In our final position preview article, we break down Michigan’s big men with stats, video breakdowns and analysis. Previously: Guards, Wings

At first glance, the five position in Michigan’s offense feels like an afterthought. The Wolverines run a perimeter-oriented offense that is heavy on three-point attempts and underweight on post-ups or offensive rebounds.

But more often than not, it has been the five man that really unlocked Michigan’s potential. Mitch McGary elevated Michigan in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, Jordan Morgan helped turn Darius Morris into an NBA Draft pick with their chemistry in the pick-and-roll, and Morgan anchored an otherwise terrible defense in 2014 to lead the Wolverines to the Elite Eight.

In the two seasons since Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary moved on, Michigan has put forth two of its three worst defensive units under Beilein, including Michigan’s worst two-point defense groups in the KenPom.

If you could change any one stat from last year’s profile to try to make Michigan a better team in 2016-17, you would start with that two-point defense. Fixing the interior defense starts with hiring new assistant coach Billy Donlon, but it also starts on the interior where Mark Donnal, Moritz Wagner and two freshmen will need to build off of last year.


Mark Donnal – Senior

It’s hard to know what to make of Mark Donnal. John Beilein didn’t rush to his defense when asked if he should be classified as a redshirt junior or a senior — instead noting that all players on the roster are listed without their redshirt designations. He also didn’t really seize the opportunity to praise the 6-foot-9 senior at his season-opening media day press conference. Opting instead to focus on his conditioning.

“He’s a senior right now, and he’s playing in his fourth year, but he does have that extra year,” Beilein said. “We’re going to stop putting the redshirts next to the name, you know, you guys can figure that out. He’s in his senior year, and he’s been practicing okay.

“He’s got to get himself in great shape right now, but we’ve all seen what he can do. We need about 35 games like that at least from him this year.”

Donnal has entered the last two seasons as a starter. In 2015, he was benched after 10 games. In 2016, he was benched after just three, but eventually regained the starting spot and held it throughout conference play.

Last year, he averaged 7.8 points and 3.7 rebounds in 19.4 minutes per game. On their own, those numbers aren’t bad — especially from a position where Michigan doesn’t demand much offensively. Donnal shot 62.5% on twos in Big Ten play — fourth best in the league — and shoots 33% from three-point range for his career.

He’s shown the ceiling: 25 points, 5 rebound and 5 blocks at Maryland; 26 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks at Illinois; 16 points, 8 rebounds vs. Penn State. Those kind of performances prove that the potential is there. On the contrary, there were far too many nights where Donnal was pushed around physically or never settled into a game.

Donnal was the 4th-most productive roll man in the Big Ten, per Synergy, scoring 58 points last year. It seems like a simple skill, but those sorts of baskets are invaluable to the Michigan offense.

Moritz Wagner – Sophomore

Wagner scored 48 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in 8 neutral court games in the Battle 4 Atlantis, Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament. He also scored only 38 points and grabbed 29 rebounds in Michigan’s other 26 games.

The raw potential is there. The instincts and basketball IQ are there. But Wagner was nowhere to be seen from December through February despite a Michigan rotation that lacked much of any punch in the middle.

Whether it was his attitude, a freshman wall, inconsistent play, foul trouble or anything else in between, it’s hard to figure out what to make of Wagner after he showed some of the most promising big man play of the season, but couldn’t get off the bench in conference play.

His strong finish to the season and positive feedback from the coaching staff throughout the offseason and preseason is an encouraging sign that he’s ready to take the next step.

Moe Wagner is another one that we just need him to play above his years,” Beilein said last week. “He did at the beginning of the year then in the middle of the year ran into a bit of a freshman wall and then down the stretch, tough breaks against him in the Notre Dame game with foul trouble.”

As a freshman, Wagner showed a great feel for the game around the basket, using his body and coordination to casually finish around the hoop and even putting the ball on the deck from time to time. He also struggled with foul trouble (7.3 fouls called per 40 minutes) and giving the ball away (20.5% turnover rate) throughout the year.

Those are both correctable problems. An extra month of strength training this summer has him up to 240 pounds (15 pounds up from his listed 225 as a freshman) and he added 6.5 inches to his vertical leap.

If there’s one player that could really elevate the ceiling of this team, I think it’s Wagner. He has playmaking ability at the five spot that is unmatched and could make an impressive sophomore leap. On the other hand, we’re talking about a big man that only reached double-figures in one game last season and still has a long way to grow.

Jon Teske – Freshman

One of Michigan’s two freshman bigs will play, the other is likely to redshirt. The argument for Teske to play is that his height and length could give Michigan a legitimate shot blocking threat around the basket.

Teske is listed at 7-feet, 245 pounds with a similar wingspan. Conventional wisdom would have been that the 7-footer needed a redshirt year due to his slender figure, but he’s actually listed at 245 pounds — making him the heaviest player on the roster.

From watching Teske on film, he’s a better athlete horizontally than vertically, but he can make up for some of that lack of explosion with his sheer length. Taking much from his high school film, like many 7-footers, can be tough because there’s a limited sample size of big men to defend him. Perhaps the weakest element of his game has been his aggression on the glass, where he needs to do a better job of high pointing the ball.

Austin Davis – Freshman

Dubbed ‘Big Country’ by teammates, coaches and fans, Davis is an old school big man who plays around the basket. He put up gaudy numbers at Onsted throughout his career, but rarely faced defenders of a similar size or a stature.

The biggest adjustment for Davis will be his ability to adjust to the speed of the game at the college level. He has the body to be physical down low, but can he stay in front of college players as a freshman? Can he keep up with the speed of the game in general?Those are questions for both freshmen big men, but they seem to pertain even more-so to Davis.

Minutes Breakdown

There are 40 minutes and one redshirt to split between this group of four big men, with DJ Wilson having the capability to slide over to the five spot as well.

I’d expect Mark Donnal to check in around 17-20 minutes per game, close to the same range that he played last year. I’d project Moritz Wagner, who averaged 8.6 minutes per game in 2015-16, to check in right around 20 as well. Wagner and Donnal should shoulder the majority of the load at the five position while Teske or Davis probably plays single-digit minutes as the emergency big man.

Bottom Line and Predictions

While their career numbers through two seasons probably aren’t much different — over the last two years, Donnal’s per-40 averages were 15 points and 8 rebounds. Morgan’s checked in at 13 points and 10 rebounds per 40 over his four year career — there was a level of consistency that Jordan Morgan displayed on a game-by-game basis on both ends of the floor that Mark Donnal just hasn’t been able to grasp.

That consistency is the key to his development, especially on the defensive end, and if he can’t grasp it then Moritz Wagner is waiting in the wings. Wagner would never be described as consistent, but his freshman year made it very clear that his ceiling far exceeds Donnal’s.

Both big men will play, but they also have a lot to prove if Michigan is going to improve from being one of the worst interior defensive teams in the country.

Three Predictions

  • Mark Donnal starts the season at the five, but Moritz Wagner is starting by the time Michigan hosts Virginia Tech for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
  • A Michigan five man reaches double figures in 17 games — up from 12 a season ago (9 Donnal, 2 Doyle, 1 Wagner) — and Wagner leads that group.
  • Austin Davis redshirts and Jon Teske serves as the third big man and leads the team in blocks per 40 minutes.
  • MrLG

    Teske and DJ together on the court would make for a blockfest and major rhythm disrupter. Not sure we will actually see much of that because they both bring lots of other liabilities. Would be cool though…

  • Lanknows

    Toughest position on the roster to predict. Donnal and Wagner could play anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes, the freshman 0 to 15.

    My opinion is that the frontcourt had far more to do with the struggles the last 2 years than anything with Levert, Irvin, or Walton. With McGary, Morgan, Horford, and Robinson all departing the same offseason, Donnal taking a while to develop, and the failures of the ’14 recruiting class, Michigan’s frontline was a flat-out disaster in ’14 and only showed occasional flashes in ’15.

    That’s behind us now. Michigan has 2 seniors at forward and a respectable mix of experience (Donnal), talent (Wagner) and size (Davis/Teske) at the 5. The floor is so much higher than it was. No more desperation.

    I think the improvement at C will be significant and it will make Walton and Irvin far more effective offensively. Defensive limitations will remain, but this is where experience and intelligence can make a big difference.

  • GTFOmycourt

    Dylan, As always, thanks for the nice writeup. Question: A few weeks ago in the “mail-bag” article you predicted Teske would redshirt. Do you have a reason for your changed opinion? Have you heard practice reports that praise Teske? Just wondering….

    • Nothing specific, figured someone was mentioning it. Just thinking about the position, what Michigan needs, and that it appears Teske has bulked up some. Don’t hold me to it, just my feeling right now.

  • Barth Applefeld

    You are right. Beilein didn’t rush to Donnal’s defense. It sounds like he hasn’t kept in shape over the summer–not a good sign. Wagner has to grow a lot basketball wise, but he has a lot of talent to start with. I think he will start before the Big Ten season and generally be up and down, but be a better center overall than we’ve seen in some time.

    • mikey_mac

      To me, it sounds like JB was hoping Donnal would have dedicated himself more to really pushing himself physically over the summer, to get in the proverbial “best shape of his life” in a clear effort to earn back the extra year, and it didn’t happen.

      • Barth Applefeld

        Yes, certainly possible. If so, then maybe Donnal is more ready to play than it sounds. I think we’ll have to wait to find out.

  • bebopson

    These numbers don’t add up:
    “Wagner scored 48 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in 8 neutral court games in the Battle 4 Atlantis, Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament. He also scored only 38 points and grabbed 29 rebounds in Michigan’s other 36 games.”

    • The game total is wrong (should be 26), but the totals add up to his season total of 86 points and 48 rebounds right? I’d have to game back through the game log to check if they are off.

      • bebopson

        Battle 4 Atlantis was 3 or 4 games I think. Production seems ok.

        • rlcBlue

          Dylan is saying 3 (Battle 4 Atlantis) + 3 (Big Ten Tournament) + 2 (NCAA Tournament) = 8 neutral court games.

          • That is what I was trying to say. Obviously wasn’t very clear :-)

  • David DeMember

    The thing about Mo is that he has a fire like we haven’t since since Zack. He looks much more solid this year physically, I think he’s going to surprise people and take over the starting job rather quickly.

  • rlcBlue

    The consensus seems to be that Teske has a higher upside than Davis. If he’s a four year player, then red-shirting him this year would get us four better years of his career. If Big #3 is really only a 5 minute per game player, how good do Teske’s 5 minutes need to be in order to justify burning his red-shirt?

    A recent example we have, of course, is Caris’s freshman year; he contributed just enough (in 9 minutes a game) for a team to make the Final Four. LeVert was supposedly the best perimeter defender on that team, so if Teske really is a defensive force in limited minutes (and the offense is clicking well) he may be the guy.

    On the other hand, if it’s strictly a developmental question, then it could also be Sanderson’s call. Both Teske and Davis have identifiable physical shortcomings – Teske’s strength and Davis’s quickness. If one of them would clearly benefit more than the other from spending a year focusing on that weakness, then the other one may get the maize and blue shirt.

    • Lanknows

      A 5-minute a game player can still make a big impact, as you said. Wagner’s another example having played 258 minutes over 36 Michigan games (or 7 mpg).

      An argument in favor of Teske is that his shot-blocking could bring a different look off the bench (compared to Wagner/Donnal) while Davis is likely more of the same unless he’s aggressively physical (somewhat rare for freshman). That said, strength can generally be developed more readily than quickness…

      I think you play the best guy and don’t worry about red-shirts. If the best guy in March is different than the best guy in November – play them both.

      Red-shirts are overrated. We’ve seen very direct examples of them not paying off in the last few years for a variety of reasons (Horford, Bielfeldt, Albrecht, perhaps Donnal next year, and Levert’s aborted RS wouldn’t have ended up benefiting Michigan either). Jordan Morgan is an outlier.

      To red-shirt a kid and have it payoff you have to have the rare perfect mix of roster depth and player willingness in year 1 plus player development and satisfaction with role over a 4-year span.

      • mikey_mac

        With transfers becoming more and more common, I tend to agree with you on the value of redshirts unless a player is just really not physically ready to play.

        • AA7596

          Yep–redshirts have become illusory. A redshirted player in all likelihood is a 3-year player.

  • Barth Applefeld

    We’re buying into the idea that the third big has to come from the freshmen. I’m not so sure that will be the case. DJ Wilson can play a few minutes at center since he’s bulked up. Obviously he has to play much better than he did last year, but he was essentially a freshmen last year. What we need is for one of those three to be able to play in the Big Ten effectively at center for 5-10 minutes a game. It would be great if one could play effectively on the wing too.

    • I take them at their word when they say that DJ is focused on becoming a wing. That position is more important overall to Michigan’s success this year IMO, considering the depth. Can DJ play the five in a pinch? Definitely, is it the plan right now? I don’t think so.

      • Barth Applefeld

        Thanks for sharing the insight! I don’t know what Beilein has planned for this year offensively or defensively in any detail other than Zak and Derrick will probably be the leaders on the team at both ends. If history is any guide, Beilein doesn’t play two bigs (admittedly he hasn’t had two bigs who were in the top 5 very often) at one time. When Beilein (if my failing memory serves me right) said that DJ has finally understood that he is a tall rebounder/defender/speedy guy who shoots occasionally rather than a shooter, I interpreted those words very broadly. If he is needed to play down low, he will. But I am sure you are right they are thinking Donnal and Wagner will be able to hold down the center spot between them. After that, can the two freshmen play defense? Not many can in the Big Ten. If they can’t, I don’t see them playing a lot.