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Staff Roundtable: Non-Conference Review and Big Ten Season Predictions

The Big Ten basketball season begins today, so we gathered our staff to discuss Michigan's non-conference performance and our predictions for Big Ten play.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan earned a 10-3 non-conference record, suffering no bad losses but losing to the three best teams it faced in an uncompetitive manner. How would you evaluate Michigan’s last six weeks? What was your overall impression of U-M’s performance?

Anthony: I think in a lot of ways that Michigan pretty much did what was expected of them throughout non-conference play. They beat the teams they were expected to beat and struggled against the best teams they played, especially when faced with the challenge of being up against a talented, physical big man.

Michigan seems like it has found a starting lineup it likes and has pieced together the rotation nicely. I think that was the biggest key was figuring out roles for everyone, and for the most part they look to have accomplished that.

Zach: My overall impression of U-M’s performance so far is that the jury is still out on just how good this team is. Post play is still a work in progress, Spike is no longer around to bail the Wolverines out when they need offense, and perimeter defense is still a big question. All of those (and more) were exposed both in the three butt-kickings, but also to varying degrees in the 10 wins. The thing is, these weaknesses don’t necessarily discount Michigan from making noise in Big Ten play or making a tournament run. John Beilein just has to maximize the team’s strengths and minimize its weaknesses; something that he has proven adept at over the past.

As far as evaluating Michigan’s non-conference season, the Wolverines didn’t do anything to hurt their postseason chances (no bad losses), but didn’t do much to help (those aforementioned butt-kickings). That all feels pretty ‘meh’ to me.

Drew: It was a so-so non-conference season for Michigan. While Michigan didn’t suffer a bad loss that’ll act as anchor on its resume, which is something many Big Ten teams can’t claim, U-M didn’t earn a classic signature win. The victories away from Ann Arbor against Texas and NC State were nice and critical, but it was concerning how Michigan was whooped by Xavier, UConn, and SMU. I think Michigan is a good team with an offense that can carry them a long way, but how the Wolverines play defense on the perimeter and on the block will determine just how far they go. And, importantly, other than Spike Albrecht’s retirement, U-M is healthy heading into Big Ten play.

Tony: For one, the Xaiver loss gets less alarming by the day. In the aftermath of that one, I couldn’t help but think this may be a second-straight lost season, what with the total inability to defend Reynolds, but the Musketeers seem to be among the nation’s elite. It’s essentially the same feeling for SMU, and Connecticut was more an uncharacteristically bad shooting night than anything in my opinion (Michigan went 28% from three). As you guys noted, Michigan had several good, but not great, wins and some of those were of the road variety; to use a sports cliche, they took care of business when they should have. So to answer the question... I don’t know. I don’t know how indicative this non-conference season really was but it is unquestionably better than last year’s.

What about this Michigan team has been the biggest surprise to you this season, whether it be for the better or the worse?

Anthony: Believe it or not, the biggest surprise to me is just how good Caris LeVert has looked. Not that I ever doubted his talent, but coming off of an injury, he has surpassed my expectations. He just looks like he’s taken the next step and certainly should be in the mix for Big Ten Player of the Year.

Zach: It is hard to choose, so I will go with one of each. The good surprise is Duncan Robinson. Not only is his outside shot just as deadly and hard to affect as the hype suggested, but his comfort level in the offense keeps him from getting shut out totally when teams try to deny his outside shot.

As for the bad, Michigan’s post play has really started off with a whimper. I expected more out of Ricky Doyle, who spent most of the non-conference season looking like the same guy from last year, only if that guy had a normal freshman turnover rate (25.6). This could be a major issue during Big Ten play, but I probably don’t have to tell you that, dear reader.

Honorable mention: Zak Irvin’s three-point jumpshot.

Drew: Zak Irvin’s shooting slump from outside. It wouldn’t be so surprising if Irvin was struggling in other areas after returning from his offseason back surgery. However, Irvin has attacked off the dribble, created offense, and rebounded much like he did at the end of last season when he looked like an All-Big Ten player. So it’s strange that Irvin, who made about 38 percent of his threes in his first two seasons, has connected on only 9-of-45 triples (20.0 pct.) this year. Many of these shots have been open, too, yet his misses haven’t been close. Therefore, I’m not sure if this is a mental issue or a problem with his form. Nonetheless, it’s something that Irvin must fix soon.

Tony: I have to go with Drew. Is there a Michigan player from the Beilein era with a more bizarre career arc than Irvin’s through this point in his career? I’m still holding out hope that he find his outside shot again, and if he does, that changes this season’s outlook dramatically.

Who’s been your favorite Wolverine on the roster thus far? Why?

Anthony: Moritz Wagner without a doubt. I love his attitude and his game and think he has the chance to be a special player down the road. It’s cool to see him getting looks early on.

Zach: I really want to say Duncan Robinson (because, obviously), but Mo Wagner stole my heart with that fake and take from the high post for the dunk against NC St. Both players are going to be a lot of fun to watch in Beilein’s offense, although Robinson has a much bigger role now.

Drew: Caris LeVert. It’s been awesome to see him have the season that he deserved to have last year. He finally looks comfortable as Michigan’s go-to guy, and he’s flourishing (17.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 130.3 ORtg) as a result. He has a legitimate chance to be the Big Ten Player of the Year, and that’d be a fun way for the former unknown recruit to cap his U-M career.

Tony: Michigan’s best player is LeVert but my favorite is Duncan Robinson (can we start calling him DR3?). It is so, so nice to have a lights-out shooter like Robinson to roll out there, even if other areas of his game may be a bit lacking. Another reason I’m fond of him: what a testament to John Beilein’s eye for talent he is. Not many coaches out there can plug in a division-three transfer that changes a team’s complexion like Robinson does.

Michigan’s starting lineup is set from 1 to 4 in Derrick Walton, Caris LeVert, Duncan Robinson, and Zak Irvin. However, Michigan still hasn’t seemed to find a center that stands out. Whom do you think deserves the lion’s share of the minutes at the 5?

Anthony: Based on my eyeballs (yikes), I’d say Doyle because he’s the best of a weak bunch. Mark Donnal has never really impressed me. A part of me would like to see more of Wagner at the five, but I just do not know how realistic it is or if it would work.

Zach: I still think this whole thing shakes out with Doyle getting more of the minutes than the other guys, but more and more that looks like a "better than nothing" option offensively, whereas the other guys at least hypothetically bring different dimensions to the table. I just don’t know how effective any of these guys can be in the Big Ten season.

Drew: Mark Donnal has had two decent games in recent weeks, but I still think the answer is Ricky Doyle, even if it’s not much of one. Ultimately, what Michigan needs from its center is a post defender that can protect the paint somewhat. I like Doyle and his burlier body to do that best because Donnal can get bullied down low and Moritz Wagner still needs to improve his defensive positioning. However, it’s disappointing that we’re still having this conversation entering January.

Tony: Jon Teske? It has to be Doyle for the aforementioned reasons though Wagner should play more as this team comes together and Beilein figures out how to utilize him more properly.

From what we’ve seen so far, do you think Michigan can contend for a Big Ten championship? Where in the Big Ten standings do you think Michigan will finish? And, if you don’t think Michigan will win the championship, which Big Ten team will?

Anthony: I’ll never say never, but I see Michigan’s ceiling as the third-place team in the Big Ten standings. They are going to have problems with the bigger, more physical teams in the conference, especially if they go through stretches where the offense struggles.

I’ll go with Michigan State as the conference champs.

Zach: What we’ve seen so far? Eh, no. Michigan has loads of wing talent, but that won’t win every game. Michigan will need too much defense and post help to weather what will still be a tough Big Ten slate (although relatively easier than recent years). Now, I’m not completely writing Michigan off just yet, but we need to see answers soon.

As for who will win? I think Michigan State is my pick right now. Excuse me while I go vomit.

Drew: Michigan seems to be in the second tier with Iowa and Indiana below a clear top-three of Michigan State, Purdue, and Maryland. I don’t think the Wolverines have the defense to match up with the likes of the Spartans and the Boilermakers -- two teams that look like potential Final Four participants. Though I think Purdue might be better than MSU, PU has to face Maryland, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin twice. Thus, I like the Spartans’ odds to win the Big Ten championship.

Tony: A Big Ten Championship seems a bit lofty but stranger has happened. Michigan won the conference at 12-6 in 2012; Pomeroy has Blue at 10-8 right now, but if Irvin finds that jumper and a few other things fall into place, it’s not too hard seeing Michigan getting to 12-6. Granted, I’m a perpetual optimist, but Beilein’s teams always seem to come into form as a unit greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s hard to predict where any given team will fall in the standings because the schedule discrepancies from team to team. Those get more impactful with each new addition to the conference because of the differences in single plays. Still, give me the Boilermakers.

What Big Ten record do you think Michigan needs to make the NCAA Tournament?

Anthony: 10-8 is a safe bet to punch a ticket to the tournament. It all depends on where the wins come from. The Wolverines could use a few signature wins to bolster a somewhat-meh resume to this point.

Zach: Two things to keep in mind: Michigan isn’t getting a ton of help from its non-con schedule, and Michigan’s Big Ten lineup is more manageable due to missing trips to MSU and IU. Without any impressive wins right now, Michigan is going to have to pad its resume with a stronger Big Ten season. Normally 9-9 is a sure thing to get in, but I’ll say 10-8 due to what we already know.

Drew: 10-8 to guarantee it. At 9-9, Michigan might need a Big Ten Tournament win to seal it.

Tony: 10-8 does it. Get to 12 wins as I suggested in my response to the last question and we’ll talk about a "Sweet Sixteen seed."

Bonus: After Spike Albrecht’s mid-season retirement, Caris LeVert is the last active member of the Fresh Five. Of that 2012 recruiting class, which was or has been your favorite member: Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, LeVert, or Albrecht?

Anthony: Stauskas, because he made me look like a fool when I went on the record and said he was just a shooter.

I was wrong.

Zach: Why don’t you just ask me which one of my children I love the most?

(I don’t have kids, but if I did I imagine they would mean as much to me as Michigan’s 2012 hoops recruiting class)

Drew: Nik Stauskas because players that are snipers from the outside and playmakers are my absolute favorites. Add his swagger and confidence (a.k.a. the Stauskiss), and it was a done deal.