, Burke, Walton). Plus, we know Walton struggled at times to run the offense, we know he is a great spot-up shooter, and we know he was forced to play an insane amount of minutes after Levert and Spike went down. Could we see Simpson play 20-25mpg at PG while Walton plays 15-20mpg at PG and 10-15mpg at SG?

    • mikey_mac

      While I agree with your skepticism about Wilson, he’s pretty well aligned to have a clear role on this team. Watson, MAAR, Robinson … none of these guys are really equipped to defend B1G fours, and Irvin simply can’t play 40 MPG. Whither Kam!

      • AC1997

        Great point about Wilson being the only guy big enough to play PF on this team besides Irvin. I think Wilson will be forced to play 5 minutes minimum just for that fact….assuming a recruit or transfer isn’t coming.

    • GTFOmycourt

      I wasn’t sure where to place this comment so it is not pointed at you AC. I find it mind boggling that so many more people seem to want to entertain the idea of playing Walton at the 2 now. because when Spike seemed to be available still, nobody seemed to want to entertain the idea of Walton playing at the 2.

      • AC1997

        I think people have been suggesting a dual backcourt of Spike and Walton for two years. I know it has come up a lot on MGoBlog because they always talk about the tradeoff between defense and offense. Last year you would have probably seen it for 5 minutes per game for sure – more if it was working.

        • GTFOmycourt

          One of the prevailing rationales for “letting spike go”, so to speak, was that it did not make sense to have 3 guards who, due to size limitations, would strictly be playing point guard and point guard only.

          • AA7596

            I hear you. The thing about Walton is that he’s nominally the PG but is more of a 2 at heart. And yet, it still makes sense to have him at the point over Albrecht because of the rebounding he gives you.

            The Spike thing is just a really tough situation. I get why it happened, but there’s also a decent chance it comes back to bite Michigan—both because Spike, if healthy, will be useful for Purdue and because Michigan’s PG situation still isn’t ideal. Best not to think about it.

          • GTFOmycourt

            “Best not to think about it”.

            That is solid advice, which I will try to follow, AA7596!

  • Chillax

    I’m seeing information that Teske is up to 235 lbs in weight. If this is true, by the time the season comes around he could be at 240 easily. So if thats true I don’t know that weight is too much a factor any more. Problem is the position is crowded. Who would have thought we’d have a problem of too many big men?

    • AC1997

      I know it is a typo, but it is a hilarious one to think about. He’s skinny, not THAT skinny.

      • Chillax

        hahaha corrected!

  • A2MIKE

    I also think there is a significant chance that Xavier is too good to play backup minutes, which brings another predicament in playing 2 guards under 6′ at the same time.

    • Wayman Britt

      I have no problem with playing 2 guards under 6′ feet, especially with Walton who is a rebounding freak. I agree that Xavier, might be good enough to play more minutes. Playing Xavier more may answer the problem of Wilson not being talented enough or tough enough to play minutes.

      I think AC1997’s response below may be the answer, playing more Walton at both point and 2 guard.

  • MrLG

    There will be minutes available, if DJ is ready. Last season Aubrey averaged 16.8 min and Kam 7.1 min. But I’m not sure we’ll get 15-20 minutes of DJ. DJ has the physical tools, but the basketball IQ doesn’t seem to be there. I suspect Ibi will take 10 min or so, maybe more. And we might see Donnal at the 4 as well. It’s a more natural position for him.

    • This idea of Donnal at the four seems to keep coming up and I’m trying to figure out how or why. Donnal is probably one of the last returning players I’d expect to see time at the four.

      • MrLG

        I can give you a few reasons. He’s a pretty big guy, so he would be helpful defending teams with big 4’s. He seems to have a decent 3 point shot, as good as DJ as far as I can tell. He moves around pretty well. So as a backup 4, sure, why not?

        • Slow laterally (not sure what fours in the Big Ten he can really guard) and lacking ball skills (dribbling/passing). Not really sure how Michigan runs its offense with Donnal on the wing.

      • mikey_mac

        Maybe it comes from an ability to imagine Donnal playing the four in another scheme? Definitely doesn’t work for UM, where the four needs to be able to put the ball on the floor.

    • AA7596

      Unless we add a player, we’re going to need 15 or so minutes from Wilson. He’s the only other plausible 4 on the roster after Irvin. Irvin will likely again log a ton of minutes, but some of those will need to be at the 3 to spell Robinson. (I don’t think you can presume Watson is a rotation player at this point.)

      But perhaps they’ll add a player to mitigate all this. The 4 spot is clearly the biggest need.