We are in the thick of football season, which tends to dominate the focus around here, but with basketball around the corner (and a bye week right now) there is no better time to take a look at the basketball team as the season draws closer.
Alex has already been doing some really great work with more in depth previews of the team and the schedule, first talking about the point guard situation, then a full non-conference preview. He will have more for you over the next couple weeks.
In the meantime, I've been thinking a lot about this teams potential. Coming off a Final Four trip, its hard not to get your hopes up, even when the catalyst for that deep tournament run is now gone (as well as the team's secondary scorer). Michigan still has a lot of important pieces, and the team could be very good. But just like all young teams — and rest assured, this team will be young, with just three players on the roster that have been on campus three years or more — there needs to be a lot of offseason improvement to fill in the gaps.
So what areas are most important for each player to improve in? Let's check it out.
Spike Albrecht (SO) - Considering what he produced — 17 points in one half of the title game — and how little most people thought of Spike coming into last season, its almost tempting to say, "that'll do, Spike" and not push for too much. After all, he went from a very late offer with not even MAC-level interest to a quality 5-10 minute backup and someone John Beilein felt comfortable playing in crunch time next to the player he was supposed to be backing up.
This year, Spike will be handling a lot more of the offense, and doing so without the cover of being that nondescript white kid no one prepares for. If Albrecht is going to step into a bigger role this year, he will need to improve his defense. Spike will never be the kind of high usage PG that Trey Burke was, and you don't need him to generate his own shot at a high level — something he just doesn't have the skills or athletic ability to do — as long as he can continue to run the offense and make teams pay for overplaying others. However, if Spike is a defensive liability, it limits how long he can be on the floor and hampers the rest of the team. Improvement here will help him be a more viable long-term option at the point while Derrick Walton gains experience.
Max Bielfeldt (RS-SO) - Bielfeldt is the lone returning bench player in terms of least average minutes played (5 per game), but with Michigan experimenting with bigger lineups, and Mitch McGary's back injury possibly being a lingering issue, there is a role for Bielfeldt. He will simply have to keep his production at a similar level as his role increases. Last year, Bielfeldt posted an offensive and defensive rebounding rate over 17%, and his overall offensive rating was 111.3. He won't be a high usage player, but if he can continue to produce at these levels if he is playing 15 minutes a game vs. 5, he can be an important rotation player at the four.
Jon Horford (RS-JR) - Last season Horford was finally able to stay healthy for the majority, missing only a few games at the start of the Big Ten season. While he was only getting 17% of available minutes, he had a higher usage rate than Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stuaskas. Horford is a good rebounder and had the best block rate on the team. He also committed 6.5 fouls/40, which made it hard to depend on him as anything but a rotations player a ways down the bench. If Horford is going to find a larger role on this team, he is going to have to learn how to play smarter on defense and limit his fouls so that he can stay on the court.
Caris LeVert (SO) - Caris LeVert was another player that no one expected much out of last year. He came to campus in need of somewhere between 20-30 pounds (he was 6'5, 165), but was such a natural scorer that John Beilein soon burned his redshirt. LeVert ended up playing important minutes through the Big Ten season and the tournament. This year LeVert is up to 185, and he will need that added strength. He has the scoring ability Michigan can use, but his size made him virtually non-existent as a rebounder, and hampered his defense. A stronger, more confident LeVert could be an X-factor on this team looking to replace a lot of scoring at the guard positions.
Mitch McGary (SO) - No player came into last year with larger expectations, and no player took longer to fulfill them. However, when Mitch McGary played up to his potential, Michigan looked better than it had all year. Trey Burke was in many ways responsible for getting Michigan through the regular season, but it is hard to overstate just how much the tournament run was due to McGary's late season blossoming. He gave Michigan an active post defense capable of generating fast breaks with quick rebounds and outlet passes — mana from fast break heaven to a team that liked to run as much as Michigan — as well as a deadly pick and roll partner for Trey Burke.
This year, McGary needs to flourish as the centerpiece in any opposing team's defense plan. Burke won't get the lion's share of attention, and post defenders won't be so quick to drop off McGary to cut off lanes for Spike Albrecht and Derrick Walton. McGary is going to have to continue to pass the ball well to find open teammates as defenses take more and more of an active role against him, and he will have to score on his own. All the while, he has to do these things over the course of a full season, and not just over the last 10 games.
Jordan Morgan (RS-SR) - Given Morgan's effectiveness as a spot player and steady hand as a post defender, there is little more you could ask for from an athletically limited big man. He runs the floor, rebounds, and is a capable option on the pick and roll.
What Michigan will need most out of him is calming leadership. This was Trey Burke's team last year, and Michigan had the benefit of its best player also being the guy in charge in many ways. When things got shaky, it was Burke that steadied the ship. Morgan can't do that — it isn't his game. What he can do is keep his young teammates focused in those situations where Trey Burke would take over last year.
Glenn Robinson III (SO) - The only rotation player on last year's team that had a lower usage rate that GRIII was Spike Albrecht. No one had a higher offensive rating — not even Trey Burke.
Glenn Robinson III is quite possibly the biggest enigma on the team. He has more pure physical talent than any player on the team, and rivals the best players not only in the conference but across the country. He also was at best Michigan's fourth offensive weapon last year, surviving on a steady diet of kickout corner threes and alley-oop dunks. If Michigan is going to continue playing at a high level now that Trey Burke is gone, GRIII is going to have to become one of the team's most heavily used players. Robinson will need to be able to generate his own shot and set up his teammates. His usage rate needs to go from 15.2 up to somewhere around 22 or 23 (the range Tim Hardaway Jr. was in a year ago). And he needs to do all of this while maintaining most of his offensive efficiency.
Nik Stuaskas (SO) - The running joke a year ago was that inevitably in every game Nik Stuaskas would do something to make the announcers say he was "not just a shooter", and then we would all have a good laugh and crack a bunch of jokes on twitter.
It is time for Stauskas to really become Not Just A Shooter. Last year he had the 35th best True Shooting percentage in the nation and led Michigan in three-point shooting by a wide margin (44% on 182 att). He also hit half of his two-point attempts and 85% of his free throws. The problem was, he was often a defensive liability on the outside, and for a 6'6 wing, he had rebounding rates similar to Spike Albrecht and Trey Burke. Stauskas already has the offensive thing figured out, and with GRIII and McGary still around he should continue to be the third offensive option — a role that he can excel in as a shooter that also won't force him to create his own shot as much. Michigan will need him to pick up the slack in all the other areas and become a more well-rounded player. With another year of physical development, he should be able to do that.