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Michigan Sports Roundtable: Question Marks Galore For Michigan Basketball

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Nick: Hey, guys. It’s been a little while since we got to sit down and talk Michigan sports. How’s life?

James: Nick, Will, I’m glad to be back with the second installment of (hopefully) many Michigan Sports Roundtables.

Will: Gents, glad to be back trading thoughts on Michigan sports.

Nick: Alright, well let’s get started. A decent amount has happened with Michigan basketball since the start of the off-season - we’ve gotten an interesting commitment from Jaaron Simmons, a senior point guard, and the big news is we might lose D.J. Wilson and/or Moe Wagner to the NBA. Thoughts?

Will: I really like Simmons, especially with Walton gone. He contends he can play anywhere and there won’t be much of a dropoff in his game going from the MAC to the Big 10, and I tend to believe him. We need some leadership at the helm on next year’s team, especially if D.J. or Moe head for a payday in the NBA.

James: Simmons is an interesting development, and it’s frankly one that caught me a little by surprise. I had turned my focus to Spring Practices, but with the scholarship situation it certainly makes sense to add a grad. transfer for basketball - particularly one in Simmons’ mold. A seasoned point that has the ability to score and distribute well.

Wilson and Moe are interesting as well. In the aftermath of the tournament, I would have said (and I think I did say) that I expected both back. Obviously they have declined to hire agents, which means that they could come back if they so choose prior to May 24th. But the tea leaves seem to suggest that Wilson is acutely interested in the next level and may not be returning to school.

Will: I think you’re right about Wilson, James, and that’s unfortunate. I feel like he could really take his game up a notch with another year at the college level. I know that’s a trite response regarding college underclassmen, but he didn’t really emerge until this year. His talent, I think, is raw and largely centered on his physical capabilities. I’d like to see him hone his skills and get a serious payday, as a result. Selfishly, I’d like to see him in Ann Arbor for another year, but I think the NBA money is just too tempting for these guys. Can’t say I blame them.

Nick: Yeah, I think another thing is a high confidence level that, no matter the challenge, a lot of these young guys believe in themselves even if older people in the community say they could get better by sticking around.

Photo credit: Marc-Gregor Campredon, MGoBlog

On the one hand, you need that high confidence level in a sport like this, especially if you’re a great shooter. But on the other hand, being able to master one level effectively before tackling another is an important part of growing at something. But that’s just not the trend right now.

So, if we do lose either or both of these guys, I think the spotlight falls on two areas - John Beilein, who’s got a lot of support and love from the Michigan fan base but has struggled to quickly replace great players before, and then depth in the front court, where you’ve got a couple young guys who haven’t proven themselves yet - Austin Davis and Jon Teske - and then not much else. Granted, if Michigan loses D.J. and Moe they can go recruiting for maybe another grad transfer, and probably will, but this is still not a great situation.

What’s your confidence level that Beilein can field a great team again next year, no matter what happens with D.J. and Moe?

James: Perhaps I’m the pessimist here, but I’d say medium. The question is going to be the contributions from Simpson, Simmons (if he does, indeed, enroll), and Charles Matthews. With those sort of unknowns, I’m just not brimming with confidence that next year’s team will stand in there and compete for a B1G Title.

Granted, it didn’t look like this year’s team would do that as late as the start of February - but what that team had that this year’s team may not have is experience. Guys who were capable of taking charge like Derrick Walton did. If D.J and Moe leave perhaps it works out, but if I were every team on our schedule I’d punch the team in the mouth with a press and aggressive rebounding until they showed that they could handle adversity.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Oregon vs Michigan Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Will: Uncertainty does cloud everything about next year’s team. Assuming DJ and Moe exit for the NBA, there is still some talent on the team, but how well will they gel? I think that’s why Simmons could be critical to the team’s success. But even if he’s phenomenal, he’s still a new presence. These guys will have to learn to play together, and that’s just so difficult without a senior voice like Walton’s. All that to say, I’m hopeful, but realistic that this team could be shooting for the upper-middle of the conference should its two stars depart.

Nick: And, I should point out for those who don’t know - Jaaron Simmons, the grad transfer from Ohio University, could end up going to the NBA as well. So what does Simmons and Matthews bring to this team, exactly? We’ve talked about them a little bit, but they’re not familiar names to Michigan fans in the same way that D.J. Wilson and Moe Wagner - or, for that matter, Derrick Walton, Jr. and Zak Irvin - are.

James: So, Charles Matthews is a transfer from Kentucky, and on paper he’s a very impressive player. He’s out of one of the Chicago basketball powerhouse high schools, was a Top-15 recruit in 2015, and was expected to be another in a long line of one-and-dones to pass through the doors at the University of Kentucky.

Obviously, things didn’t quite work out that way. During his Freshman campaign, Matthews wasn’t able to produce at a high level right away and suffered a season-ending injury that required surgery. Two years later, he still has the immense raw talent that saw him receive such high marks as a recruit - but he’s now been humbled and transferred to John Beilein’s program at Michigan, and I like this staff to help Matthews develop into the player everyone expected when he enrolled at Kentucky.

Will: Quick note on Matthews: When he decided to transfer, John Calipari encouraged him to stay at Kentucky. That tells me the coach believed he had enough talent to develop into a player worth the scholarship, despite an underwhelming freshman season.

As for Jaaron Simmons, he’s been a consistent performer in the MAC for a few years. He’s performed well at that level as both a scorer and a passer: around 16 points and 6.5 assists last season on his way to an all-conference year.

I guess the big question mark, other than whether he’ll go to the NBA, is whether he can match that in the Big 10. He has the vision and the confidence, but we’d be fooling ourselves to say he faced much of a test in the MAC. Not that he never saw strong teams during the preseason, but the day-in, day-out grind against elite talent just wasn’t there.

Nick: True, he didn’t face much of a test, but you could still see from his film at Ohio that he was very comfortable out there and could do a lot of things. He can score with a pull-back jumper, can drive through traffic, can score around the rim in a number of ways, and yet he’s not just a shoot-first, shoot-second kind of guy. He gets the ball into the hands of his teammates, which is a valuable way to keep other guys involved. He always knows where his teammates are and what they’re doing, which I liked.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

And, let me say - if Simmons does end up going to the NBA, I’m just going to throw up my hands and despair for … a good week. Give me a week. Xavier Simpson is a great young guard, a better passer than he is a shooter, but he’s still not the kind of confident leader that this team has thrived with. That doesn’t matter if D.J., Moe, and MAAR are in the lineup, but it does matter a lot if we’re breaking in young guys at several positions.

So, I think it’s safe to predict we’re going to keep one, or maybe two, of Simmons/D.J./Moe?

James: Gut feeling, I think we keep two - surely one. I don’t think Moe is going anywhere. After he declared for the draft he gave an interview wherein he said that he was more or less just engaging in the process but expected to be back. I haven’t seen a reason, mock draft or otherwise, to expect that sentiment has changed since then. DJ on the other hand seems to be rising in the mock drafts, which may make the potential pay day too much to pass up.

Will: Hypothetical - if you had to choose to keep one of the two - between Moe and D.J. - who would you keep and why?

Nick: I actually like that hypothetic more when you throw Simmons in. I think a lot of people would take D.J. over Moe right now. Is that fair to assume?

James: I’d take Simmons and Moe right now. I think they fill the more pressing needs for the team as the roster sits right now. I’d love to have all three back, but if I can only have two it’d be them. If I can only have one, it’d be Moe. I think the offense can effectively flow through him on the blocks.

Nick: Hmm. I’d take D.J. What do you think, Will? This would be a good poll, I think.

Will: I think D.J. has more potential, but Moe is a proven game-changer. I feel like he carried the team in the postseason a lot of the time. D.J. was a force in his own right and will only get better, but Moe just took over games down the stretch.

Poll

If you had to choose either D.J. or Moe on next year’s team, who would you want?

This poll is closed

  • 71%
    Moe Wager
    (270 votes)
  • 28%
    D.J. Wilson
    (110 votes)
380 votes total Vote Now

Nick: I’m actually really curious now to see what people think, I might be in the minority.

Okay, so - way, way too early predictions for how this team does? I don’t believe Beilein will end up on the hot seat even if we lose a lot of our starters and struggle, but I do think casual Michigan fans are on the fence about how much they follow the basketball team. I’d like to think we can compete in what seems like a shifting, question mark-ridden Big Ten. And if we don’t, it would probably fall on poor guard play or poor depth and play from our bigs. Those seem like the big concerns in all of this upheaval - I mean, we haven’t mentioned MAAR at all, and most think we can hold down the SF position.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Oregon vs Michigan Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

James: If D.J, Moe, and Simmons all go pro, I think Beilein can find the hot seat next year - even though team struggles won’t really be his fault. If we get only one of those guys back, I think the team will be a borderline top third, middle third team in the conference.

Nick: Would fans be okay with that? You’re right, I do think fans, for all the love they have for Beilein right now, do want a good basketball team here. I guess I’m changing my mind midway through, hmm.

Will: Nick, I think you admitted to being human. Not sure I’m comfortable with that.

Nick: Haha, I’ve been outed as not a Terminator.

Will: But onto predictions and hot seats, I think fans like winning. Striking insight, I know. But if you remember, Brady Hoke was a fuzzy, well-loved (and well-fed) guy… for about a year and a half. I still like Brady Hoke. Just don’t want him coaching my football team. Same with Beilein for most fans, I think. They respect him and admire the way he carries himself - but in the end, he needs to win games.

James: I think it’s the winning games that’s going to be important next year. I think the vast majority of the fanbase realizes that we got something at the end of the year that was unexpected - so I don’t think they expect a repeat Sweet 16 performance. But I do think that fans need to see some follow through. There are some winnable non-con. games on the schedule next year. In Maui the team could face the likes of Notre Dame, VCU, and Wichita State. The following week the team will go up against UCLA at home and then travel to Texas. If they can win three of those five, the team will be in a good place.

Nick: I think one really big way we can measure this team and its growth will be the leadership. If Beilein teams consistently struggle at the start of the year, I think fans will be a little frustrated in that. Those early games will be a good test, but we need to take them seriously and take the off-season seriously - make sure Jaaron practices with his new teammates, if he’s coming, and make sure Xavier Simpson and all the other young guys work hard and are ready to play.

Well, anything we haven’t really covered yet?

Will: I’ve read that Beilein is big on Austin Davis, so much so that he even regretted redshirting him last year. I wonder how much upside he and Teske offer, and more immediately, how much they’ll contribute this season. I feel like Beilein’s offenses are so guard-centric that we have trouble attracting elite big men (Mitch McGary being a recent exception).

James: Mitch McGary being the only exception. At least that I can think of.

Nick: I do think Davis is a legit prospect, and he’s been under the radar to fans, because of that redshirt. I really like his rebounding potential, and if we’re going to be stuck with less than ideal depth up front, we’ll need a lot of that.

James: I think both Davis and Teske represent unique divergences from Beilein’s prototypical big man recruit. Both are strong presences under the basket and on the boards, and any shooting ability is ancillary to those primary focuses. In Beilein’s system, it’s usually the other way around - with Kevin Pittsnoggle at West Virginia being the noted embodiment of Beilein’s philosophy.

Will: I think we witnessed how a traditional big man - heavy on the boards and bodying up on defense - would be a boon for the team. In the postseason, we gave up so many second (and third and fourth) shots that it cost us a run at the Final Four. I’ll give up some shooting from one player for some work on the glass.

Nick: True, but we also ran into an annoying amount of foul trouble that I think will come into play next year. If we had D.J., Moe, and Davis and Teske coming off the bench, we’d be in terrific shape. Now, there’s still that concern of who’s coming off the bench if somebody collects a couple quick fouls.

James: If it’s a guard that gets in foul trouble, I think we have the depth there to be more or less okay until they can get back on the floor. If it’s Davis/Teske (assuming no Moe or D.J. next year) then, in my opinion, we’ll have little choice but to go small for that period - which could be bad in B1G play.

Nick: I think this goes back to some fans’ concerns about how quickly guys develop throughout the year. In this day and age, you need quick development with guys leaving and transferring so much.

James: Which has been a difficulty for Beilein in the post-Final Four years. The success has cannibalized this team at a rate where we have been unable to reload at an equally fast rate.

Will: The successes, as in long tourney runs, haven’t necessarily translated into recruiting successes, either. My biggest hit on Beilein is his inability to attract dominant guys in the paint, but again, little reason for those players to go to a system that seems like a three-point shooting contest on some nights. His teams lack balance, as a result.

Nick: I’m willing to lighten up on Beilein in this regard. Sure, his recruiting and some of his comments about recruiting have concerned people, and I’ve been one of them. But I think he’s gotten a bad rap from his approach of finding hidden gems, which in his defense has worked out really well, in some cases. He also got screwed by that disastrous 2014 recruiting class which almost all transferred out and really killed our depth. The next generation after the Fresh Five was supposed to be Kameron Chatman, Aubrey Dawkins and Ricky Doyle - all those guys transferred out within three years.

Will: Nothing to contend with, there, Nick, and I’d be good with them signing Beilein for as long as he’s got the mind and the energy to coach. I’m a fan. But I think there’s a bit of a blind spot when it comes to low-post play in his offenses. Again, I’m good with him leading the team. He’s got a sharp basketball mind and he represents the school well. Just like to see him evolve in this area.

James: I’m not so sure that it’s a blind spot so much as a conscious choice. When you look at how the Final Four team ran its offense and how Beilein’s successful West Virginia team’s ran their offense, post play was an option. Just as Mitch McGary could utilize his strength to muscle guys down low, he also had the ability to credibly stretch out the offense - providing space for Trey Burke et al. to drive the basket.

Poll

How optimistic are you for next year?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    Very optimistic; John Beilein has this team pointed in the right direction, and there’s a great recruiting class coming in.
    (24 votes)
  • 57%
    Somewhat optimistic; there might be some tough losses, but this team has better depth and talent than a fair number of other teams.
    (104 votes)
  • 23%
    Not really optimistic; we’re slowly hemorrhaging talent and have question marks in several places.
    (42 votes)
  • 6%
    Not optimistic at all; we’re going to lose four of last year’s starters and probably missed on Mo Bamba.
    (11 votes)
181 votes total Vote Now

Nick: Well, Jon Teske seems like more of a traditional low-post defender (and a guy who can pass around to open shooters really well) while Davis fits both molds a little bit. He seems to love running the floor, from his senior highlights, but he’s also very good at high-pointing the ball and coming down with rebounds. I do think Beilein’s approach has its benefits, but I think a lot of fans have been frustrated with the various (sometimes big, sometimes small) downsides.

James: Very true. And that’s what make Teske and Davis so interesting as prospects to me. They represent significant detours from Beilein’s traditional big guy, and that’s something that Beilein hasn’t made a practice of doing during his long career.

Nick: Yeah, I like that he’s evolved overall, and he continues to do that. I do appreciate that he’s got a job that demands excellence in a lot of areas, and we’re all critiquing things that sometimes he can’t control and sometimes go well outside the range of just being a basketball coach.