The unknown for Michigan at the start of the season is most certainly the front court. Irvin, Walton and LeVert are the anchors of this team now. What's Beilein's plan for replacing McGary, Robinson, and Morgan on the interior?
John: I still don't get why GRIII left. He improved a ton down the stretch last year, could have been top dog this year, and probably been a first round if not lottery pick. Now he's on the bench in Minnesota where he barely plays. In Minnesota... ah well. I say Beilein will use the Chatman-Donnal combo to make up the difference. I'll be honest I don't know a lot about much of the new players and what they can do, but I didn't know a lot about Timmy, Trey, Nick, Glen and Mitch before they came either.
Zach: Michigan has a lot of youth up front, but given time I believe that things will turn out alright. At the four Michgian is going to start high four-star recruit Kam Chatman, a wing with guard-like skills but lacking the otherworldly athleticism of GRIII. Chatman can do a lot of things Robinson couldn't, and that fuller statistical production should keep Michigan clicking at a high level.
At the five, Michigan will work in either freshman Ricky Doyle or RS freshman Mark Donnal. Doyle is more of a true five, a big bodied rebounder who finishes well around the rim but has a little bit of range. Donnal is a stretch five in the Kevin Pittsnogle mold. A guy that should fit well in Michigan's offense in pick-and-pop plays, and as a floor stretching option.
The guy I am most excited about is DJ Wilson, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward with a good outside shot, a lot of length, and tantalising athleticism. Wilson missed time this summer with a pinky injury, but I think his upside is very high. He will get time at the five in certain situations as well as play some backup minutes at the four.
Drew: I need to start writing my responses to these roundtable questions before Zach because he's stealing all of my answers, ha! I'm pretty much in agreement with Zach.
There'll be moments when John Beilein will go to a smaller lineup and slide Zak Irvin down to the four, but Kam Chatman will be the one responsible for replacing Glenn Robinson III. Chatman doesn't possess Robinson III's athleticism -- very few do -- but he's an inch taller and can finish at the rim at a similar rate. However, Chatman won't be asked to be a double-digit scorer night in and night out, which is good because his outside shot is unreliable. Chatman will make his biggest impact on defense and the boards, where he should be an upgrade over Robinson III, who recorded a low individual defensive rebounding rate of 11.5 percent last season.
At center, Beilein will split time between Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal, initially at least. Although Donnal received some high praise for his work in practices while redshirting last season, I think Doyle will be the one that earns more minutes. What Michigan needs from its center the most this season is to finish bunnies, rebound well, and protect the rim especially. That role seems to be much more suited for the bigger-bodied Doyle than Donnal, who's more perimeter-oriented.
I also am very excited for D.J. Wilson, and it has to do with much more than just his amazing hair. Although Chatman will be the most productive freshman this season, I believe Wilson may be the best player from this recruiting class when it's all said and done. He's the perfect fit in Beilein's offense. He's tall (6-foot-9) with an absurd wingspan (7-foot-3), which allows him to play inside and be a shot-blocker. And he can knock down three-pointers consistently. He has the potential to be an all-around threat, which we'll see glimpses of when he comes off the bench as a four or five.
The Wolverines' nonconference schedule is again strong this year. Which opponents might give them some trouble? Who can they beat?
John: I think Bucknell, Detroit and Oregon could pose a sneaky stretch for a young team early in the season. All three have veterans and a history of mild success and could make 2014 feel a lot like 2013 with a few early losses. However I think they stand a real chance against Arizona . I think Arizona is the annual "lost more talent than everybody realized from last year" team and could stand to lose to a polished Michigan squad itching for revenge. Arizona will only get Missouri and Gonzaga to warm up before the facing the Wolverines and could be prone to a let down at home.
Zach: I think we can mark down Arizona as a loss now. Playing in Tucson against an experienced top ten team is a tall order. Sure, the Cats lost Aaron Gordon, but there is a lot of talent left and a lot of experience back - especially up front. Michigan probably isn't going to figure itself out that quick. I'm also a bit worried about Syracuse. The last time Michigan won against the Cuse was due to an impressive effort by Mitch McGary to attack the Orange zone at its heart. I doubt that works out with so many fresh faces up front for Michigan. I'd also pencil in Villanova as a loss if Michigan meets it in the Legend's tourney championship. I think Oregon, SMU, VCU, and the rest of the schedule is expected wins. Oregon lost a ton from last year, SMU lost its star power, and nobody else has the talent to keep up with Michigan.
Kevin: As we've seen, Michigan can hang with anybody they're matched up against, and I don't see any of their non-con opponents as being an auto-loss. The team has played well out east, and the matchup against Oregon in Brooklyn should be winnable. The Ducks seem to be a late-peaking team, as their NCAA tourney play the last few years has shown, so maybe Michigan will catch them asleep. I'm with Zach about Syracuse and Arizona, though. Home court advantage helps, but ‘Cuse always reloads with talent just like Michigan. Beilein's teams haven't played many games in the pacific time zone either, so that's going to be a real test. No Aaron Gordon be damned, that is still a very good team, with a home crowd surrounding them. Hard to guess which of those games Michigan can win at this point.
Drew: Michigan has little chance to upset Arizona in Tucson, which I hate saying because I'll get grief from family and friends that not only attended there but are also former basketball players there. It's not that the Wildcats are a consensus preseason top-five team that causes me to write this game off as a loss for Michigan. It's that Arizona's biggest strength -- its size and skill in the front court with Rondae-Hollis Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, and Kaleb Tarczewski -- will match up against Michigan's biggest weakness -- a front court manned by four freshmen. Unless Michigan catches fire from three, I see Arizona battering Michigan inside all game long.
Other than that, though, Michigan has a legitimate shot to win the rest of its non-conference games. Syracuse and its 2-3 zone will be a tough test, but Michigan has an arsenal of three-point shooters and the benefit of home-court advantage. SMU could have given Michigan some trouble until projected top-five NBA Draft pick Emmanuel Mudiay went overseas when potential eligibility issues arose. Oregon's roster is depleted after three players were dismissed amid sexual assault allegations, two other players transferred, and star recruit JaQuan Lyle failed to enroll. And Michigan may avoid Villanova in the Legends Classic final and instead face an always-pressing VCU program that's a much better matchup for Beilein's turnover-avoiding teams.
Michigan will lose to Arizona, drop another, and head into Big Ten play at 10-2.
Who on the Michigan roster might surprise us this year and emerge as a breakout star? Which of the returning starters might show the most improvement?
Kevin: I'm all about Caris LeVert as we get underway this season. He put in a crazy amount of work with Stauskas last year, now he's going to be even more integral. His play was terrific during the NCAA tourney run, and I'm eager to see how his work ethic morphs sans Stauskas. Michigan's system plays to his strengths, and he is now the player with the most experience in said system. Ceiling is extremely high, but I can't yet determine whether he'll choose to be a shooting guard, defensive menace, or interior assist machine. Any of those will cause me great joy.
John: I'm going with MAAR as a breakout star by strength of name alone. That is not the name of an accountant, that is a man born to dunk and shoot all over the court. As for returning starters? I expect Derrick Walton Jr. to take a huge step forward. We saw flashes of greatness in a few games last year (especially at MSU) and I think that will become more the norm than the exception over the season. I'd say over 10 points per game and 4 assists is well within his reach, until Spike gets Title Game hot again and starts putting up Steph Curry type numbers from deep.
Zach: John beat me to it. All the talk this off season has centered around Zak Irvin taking the next step and Caris LeVert taking over the offense. Meanwhile, Derrick Walton Jr. has flown relatively under the radar.
I think by the end of the season Walton is going to have clearly established himself as the second most important player on the team. Offensively he will play a much more central role than Irvin (who, for all his similarities to Stauskas, doesn't have the ability to create offense for his teammates as well as Nik). Someone is going to have to take over Stauskas's pick-and-roll possessions, and that looks to be Walton. Walton is also a proven outside shooter, absolutely deadly in transition, and one of the better players on this roster at getting to the free throw line. Combine that with his defensive potential, and you have a player that would be getting much more hype if everyone wasn't looking at Zak Irvin to be Stauskas 2.0.
Drew: I'm going to cheat and pick both Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton, Jr. I cannot pick Caris LeVert because it's hard to say a player will break out when he was named to the All-Big Ten second team last season, and I cannot select any of the freshmen because all will have minor roles this season -- although, if I had to pick one, I'd go with Ricky Doyle because he's the bruiser Michigan needs at the five.
Irvin and Walton, Jr. are the correct answers. Both played well in limited roles last season, taking a backseat to Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert, and Glenn Robinson III. But, now that Stauskas and Robinson III are in the NBA, LeVert needs Irvin and Walton, Jr., both of whom were highly touted recruits, to take the next step and become his sidekicks as sophomores. Irvin, now a starter, will no longer need to be Just A Shooter that provides an offensive spark off the bench. He will be tasked with more offensive responsibility, which will force him to broaden his game. Plus, from the scrimmages I've seen, Irvin already looks like he will make a dedicated effort to rebound this season, which is the type of effort the always-undersized Michigan will need this season. And Walton, Jr. will improve because Michigan will rely on him to run the offense and create shots for his teammates, whereas he was more of a spot-up perimeter shooter last season. Add in Walton, Jr.'s proficiency in transition and excellent rebounding ability for a point guard, I see both Irvin and Walton, Jr. contending for All-Big Ten honors this season.