Mailbag: Looking ahead to next season

Dylan Burkhardt
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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. 

I get having more talented players is better than not, but does this roster even need Bamba if Wagner/Wilson come back?

In one word: yes. Bamba is an insane talent that makes an instant impact wherever he ends up. He’s 7-foot tall with a 7-foot-8 wingspan and completely changes his team’s defense for the presumed one year that he spends in college. Moritz Wagner and DJ Wilson are great pieces, but Bamba is, simply put, a game changer.

Rim protection has been arguably the biggest problem with Michigan’s defense since John Beilein arrived. It’s also a problem that has been magnified by recent NCAA rule changes. Bamba is about as close to a sure thing as you can get in terms of instant impact rim protection and he’s capable of anchoring any defense and elevating it to elite status.

Just read this one more time: he has a 7-foot-8 wingspan. Put him near the basket and your 2-point shooting defense rises to the top-10 in the country.

what’s the pick-n-roll going to look like next year? lots of Matthews with the ball and possibly even a Wilson/Wagner combo?

Michigan loses 80% of its ball screen production with the graduation of Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin. That’s not really a secret, but it is something that feels even more unsettling after its written out on paper.

There are a bunch of possible solutions, but they are more along the lines of spitballing possibilities than concrete well-reasoned theories backed by logic. At the end of the day, there are too many guys on this roster that we haven’t seen or have barely seen, or that haven’t played that role.

This might be a somewhat hot take, but I’m more in on Xavier Simpson as ball screen player than Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. Simpson’s efficiency numbers were better in (very limited) ball screen exposure and he made some really nice passes. On the flip side, Abdur-Rahkman just hasn’t emerged as a passer.

It sounds crazy to say after watching Derrick Walton go super-human over the last month as a senior, but at some point you are what you are. Abdur-Rahkman’s stats have improved incrementally, but his assist numbers have been flat and he was below average in ball screen efficiency this season.

I’m sure this is a topic that we’ll delve into further over the offseason, but it’s going to be hard to draw many conclusions given that the other options — Charles Matthews, Eli Brooks, Jordan Poole, Ibi Watson and DJ Wilson — have combined to execute about ten pick-and-rolls in the college game.

without a guard at least as good as Derrick/Nik/Trey can UM make the tourney without sweating?

I have a really hard time worrying about a team’s offense under John Beilein, but next year’s group might push the limit of that equation. This year’s team also proved just how fine the line is between making the NCAA Tournament with a sweat and without.

Michigan has had teams with non-scoring point guards that found success — namely the 2009 team that broke the NCAA Tournament drought — so it is possibly, but that team also had Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims.

It’s not going to look anything like the last few years where you knew what you were getting from Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton on any given night, but there are still guys on the roster that can put the ball in the basket. I think there are at least enough cards in Beilein’s hand to make something work offensively, even without a dominant pick-and-roll scorer.

How much will Austin Davis and Jon Teske be involved next year?

There are obviously some moving parts with Moritz Wagner, DJ Wilson and Mo Bamba all having decisions to make, but let’s pretend that Wagner and Wilson come back and Bamba heads elsewhere.

In that case, you have the backup minutes at the five available (Mark Donnal played 12.2 minutes per game this year) for the two young bigs to fight over. John Beilein spent a lot of time hyping up Davis this season despite his redshirt, but it’s hard to imagine that either of them would demand more time than what would be available behind Wagner.

I think a situational platoon where you have Austin Davis for muscle and Jon Teske for potential shot blocking would be a solid solution to fill the 2nd and 3rd big man roles on the team. If both Wagner and Wilson come back, you also have the small-ball option that we saw quite a bit of with Wilson at the five.

What are the odds that Billy Donlon gets a head coaching offer, and if he leaves, does our defensive resurgence suffer?

Brendan Quinn had a well reported update on Donlon on Monday that was worth a read. In short, Donlon hasn’t interviewed for any jobs and doesn’t appear to be in the mix for anything currently.

Donlon was expected to garner attention on the coaching carousel. Things haven’t quite played out that way and Donlon, as of now, is expected to be back at Michigan next year.

A source informed me that Donlon has not formally interviewed for any head-coaching opening. Nor has he had contact with UNC-Wilmington, his alma mater, and a job many underlined for Donlon when former head coach Kevin Keatts left for N.C. State.

Per that source, Donlon is not in any current talks for any head-coaching positions.

That being said, job situations can change quickly. There are other jobs open in Ohio, where Donlon coached last at Wright State, including Akron and Dayton and as those jobs fill others will open. The coaching carousel never stops turning and Donlon only helped his resume this year in Ann Arbor.

Michigan’s defense started to figure things out late in the season defensively, but there were also some ugly defensive moments mid-way through the year.

Michigan had an impressive in-season defensive turnaround, but there’s still a ways to go on that side of the ball. This team finished 11th in the Big Ten in points per possession allowed and 71st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Donlon had a major impact on that turnaround and deserves all of the credit that he received. If he sticks around, I’m excited to see what he can do with next year’s roster which has some of the best defensive tools that I can remember on a Beilein roster.

Zak Irvin developed quite a bit as a defender, but having Charles Matthews and Xavier Simpson as core rotation players should be a huge boost defensively.

how do you think Eli Brooks and Jordan Poole will fit into the system next year?

If you could only have one basketball skill and wanted to fit into a John Beilein team as quickly as possible, you would probably want to choose shooting. There are plenty of questions about Jordan Poole and Eli Brooks, but we know that both can shoot the ball.

Poole, a 6-foot-4 wing, shot 42% from three-point range as a senior at La Lumiere and was a volume shooter (over 60 made threes). He still needs to get stronger and quicker, but with his length and shooting ability I think he plays a key role as a shooting wing off the bench.

Brooks is a more interesting case because of the uncertainty at the point guard position. The fact that Brooks didn’t play Nike EYBL ball and played at a small high school in rural Pennsylvania is a red flag and a legitimate concern. On the other hand, he had major-conference offers including one from Villanova and, by all accounts, can really play. If he can come in and play as a scoring point guard off the bench, that could go a long way toward alleviating some of Michigan’s perimeter concerns.

UMHoopsFan: In a weird way, looking back, didn’t the end results of this season actually play out quite close to reasonable expectations? A very good to elite offense with a pretty good to so-so defense (the efficiency numbers are quite close to ’13-’14) is pretty much what we’ve had with Beilein the past several years outside the one (and arguably two) decimated by NBA departures and injuries. We were No. 16 in preseason BPI. Obviously there was a big in-season dip toward the end of the nonconference/beginning of Big Ten play. But if you had told me at the beginning of the year that we’d end up with 14 wins between the conference season and conference tournament, an offense that finished top 5 and defense that finished top 75 in kenpom, a 10-3 nonconference record and that we’d go out in the Sweet 16, I think I would’ve said that sounds about right, or at least totally reasonable. Obviously we had some pretty big highs and lows along the way…

Welcome to college basketball, where we live on the highs and lows of every game and then judge success or failure based on a single-elimination tournament.

I would say that, in the end, Michigan ended up right around expectations. This graph of Michigan’s KenPom ranking does a good job of illustrating that fact:

Before the year, I thought this was a group capable of making the NCAA Tournament second weekend, but I didn’t necessarily think they could compete for a Big Ten Championship or make a Final Four.

Those expectations skyrocketed a bit in November, plummeted in January and then were rising until the final shot in Kansas City. In the end though, this team probably ended up right around the top of where we would have expected in the preseason.

There were disappointing moments during the regular season, including some extraordinarily frustrating losses, but the Big Ten Tournament gives this group a distinct accomplishment and they’ll be remembered for how they closed the season.

ZRL: Do you consider this year (26-12, 20th on kenpom, unranked in polls all year, T-5th and 8 seed in B10, BTT champs, sweet 16) or 2011-2012 (24-10, 22nd on kenpom, ranked in polls all year, co-regular season champs and 1 seed in B10, BTT semis, upset in first round) a better season?

It might be because I’m such a college hoops junkie, but regular season conference titles are among the most impressive feats in college basketball.

The way that 2012 team came together down the stretch to win a share of the conference was really impressive that season, and I started writing this answer fully expecting to defend their accomplishments. Looking back on it all, both teams closed the year strong and it’s a lot closer than I expected.

I could care less about ranking in the polls or Big Ten Tournament seeding (that 2012 team was actually the 3-seed in the Big Ten Tournament), so basically you are comparing regular season conference, Big Ten Tournament, and NCAA Tournament performance.

I still am partial to the 2012 group, but taking a step back I could be sold on an argument for the 2017 team. At the end of the day both teams put up a Big Ten banner and won 24 games headed into the NCAA Tournament with perceived momentum. But the 2017 team won two in the Big Dance and the 2012 group ran out of steam against DJ Cooper.

I’ve long been a believer that NCAA Tournament play is overrated in evaluating a season’s success, so I’ll stick with my original pick, but this one is almost too close to call.

  • Jeff

    Not that I disagree with your pick that the 2012 team had a better season than 2017. I would argue though that with the unbalanced scheduling, it dilutes the regular season conference champion. Still very tough to go through the big ten guantlet, winning road games, etc. So it’s impressive, but I feel the BTT champ crowns the better team.

    If you look back the last 10 years or so, seems like the BTT champ was most likely the best team that season, vs. the regular season champ, except for maybe 2013/14. Staukas team was great, but when healthy, I felt the Spartans were a better team that year, and they won the tourney championship, beating us pretty handily.

    While the 2012 team maybe had a better overall season winning the regular season championship, I think the 2017 team was a better team, and that came out in tourney play.

  • NorthernBlue

    When looking ahead to next year, and worries about the offense, it is important to note how Beilein can really adapt to his personnel offensively. The one thing about the way this team is designed next year, is that most of the players we think we will depend on from 1 -3 have strengths in athleticism (and/or quickness), defense, transition offense, and have shown flashes that they can be strong slashers. I think this team has the greatest potential on the fast break since those deep tourney teams, and I also think that both Mo and DJ (assuming both return), can bring the opposing bigs out and create an offense that is best designed to accomodate those three guys slashing style (Referring to MAAR, X, and Charles) than anywhere else in the nation. I don’t know too many other big combos that can shoot the way DJ and Mo can, are still sizey (even more so next year) and can still hurt you inside. We still have shooters off the bench, namely the freshman and Duncan. I think this team will figure it out next year.

    Also, does anyone remember that play that JB implemented for GRIII his sophomore year where he would flash to the left elbow and face up and be able to use one dribble on his strong hand to beat a slower defender? I would love to see what DJ could do in that situation, along with more post ups for Mo.

    • rlcBlue

      It’s important to remember that Beilein has always wanted his teams to run when they have an opportunity; the problem has often been that Michigan has struggled to get the defensive stops that create those opportunities to run. If Simpson can maintain his high steal percentage and Matthews can be a disruptive perimeter defender and Wilson can block shots and somebody can grab some clean defensive rebounds, next year’s team will have a lethal transition offense. That might be enough to overcome weak outside shooting from X and Matthews – if they actually are still weak shooters by then.

      • NorthernBlue

        Absolutely, it could definitely be Beilein’s best team at creating offense out of defence, and I think the three point shooting can be adequate if they are shooting set three point shooters, but don’t see either guy coming next year and giving you threes off the bounce like Derrick could, and to an extent Zak as well. Charles is such a wild card, as are all the freshmen as always. I think everyone might be a little down on the team, because we will just need to win in a different way than normal, but with the personnel and year two of Billy Donlon, I still see the team having a pretty high ceiling.

        One of the things I worry about the most is finding the leader of next years team. Most of JB’s really successful teams have had great veteran leadership, and Derrick and Zak have been given the opportunity to grow in those roles for 3 years. Duncan, MAAR, DJ have never really shown to have the mental toughness or leadership ability of those guys. We will see.

        • section13row15

          You never know how Xavier will respond after one year in the program. Darius Morris showed similar ups and downs his freshman year and was a huge question mark coming into the 2011 season. He proved to be arguably our best player that season and kicked off a string of solid pt guards coming to Michigan.

        • Coltrane

          I don’t think you step up with the game on the line and swish free throws without mental toughness. If DJ stays to improve his draft status he becomes the perfect candidate to step up in a leadership role. Simpson’s leadership qualities were humbled a bit by his learning curve and Walton’s play. I think we’ll see more of who he is next season.

  • rlcBlue

    2012 was the only Beilein team to perform below its seed in the NCAA tournament – sure, upsets happen, but not to Beilein’s teams. To that point he had never lost a game to a worse seed at Michigan, WVU, Richmond, or Canisius. 2014 turned into the second time, but Kentucky was an unusual 8 seed, and Michigan still met expectations – they were seeded to reach the regional final, and that’s what they did.

    That said, the 2012 team massively over-achieved by winning a share of the conference title. According to KenPom, the B1G was the toughest conference in the country, with 4 teams in the top 10 – Michigan finished ahead of #8 Wisconsin and #9 Indiana, and tied with #2 OSU and #3 MSU. And they didn’t have an easy schedule – they played 7 games against those teams, plus 2 more against #30 Purdue. And they did it with a freshman point guard and three starters who had virtually no D1 scholarship offers other than Michigan. Beilein should have drowned in Coach of the Year awards that year; to my knowledge, he received none.

    • NorthernBlue

      Definitely a shame that Beilein didn’t win it that year, probably more deserving than the year later when he did win it. I just think those two years finally got him the respect of the B1G. Not too many guys who have done more with less than that year. Regardless of talent, and Trey was obviously a huge part, that was a really competitive starting 5 that refused to lose on a lot of nights.

    • AA7596

      To be fair, we haven’t been a high seed very often, so we haven’t been in a position to be upset that much. There have been three Beilein teams that were a 4 seed or better, and one lost in the first round.

      That said, Beilein has done well in 7-10-type matchups and as an underdog. But if you think about it, the teams that consistently get top-4 seeds all have had several letdowns. Kansas; Carolina; Duke; Villanova. MSU last year. Wisconsin was long branded a choker in March until a couple of years ago. When you’re consistently a high seed, you’re playing a lot of solid opponents on neutral courts. You’re bound to lose a few.

  • Wayman Britt

    Still not sold on X leading the ball screen offense. I wonder if teams will go around the screen to stop X from driving and pick up the roller leaving X to beat you by shooting perimeter jumpers. Can X consistently hit the jumper? With his low release and height will he even be able to get his outside shot off?