ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Nov. 5, 2019, is a strange day for Michigan basketball.
The program has never been healthier. In the last seven years, Michigan played in two national championships, five Sweet 16s and three Elite Eights. The Wolverines have been to the NCAA Tournament eight times in the last nine seasons. They’ve won two Big Ten championships and two Big Ten Tournament championships during that stretch.
Few programs around the country have been as consistent as Michigan this decade. Yet as the opening buzzer of the 2019-20 season draws near, the most pervasive feeling is uncertainty.
John Beilein abruptly left the program for the NBA on May 13, 2019, not only leaving Michigan with an awkwardly timed coaching search, but thrusting a program that had been the definition of stability into a brief chaos. Jalen Wilson decommitted, assistant coaches were uncertain about their futures, three starters moved on to the NBA.
When the dust settled, Michigan was left without Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole, Charles Matthew or John Beilein. Tasked with recovering from the exodus: Fab Five legend Juwan Howard.
Imagine going back six months in time and telling yourself that on Nov. 5, 2019, Beilein would be on the sideline of Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers while Howard led the Michigan basketball program in its opener at the Crisler Center.
Howard has valuable coaching and playing experience, as well as a talented roster. But will that translate to an NCAA Tournament appearance in March 2020?
Isaiah Livers was the first man off the bench last season, but this year, he’ll have to shoulder the scoring load for Michigan. He’s got the size, athleticism and shooting ability to be a star in the Big Ten, but it will take a big leap for him to replace even one of the team’s top scorers.
Livers averaged 7.9 points in 22.6 minutes per game as a sophomore. Most importantly, he shot 48.7% from the floor and 42.6% from beyond the arc. In the team’s exhibition game against Saginaw Valley State, Livers dropped 20 points on 7-for-11 shooting. He flashed an ability to both create his own shot and connect from 3-point range.
It’s hard to see Michigan making the NCAA Tournament if Livers isn’t one of the top players in the Big Ten.
The only returning starters are point guard Zavier Simpson and center Jon Teske.
Simpson is a valuable college point guard because he’s an elite perimeter defender and a vicious competitor. The knocks on Simpson will always be his height and shooting, which limit his offensive upside.
Simpson shot a career-high 30.8% from 3-point range last year, when he averaged 8.8 points per game. His most obvious improvement came at the free-throw line, where he went from 51.6% to 66.7% from his sophomore to junior seasons.
One of the most underrated passers in the league, Simpson quietly averaged 6.6 assists per game. He’ll have to be an even better distributor this season without Brazdeikis and Poole on the wings knocking down shots.
Teske, like Simpson, is a very good defender and a somewhat limited offensive player. He shot under 30% from beyond the arc last season but still averaged 9.5 points per game on 52.1% shooting overall.
The senior center is a reliable defender and rebounder, but he’ll have more responsibility on offense this season.
Eli Brooks is the only other returning player who played a significant role last season. He averaged 2.5 points per game while shooting 29.2% from 3-point range and 37.8% overall.
Michigan’s 2018 recruiting class was one of the best in the country -- with four four-stars and one three-star. Brazdeikis was the only one-and-done of the Beilein era, so now it’s time for Brandon Johns, David DeJulius, Colin Castleton and Adrien Nunez to step up.
Johns and DeJulius got their feet wet during Big Ten play last season, but neither has gotten a full taste of a college season.
Johns was typically productive in his brief stints on the floor. He scored eight points and grabbed eight rebounds in 13 minutes against Indiana -- the most playing time he saw all season. He was the No. 70 overall player in the 2018 class out of East Lansing High School, so expectations are high.
DeJulius will have to be a productive 3-point shooter for Michigan after making just one of 15 attempts as a true freshman. The talented sophomore out of Detroit projects as a good shooter and ball handler. This season is his chance to validate it.
Castleton worked his way into the rotation late in the year and showed an ability to finish around the rim. He’s 6 feet, 11 inches tall with some ball skills, so there should be some potential for production as he works with Howard.
The lone three-star in the class was Nunez, who joined the Wolverines as a heralded 3-point shooter. He missed 12 of his 13 attempts from beyond the arc as a true freshman and made just one of five during the exhibition game.
Michigan could really benefit from Nunez becoming a threat on the outside.
Howard has four talented sophomores to work with, but so far, it’s all potential and no proven production. If they live up to the hype, Michigan will certainly be an NCAA Tournament team.
Excitement about the new season took a big hit when Franz Wagner, brother of Moritz Wagner, broke his wrist. The star freshman was expected to be an immediate starter for the Wolverines, but instead, he will miss at least the first several weeks of the season.
Cole Bajema was a four-star recruit who stuck with Michigan through the coaching change, but it’s unclear how much he’ll contribute as a true freshman. He played just five minutes during the exhibition game.
Here’s a look at the rest of the roster:
- C.J. Baird
- Austin Davis
- Jaron Faulds
- Rico Ozuna-Harrison
- Luke Wilson
In general, a Big Ten team needs to at least get to around 20 wins to get into the NCAA Tournament, and that could be a battle for Michigan.
The conference schedule is extremely difficult. Michigan has two games against No. 1 Michigan State, No. 18 Ohio State and No. 24 Purdue. It also has to play at No. 7 Maryland the final game of the regular season. Wisconsin, Indiana, Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota won’t be easy tests, either.
If Michigan can find a way to go 10-10 in conference games, it would need to find 10 additional wins in the nonconference slate. Creighton and No. 15 Oregon are scheduled to visit Crisler, while No. 5 Louisville will host the Wolverines for the B1G-ACC Challenge.
Michigan will play Iowa State in a loaded Battle 4 Atlantis field that includes No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Gonzaga, No. 12 Seton Hall and Oregon.
Nonconference home games against Appalachian State, Elon, Houston Baptist, Presbyterian and UMass Lowell are must-wins.
What to expect
This will likely be a transition season for Howard as he gets acclimated to the college game and continues to work on his first full recruiting class. The future is already bright with five-star Isaiah Todd and four-star Zeb Jackson committed to the 2020 class.
The injury to Wagner would prove massive for Michigan if it results in a slow start or throws off the team’s rhythm even when he returns. If he returns to full health, Michigan could be a dangerous middle seed in the NCAA Tournament.
It feels like Michigan will spend the majority of the season as a bubble team, with a chance to make a few statements against ranked teams late in the year. If Howard makes the tournament in his first season, it should be considered a success.
Michigan basketball hasn’t had to start over in 13 years, so Tuesday will feel a bit strange. But if Howard’s basketball resume is any indication, this program won’t take much of a step back.