Five big questions facing Michigan basketball in 2016-17

Dylan Burkhardt

Michigan will play its first public exhibition on Friday evening and the regular season is around the corner. Here’s a look at some of the biggest questions that could have significant impact on the 2016-17 season.

How well does Zak Irvin shoot from long distance?

Two of our favorite college hoops writers, Luke Winn and Dan Hanner, published a Big Ten preview with Michigan finishing fourth in the league. The crux of their argument?

Our projections expect Zak Irvin to positively regress to the mean; he was sidelined for multiple months with a back injury in the summer and fall of 2015, and it dragged down his junior-year efficiency.

Irvin is a career 35.5% three-point shooter, but it has always felt like he’s far worse or far better than that number. As a freshman, he made 42.5% of his threes off the bench, then saw those numbers creep down as a sophomore on an injury-ridden roster. For every 3-of-7 or 4-of-6, it seemed like there was a 1-of-6 or 2-of-9 performance waiting in the wings.

As a junior, he entered the season hurt and struggled out of the gate. Irvin made just 16-of-76 threes in non-conference play, but did hit 37.6% of his triples in Big Ten games. He checked in at just 30% for the season, but it seems reasonable that he could hit 37, 38 percent in his senior year.

If he can do that, Michigan’s offense will be in a great spot in 2016-17 and the proof is in the pudding. When Irvin plays well, Michigan usually wins. When he struggles, the Wolverines lose.

Can Michigan get quality wing minutes off the bench?

Most are confident that Xavier Simpson should provide an immediate upgrade of quality depth for Michigan at the one and two positions, but the three and four aren’t so certain.

Zak Irvin is a known commodity, although he probably has the ability to slide to the two, as is Duncan Robinson. What Michigan is going to get out of DJ Wilson and Ibi Watson is anyone’s guess.

It’s as easy to list the reasons why Wilson should be able to help this Michigan team at the four — length, athleticism, a seemingly capable jump shot — as it is to point out just how little he’s contributed since he arrived in Ann Arbor. He’s drawn positive offseason reviews from John Beilein once again this fall, but we heard similar things last year

Watson showed a bit of what fans can expect from him in Michigan’s open practice last week. He’s a shooter first and foremost, but should have the athleticism to compete on both ends. There’s always a role for a shooter off the bench in John Beilein’s offense, so I’d expect Watson to get a chance.

But at the end of the day, can either of them give Michigan quality minutes? The baseline is replacing Aubrey Dawkins and Kam Chatman, but that’s a fairly low standard. Both players had their moments, and Dawkins was an elite shooter to his credit, but neither was a complete player that Michigan could count on.

How much will Michigan’s defense improve under Billy Donlon?

Michigan’s defense checked in at 95th nationally last season per KenPom, and surrendered 1.08 points per possession in Big Ten play. The 99.4 (schedule adjusted) points that Michigan allowed per 100 possessions were the worst of the Beilein era.

You can’t win many more games than Michigan did last year playing that sort of defense. Enter: Billy Donlon.

There’s no sugarcoating why John Beilein hired a Donlon fresh off of a six-year stint as head coach at Wright State. He was serious about improving the defense and knew that he had to do something. Since the preseason started we’ve heard terms like ‘defensive coordinator’ and ‘500 percent more time on defense’ thrown around. We’ve heard that Beilein has let Donlon speak in practice more than any of his former assistants, even running a practice.

But now the question is what is all of the emphasis going to bring? Personnel wise, the Wolverines still don’t have a roster that has the makings of a shut down defense. There are defensive liabilities on the wings and in the interior, along with a few potential plus-defenders in the backcourt.

KenPom’s projections have Michigan’s defense making a leap to 51st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, a leap that would make this team one of the best defensive teams under Beilein. I don’t think that sort of leap is likely, but even modest improvement could help the 2016-17 Wolverines take a forward step.

Will Derrick Walton improve his finishing around the basket?

Walton’s inability to finish around the basket has been a common discussion point over the last two years. The 6-foot-1 senior shot 45% on twos as a freshman, 32% on twos as a sophomore and 36% on twos as a junior. He also saw his free throw rate (FTA/FGA) decrease from 45 to 36% last season.


It’s hard to define exactly why Walton struggles to score inside the arc. He’s a good jumpshooter from long distance, but struggles in the mid-rang. He’s a great athlete that can sky for rebounds, but can’t hit shots in the paint around the same big men that he can out rebound. Is it a mental issue or some remnant from Walton’s foot injuries?

It’s tough to say, but Walton could be one of the conference’s best guards if he can figure out a fix.

Can Moritz Wagner stay out of foul trouble — and on the floor?

If you are looking for something to hang your hat on as to why this Michigan team will be better than last year’s Michigan team, look no further than Moritz Wagner.

Wagner showed flashes of potential as a freshman, but always seemed to get in the way of himself. He struggled to stay out of foul trouble — whistled for 7.3 fouls per 40 minutes — and eventually fell out of the rotation due to his inconsistent decision making on both ends of the floor.

But anyone that watched Michigan when Wagner was playing, and playing well, can understand the lift that he could provide this roster. Whether it’s his energy, feel around the basket and even occasional outside jumper, Wagner has a skillset that is perfect for the Michigan offense. The key for Wagner is to figure out a way to pull all of those skills together on a nightly basis and become an impact player.

  • mikey_mac

    Great article, Dylan.
    It says something that MAAR gets not a single mention in this piece.
    My sixth question is, will Robinson earn, especially defensively, the starter-level minutes he’s set to receive?

    • GTFOmycourt

      I am not sure what you were hinting at regarding MAAR not being mentioned. For me, not mentioning him is due to the fact that he has been consistent and consistently improving. The big question mark’s in this piece seem to be addressing serious deficiencies and/or major unknowns.

      Also, I agree that I am not entirely sure how Robinson’s role will evolve this year with the arrival of IBI and the potential rise of DJ. Even adding X to the mix could, for periods, shift Walton and MAAR/Irvin over to the 2 and 3 respectively.

      • mikey_mac

        I was remarking on the fact that MAAR, not Walton, is the taken-for-granted given on this team.

        • GTFOmycourt

          Ahh. Yes. I am also curious to see how Walton will be used. After seeing

          • Champswest

            On the other hand, if Simpson gets a lot of play at the point and Walton sees significant play at the 2 (as Beilein has hinted), then MAAR could end up getting less minutes than any other returning starter.

          • GTFOmycourt

            Good point. It will probably come down to how the guard combinations compliment one another. It will be interesting to see the combinations that work best….The thing is, although I probably come across as hard on Walton, I also see his value if he is used in the right way.

          • Lanknows

            Walton’s ability to play off the ball makes him the constant, even if you assume he isn’t a better overall player than Simpson or Rahkman. Neither of those 2 has proven they are assets without the ball in their hands.

            Simpson is supposed to be offer some defensive presence but we heard that about Rahkman too and it never came to fruition.

          • GTFOmycourt

            Good point. It is not just that Walton is good at catch and shoot, which he is, but he is likely to be significantly better (at shooting 3’s) than X and MAAR this year.

          • Mattski

            Yes. X is going to be a significant and very helpful piece of the puzzle whether he becomes a star this season or not. Personally, I am excited to hear that Ibi is showing out. And I am extremely excited to hear that Wagner played well, because I have not been as convinced as some that he was going to emerge into a consistent high-level performer immediately this season. I predicted that Teske might beat out Davis in the forum some time back, and believe that having a shot blocker–combined with better all-around D–can really put us over the hump in some of our games. We know that a Beilein team is likely to shoot well. . .

          • Lanknows

            Agree with you.

            My unsubstantiated opinions/hypotheses is that relative to consensus expectations, Simpson, Davis, Rahkman, Wilson and Robinson are a bit overrated. Watson, Walton, Irvin and Donnal will be better than many think. Wagner is tougher to peg expectations on – I think some see an all-conference player while others expect more moderate improvement. I would guess something in between (where Wagner is indeed very good offensively but the defensive limitations and fouls continue to limit his playing time and productivity).

            More guesses:

            -Simpson should be an excellent bench player but his size will limit him against better competition and he won’t be effective enough as a freshman to push Walton to the 2 and MAAR to the bench much more than is needed to manage starters minutes (so ~15-20 mpg combined)

            -Watson may play more minutes than Simpson simply because M has so few options on the wing and may look like the better player initially.

            -Irvin and Walton are stars. That they haven’t put up the efficiency numbers of stars past is as much on the quality of their teammates as their own limitations, IMO. Irvin gets drafted. Walton earns an NBA camp invite. Both are named all-conference 1st or 2nd team.

            -Robinson needs to defend 4s to be an effective all around player. If he can’t do that, he might lose minutes to Wilson. Michigan can’t ask Irvin to shoulder last season’s workload again.

            -Donnal’s going to be more consistent and a reliable contributor.

            -Teske over Davis. Teske’s skininess was always overstated and you can’t teach 7′. Davis just has so far to go from his level of competition. Teske will make an impact in flashes in a few games against bigger Cs. I love his fit long-term and see a versatile length vs strength dynamic in the future with the Teske/Davis rotation.

            -MAAR’s 3% will regress but his assist rate will balloon and we’ll all be talking about his potential for excellence heading into his senior year.

            -No idea what happens with Wilson but I don’t see much reason to be optimistic. Felt same way last year about Donnal though…

          • Lanknows

            Maybe Simpson will be better (since we haven’t seen him yet it could be, but typically there is practice hype if such a thing is about to occur).

            Rahkman almost certainly is not. By almost any measure he wasn’t as good as Walton last year nor the year before that. If you want to argue improvement, Rahkman’s older than Walton and has had no injuries to hold him back. Walton’s the better player in nearly every facet of the game (rim efficiency being perhaps the lone exception).

            I’m not sure what Walton has done to earn the fan negativity other than
            play on 2 injury-riddled teams that weren’t as successful as the 2
            previous ones. He’s an excellent player and arguably the best PG in the Big Ten.

          • GTFOmycourt

            If MAAR and Walton can fix their weaknesses then I think they both have a chance to be great players.

    • The MAAR talk is interesting. He’s really the forgotten guy even though Michigan was running a lot of offense through him late last season.

      I would call him more of an X-factor than a question mark, but I’m curious to see how he is used in the rotation. His question though would be whether he can distribute?

      I know we don’t really see first and second units, but I wonder if you construct groups that kind of complement each other in terms of skillset.

    • Nicholas Tloczynski

      Michigan fans continue to overlook MAAR. I have two State friends who consider MAAR to be Michigan’s best player and I don’t disagree.

      • keithmoon22

        Cassius is a nice player. his talents do not always jump out at you. His shot is often streaky. What I do like is his heart! C. Clay plays harder (tougher) on defense than anyone other than Walton Jr.

        Let’s face it, for a few wonderful seasons, we as fans, were spoiled, b/c had back to back Conf. POY. When we needed a bucket, we KNEW we had someone to get it done. Too bad, Trey & those days are long gone & this team has no such player. Now it’s score by committee and feed the hot hand.

        They will have to win a lot UGLIER this year. That will not occur, If this year is another Michigan squad that is SOOOO SOFT in the paint…on both ends! We never dunk on anyone & we get dunked on more than ANYONE around. One of my favorite players of the Belien era was STONE HANDS…Jordan Morgan. He was tough & could really defend. That is what we need…..guys who can protect the rim & go hard to the rack!

        The Big Ten needs more than pretty 3 pointers to win. There are always a few games you have to grind out physical games & that HAS NEVER BEEN U of M’s game with Belien running the show. I miss the days of Hughes, Mills & Vaught (even Glen) waiting for you if you decided to take it all the way. Who will be this years tough down down low? (if anyone?) If someone can fill that role, this team can have a nice year.

    • Lanknows

      MAAR carried the offense at times and his performance against State was memorable but Michigan has just a 500 record in games where he score 15 points or more. His individual stats show a reasonably efficient scorer, and you can see that he creates a lot of that for himself, but his distribution is severely lacking. I wonder how well the offense performs with MAAR initiating the offense compared to Walton, Irvin, Stauskas, Burke, Morris, Harris, etc. I would suspect the overall story isn’t as pretty as the individual stats.

      Does he make the team better? His advanced stats were not favorable. In 2014-15 (9th on the team in OWS, WS, WS/40, OBPM, BPM). While they were mostly better in 2015-16 (5th on the team in OWS, 3rd in WS, 11th in WS/40, 7th in OBPM, 7th in BPM) there’s not much evidence that he’s a potential all-conference player waiting to burst through.

      His improvement last season was encouraging but I remain doubtful that the optimal role for MAAR is anything more than a rotation combo-guard. He needs the ball in his hands to be at his best and I think Michigan has better options in Walton, Irvin, and possibly Simpson.

      All that said, you can pick at Walton and Irvin’s stats and make similar arguments against them. I just don’t think you can run the Michigan offense through a guy whose assist percentage hovers around 10 or 11%

  • Lanknows

    Good stuff as always Dylan.

    So, if these are the 5 questions about this team my expectations are:

    YES, Irvin will shoot much better from 3, likely >37%.
    YES, Michigan will get quality bench minutes on the wing from Watson.
    YES, Walton will finish better at the rim (or stop trying as often).
    YES, the defense will be better (though it will likely still be kind of bad).YES, Wagner will play a lot more minutes (though fouls will remain an issue).

    The consensus of mediocre expectations and fanbase ennui for this team have made me feel like an irrational optimist, but I think it’s entirely rational.

    -Expecting Irvin to hit 37% or better from 3 is backed by evidence. The only argument otherwise requires ignore the impacts of injuries. Irvin’s not going to get the wide open looks like he did as a freshman, but his performance in the Big Ten is instructive. He’s a career 37.4% shooter in Big Ten play and last year he was at 37.5%. If some of his workload is shouldered by Simpson (on O) or Wilson (on D) and/or a little good luck he could be back at 40%.

    -Ibi Watson WILL get wide open looks and is very likely to be successful with those looks. Even if you assume the worst reasonable case scenario for the collective offensive talent M has (Simpson, Walton, Irvin, Robinson and Wagner) you still end up with wide-open looks for the backup wing in Beilein’s offense. Watson’s stepping into the role that Hardaway, Levert, Stauskas, Irvin, Dawkins, and Robinson (at least in the preseason) have all thrived in. Nobody can say if he’ll hit the open shots, but Beilein’s track record with first-year wings is so spectacular that to assume Watson won’t be effective flys in the face of all available evidence.

    -Walton finishing around the basket is indeed an uncertainty. I believe Walton knows this, Beilein knows this, and they have a strategy to fix it. Seniors have a tendency to play within themselves and improve upon weaknesses or otherwise minimize them by better fitting around their teammates. So – it’s reasonable that either Walton’s going to fix it or take fewer attempts at the rim. The anecdotal evidence here are the senior seasons of Stu Douglass and Zack Novak which saw their offensive efficiency make a major leap. While some of that can be chalked up to a certain freshman point guard that exceeded all reasonable expectations, Michigan will have a significant addition at PG this season too. The bonus point here is that Walton seems to finally be fully healthy, which could help his finishing as well.

    -Wagner’s play is the true wildcard that will likely decide if this team is a Big Ten champion or just a fringe contender. There are obviously many reasons for optimism that I don’t have to expand on. Wagner has a long way to go from last year though, as his statistical production was weak overall and fanbase perception is being driven in part by the relative incompetance from the center position over the last 2 seasons. What is clear is that we can expect better play from the Wagner(SO)/Donnal(SR)/FR rotation than we had from the Donnal(JR)/Doyle (SO)/Wagner(FR) rotation. It’s a matter of how much they’ll improve, not if.

    -Similar story on D. Donlan has the track record, the team is clearly making it a point of emphasis, and the losses from last years rotation were not great defenders. Its how much, not if.

  • Barth Applefeld

    If all of these are yes–and they could be–UM could make to the sweet 16 or better. The biggest question mark is how much will the defense improve? Some, but a big jump? I’m hoping so. MAAR’s absence is just because there are so many questions above him. He’s a player. If he can hit the 3 and distribute better, he could be another Beiein find in the rough that makes it to the NBA.

    • keithmoon22

      sweet 16 or better??? i sure did not not expect anything close to that this season….hope your are correct! too soft & not enough muscle or rim protectors down low in the paint.

      • Barth Applefeld

        I’m always an optimist where Michigan and young players are involved, but this team has a different mixture of skills than last year and most of Beilein’s teams. It also has a new defensive coordinator. Wilson and Wagner have length and athleticism. Harnessing that is a work in progress (aren’t we all?) as is developing a team defense (toughness) is also, but Beilein’s teams often seem to improve/overperform as the season wears on. Cross my fingers.

  • Wayman Britt

    To me the most important question is number 3 (how much will the Defense improve). I am not worried about Zak finding his shot or DW making more twos. The offense will be fine. The big question is will the defense be better and will the team be tougher. I am not worried about how many threes Duncan makes or driving layups Wagner makes, will they and the rest of the team be able to stop their man?

  • bobohle

    Nice insight. I agree with Wayman about the amount of defensive improvement is crucial. IMO the X man will have a great career at Michigan and Ibi will be much better than recruiting analysts had him ranked. I predict both will have their share of minutes.