Mailbag: Xavier Simpson, rotation grades & 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. 

Tom48160My go-to question these days (sorry for being so redundant) is “Why won’t X shoot”?

On a related note, is Michigan running it’s full offense yet with X in the game or are they running more basic sets or iso plays when Simpson’s on the court?

This is an interesting one because we just saw Xavier Simpson play one of his better games of the season against Central Arkansas. He finished with 7 points, 2 assists, 3 steals and 2 rebounds in that easy win in 18 minutes.

Simpson hasn’t shot much — he’s 1-of-5 on twos and 2-of-5 on threes — but he has handed out 12 assists in 105 minutes. One reason he doesn’t shoot as often is because there’s usually some other scorer on the floor with him whether it is Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin, Abdur-Rahkman or Moritz Wagner. Scoring is higher on all of their game plans than Simpson’s. Simpson’s primary responsibility is to run the team, play good defense and get the ball to those guys in the right spots.

The other element of the equation is that he’s a) really small and b) still learning the offense. The combination of those three things leads to a guy who hasn’t really gotten a lot of opportunity and is still thinking the game rather than playing it.

I wouldn’t say Michigan runs an entirely different offense when Simpson is on the floor, in actuality it’s probably the same offense but there are 5, 10, 20 or 50 different reads out of any given set that he might now know yet. There are probably another 50 that only John Beilein knows for any given set yet as well.

buckets12This kinda goes with @mgobluehoops23‘ question but I’d be curious to see a Rotation power rankings. Meaning of the 8 (or 9 counting Ibi) guys that play, who’s playing the best relative to expectations and whose minutes should be on the rise or downfall?

Let’s give this a shot as the relative to expectations element makes it especially interesting. I’m probably going to go with tiers just to make it a little easier to follow.

Exceeding expectations

  • DJ Wilson – This is easy. Wilson has defended and rebounded better than anyone could have expected and he’s given Michigan a true four man who can also hit the three (9-of-23). Maybe someone saw this coming, but I certainly hadn’t seen anything over the last two year’s to make me think this sort of a breakout performance was possible.
  • Moritz Wagner – He’s fouling less (7.3 fouls down to 3.9 fouls per 40), playing more minutes and he’s ridiculously efficient: 73% on twos and 54% on threes.
  • Zak Irvin – Irvin is generally polarizing topic, but he’s been more consistent this season. Yes, he was bad against South Carolina and Texas, but he’s shooting the three better (40.4%), his assist rate is up and he’s been Michigan’s go-to guy.

Meeting expectations

  • Derrick Walton -Walton’s numbers are basically right in line with his junior numbers. His assist rate, two-point and three-point percentages are all within a couple of percentage points and he’s using fewer possessions while still struggling to score inside the arc.
  • Mark Donnal – You could probably make the case that Donnal deserves an exceeds. He’s been good on the offensive glass, solid defensively and has a great chemistry with Zak Irvin in the pick-and-roll game. He’s even made 4-of-8 threes this season.

Below expectations

  • Duncan Robinson – I think Robinson is close to a ‘meets’ but the fact of the matter is that his three-point numbers are down a bit (although he’s bouncing back) and he took a bit to adjust to coming off the bench.
  • Xavier Simpson – I thought Michigan would be able to get a bit more out of X, but the adjustment to the college game has been taking some time. Playing point guard as a freshman is difficult (one reason that everyone was so high on Derrick Walton three years ago), but he still has a ways to go.
  • Muhammad-Ali Abdur-RahkmanAbdur-Rahkman’s numbers look a bit better after hitting 4-of-8 threes vs. UCA, but Michigan needs more out of the 6-foot-3 guard. He hasn’t shown improved ability as a distributor and he’s been battling confidence issues as he attacks the rim. He’s taken more threes than twos this year after taking twice as many twos as threes last year.

at this current state early in the season…..with both MSU and UM….do we have a change to beat state….

Yes. Both fan bases probably could go on for an hour about the current problems with their own teams, but I don’t see why Michigan can’t beat Michigan State this year. I would buy, and probably make, an argument that the Spartans have the higher ceiling because Miles Bridges is one of the only surefire pros in the mix, but the Spartans might also have more to figure out in the present.

why do no fans show up to crisler? Would they ever lower ticket prices for people to show up?

Brendan Quinn wrote a nice piece on Michigan’s declining attendance over at MLive and I think the problem is pretty easy to explain.

At its core, Michigan is a football school. That’s never going to change. Michigan was good to great from 2011 through 2014 and season and student ticket sales went through the roof. It sounds crazy to say that student tickets have dropped from 3,193 to 1,743 over two years, but to me — as someone who went to basically every Michigan basketball game throughout the aughts — it is almost crazier that Michigan sold 3,000 student tickets at all.

So now we’re left in a situation where the Wolverines underachieved for two years in a row — and the football program has undergone a Harbaugh revival — and ticket sales have understandably tanked.

There are other issues at play such as late weeknight games, guarantee games and everything else, but those are a fact of college basketball basically anywhere and are just part of the game.

FL_Wolve What are your thoughts on why the sum of the parts this year appears to be less then the total sum? What I mean by this is that we have two top 50 kids in Walton and Irvin who have played decent throughout their careers. We have two top 100 kids in Wagner and Wilson who are finally playing up to their rankings. And then we have MAAR who was not highly sought after out of high school but who has played fairly well over the past two years. Add in an average center in Donnal who played significant minutes last season and I would have expected a bit more success this season. Why is there so little chemistry with this team?

I’m sure it’s fair to say that Michigan is somehow less than the sum of its parts. It’s not like this is a roster loaded with pros and is underachieving. This is a team that has good players and some experience and looks like it will enter Big Ten play at 10-3 despite playing six high-majors. If Michigan hadn’t blown that game against Virginia Tech I think this would have been a very good non-conference, as it stands it is passable.

That being said, there are obviously some problems with this team. Finishing games and halves has been a problem since last year (Notre Dame in Brooklyn) and we’ve already seen that this year against the Hokies. Either way, we’ll learn much more about this team in Big Ten play.

For Michigan to be successful in B1G play, who will need to step up their game more? Walton/Irvin/MAAR?

When Zak Irvin plays well, Michigan usually wins. He’s probably going to have the ball in his hands the most often and if I had to pick one player to be on his game every night, I think it would be Irvin.

BleedBlueEarly B1G wins prediction? What improvements/failures are most likely to move the needle? Just how big and bad is our schedule?

KenPom says 10-8, but gives Michigan a 50% chance or better of winning 12 different games. I think that range seems reasonable overall.

Michigan’s schedule is odd because it starts rather manageable — at Iowa, Penn State, Maryland, at Illinois, Nebraska — but then gets difficult in a hurry.

From there, Michigan plays at Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, at Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan State, at Indiana, Wisconsin — that’s a pretty incredible 8 game gauntlet. Although it seems like Michigan plays one of those every February.

As a reward, Michigan gets to close the season with four of five games on the road — at Minnesota, at Rutgers, Purdue, at Northwestern and at Nebraska.

A hot start will be important because there aren’t many (or any) easy stretches from there on out.

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  • bobohle

    I think what would help Donnal’s rating would be if he made most of his shots within 4ft of the basket. Also IMO if X could get 18 minutes like last game each game would help him a great deal. He rarely gets in long enough to get into the flow of the game. I really wish Teske could get more minutes but they can’t come from Wagner. With Wagner’s foul rate coming down I could see him getting up to 30 minutes in some games.

    • A2MIKE

      The rotation is one of my main concerns. I feel like we need to just live with the results of playing Xavier 10-15 minutes a game.

      Starters: Walton, MAAR, Irvin, Wilson and Wagner.

      Sub at 16 minute mark, Robinson for Irvin and Donnal for Wagner.

      Sub at 12 minute mark, Irvin for Wilson (slide Robinson to the 4), X for MAAR (slide Walton to the 2), and Wagner for Donnal.

      Sub at the 8 minute mark, MAAR for Walton, Wilson for Robinson.

      Sub at the 4 minute mark, Walton for X.

      Sub at foul trouble ONLY: Teske for Wagner and Robinson for Wilson, Irvin or MAAR and X for Walton.

      That keeps the starters around 32 minutes and gets X a good 6-8 minute stretch per half. It gets Robinson in early to feel whether he is hot and warrants more minutes.

    • Chezaroo

      It will be very difficult for X to get any meaningful minutes come B1G time barring major injuries.

      It was nice to see him get some extended PT, but that team was terrible.

      The jury is still out on what he will be able to do against real comp.

  • Amaizeman

    Re: why do no fans show up to crisler?

    Given Michigan’s reputation and resources I don’t see why it can’t consistently be an elite football and basketball school. During my time as a student, I probably had more memorable and engaging experiences in the Maize Rage compared to my experiences in the student section at the big house. Of course this was during the Brady Hoke era in football and the Trey Burke era of basketball. This does not discount the big house experience, it is meant to showcase the Crisler center we used to know, and the potential for now and the future.

    We all ( students, alumni, players, fans, athletic department, staff at Crisler, etc.) should play a role to revitalize the home court.

    – I hope to see more energy and enthusiasm out of the maize rage during big ten play.
    – I pledge, as an alumni, to attend more games this year than last year, and broadcast my fanism of the U of M basketball team to my local friends and family.
    – I encourage the players to play with energy, engage with the crowd, and throw up more “three googles” — see Nik Stauskus circa 2103
    – Fans should be loud and proud. Make an effort to attend and watch the basketball games. Talk about the basketball team, in addition to the football team. Follow the players and basketball staff on twitter, etc.
    – The athletic department and staff at Crisler should improve on advertising and talking up the basketball team. The department should focus an effort on getting people out to the games, and making the experience at the Crisler center as best as it can be.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    completely agreee with X analysis, we expected much more at this point…Walton had a very successful freshmen year maybe cause he had better talent around him…Levert, Robinson, Stauskas, Morgan really helped and made for an easier transition but i also think Walton was a better player than X at this point in their freshmen careers….Was really hoping Walton would exceed expectations this year…but he is doing the same thing like his junior year….i much prefer Walton being our go-to guy lol Irvin is too streaky…hoping Rahkman picks it up for BigTen play

  • Mattski

    I find it hard to believe that there aren’t thousands of lower-paid UM employees and A2 citizens that wouldn’t be there in a heartbeat, providing decent crowds for every game, if really cheap tickets weren’t available. That would involve giving big discounts on season tix to employees and faculty, and sending out work of discounted tix by email in the couple of days running up to a game. Seems to me that the loss in revenue on the front end (with expensive seats) would be sufficiently cut into that the benefits in crowd noise, TV spectacle, etc. would be completely worth it.

    At what point in games can fans move down from above?

    • Lanknows

      Cheap tickets are pretty available. I went to one of the cupcake games recently and the ushers let the upperbowl move down to the lower at the half. This is something that didn’t happen in years past.

      • Mattski

        It’s possible that I’m wrong, but my wife is a Prof at FSU, and we have heard some of the secretaries in her dept. office complain that they don’t make tix available like they could. Could be a way to build employee loyalty, but I’m sure they have considered most of the angles.

  • Lanknows

    Wilson’s the only player that exceeded expectations IMO. He’s done so BIG time. Disappointing to me are: Walton, Simpson, and Watson.

    Rahkman and Robinson are who they are. Expecting players at this age to make a dramatic leaps in skills is unrealistic. Robinson is just a shooter and Rahkman is a one-dimensional scorer. They are both very very good at what they are good at, but not well-rounded players. Like Levert, Rahk’s defense has never been as good as people want it to be. He’s never created shots for others and his 3 point shooting in late 2015 seemed anomalous.

    It’s Irvin and Walton who should be taking significant strides forward as the focal points of the team and as senior leaders. Irvin has done so, as expected. Walton, not so.

    Walton appears to be the exact same player – dominant one game, disappears the next. I expected him to run the offense far more efficiently as a senior but his turnovers are the same and his assists have dipped a bit. 3s attempted are up (which is good for him) but 2% is down even worse than last year. With Wilson, Wagner, and Irvin all stepping up, Walton finally has high quality offensive players all around him and there’s no excuse for him treading water. I count him as a disappointment for failing to step up his efficiency. (Though in fairness his true shooting % is up a bit and his ORTG is too – but it should be so in the non-conference schedule.)

    It does have to be mentioned that it’s still early in the year. Some of this could just be due to one off game, bad luck, a sickness, etc.

    Which brings me to my other disappointments: Simpson and Watson. Simpson was always going to take some time but after the talk of moving Walton off the ball (including by Beilein) he simply hasn’t made enough impact. Watson just needs to hit open shots and hasn’t been able to do so. Beilein’s track record with freshman wings is stellar but Watson hasn’t shown us much yet. He does look the part though, as he seems to move well and take shots confidently. They just need to fall. For both there is time. Patience with freshman is always warranted.

    Michigan will be a MUCH better team if Simpson and Watson are coming off the bench and making a positive impact, instead of just filling out minutes.

  • Lanknows

    I moved from AA years ago but the football school argument is thin in my view. The fanbase isn’t as resilient as football and it’s not as ingrained in the culture of AA, but when winners have been here there has been excellent fan support. (Fab 5 era into a lot of Ellerbe era and of course the Burke/Stauskas teams. Even Amakar got decent support despite mediocre-at-best teams).

    The current malaise is something of a surprise. IMO, It’s a function of not meeting heightened expectations. The last 2 years have been disappointing to many and that negativity has really spread in the fanbase very quickly. Recruiting is probably part of it as people like to see exciting freshman and there hasn’t been too much to get excited about these last 3 classes.

    I think that people are overly critical of Walton and Irvin and as they are the stars of the teams there is some hostility there. Still, it’s a good team that plays an exciting style. Wilson and Wagner are fun. Win a few tough big ten games and fans will show up.

    • “Win a few tough big ten games and fans will show up.”

      This is 100% true. By the ‘football school’ thing I more meant what you say: When the team is good, fans show up. When the team is okay, they don’t.

      • Lanknows

        In fairness, that goes for football too. Ticket sales plummeted when fans lost their enthusiasm in Hoke’s final season. Football has just had fewer seasons outside the top 25.

        I believe fans can handle losing if they have a reason for hope and feel optimistic. (see the early Rodriguez, Amaker, and Beilein eras). Maintaining an elite standing is a lot tougher than rising up. Hoke could never match 2011 and Beilein has experienced a big dropoff from a few seasons ago.

        The big difference (IMO) is that Beilein has had extraordinarily bad luck with attrition the last two years… But this season is kind of on him if the team fails to have a good year.

        Go Blue!

  • AA7596

    The attendance thing is indeed a sport-wide problem. The thing is, it doesn’t appear that Michigan (or hardly anyone) cares about November/December attendance.

    Texas was our highest-profile home game this nonconference season. It’s hard to believe U-M actually thinks Texas—a school with little hoops history and no rivalry with us—will fill the building. The purpose of that game was to build an NCAA resume. The purpose of all the nonconference games was either for the resume or to get a glorified practice. Other teams play even worse home slates. Here’s MSU’s: Mississippi Valley, FGCU, Oral Roberts, Youngstown State and Tennessee Tech.

    When attendance isn’t even a consideration in your scheduling, weak attendance is a logical outcome. I think part of the reason for this is that basketball attendance isn’t all that vital financially. In football, Michigan can’t live with a half-empty building for any game—it needs the money for its entire athletic department. But basketball profit is a fraction of that.

    Like all teams, Michigan is motivated to have a good student section since it improves the atmosphere and helps the team. But beyond that, they’re not trying all that hard to fill the building. If they were, you’d see different scheduling.

  • Chris De Sana

    Not sure how Walton can not be seen as falling short of expectations. He was on the Cousy award watch list as a Soph.