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Michigan’s 2020-21 roster feels set despite loss of Nojel Eastern

The Wolverines now have open opportunities for players to emerge at guard.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 25 Illinois at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After what was an interesting saga surrounding former Purdue guard Nojel Eastern transfer to Michigan, it was made official on Tuesday that he would not be joining the program due to an academic issue of transfer credits. This leaves Juwan Howard’s program with one open scholarship spot heading into the 2020-21 season.

They are under no obligation to fill it. And to be frank, they should probably just leave it be at this point.

We entered this offseason doing a ton of mental gymnastics as to how the Wolverines were going to make next season work in a scholarship crunch. A pair of five-stars were on the way in Josh Christopher and Isaiah Todd. There was a logjam at guard and center. But things were always going to eventually sort themselves out.

What we did not know is how it would go down. Michigan lost a pair of soon-to-be juniors to the transfer portal in guard David DeJulius and big man Colin Castleton, then missed on both Christopher and Todd when it came time to put pen to paper. They also lost guard/forward Cole Bajema as a transfer when the dust had settled on a busy few weeks of roster building.

Spots were suddenly there to be had.

The Wolverines filled one of them in grad transfer Mike Smith from Columbia, which came a short time before the 24-hour gut punch that was Christopher and Todd deciding to go elsewhere. In the end, Michigan signed a four-man recruiting class that included three four-star prospects in center Hunter Dickinson, forward Terrance Williams and guard Zeb Jackson. Three-star wing Jace Howard — the son of the head coach — was originally set to join as a walk-on to ensure room for potential elite additions to the class, but would ultimately sign as a scholarship player.

In losing Zavier Simpson to graduation and DeJulius to the portal (he would ultimately land at Cincinnati), Michigan has a major question mark as to who will fill minutes at guard. Because of this and missing on a player like Christopher, that meant hitting the transfer portal for help there. Eastern was one of those players, but it was not meant to be. However, Michigan was able to fill another spot in Wake Forest’s Chaundee Brown, who may or may not have to sit out this year. There seems to be optimism that he will be able to play.

Brown, while listed as a guard, probably is not quite that as it pertains to his skill-set and how he fits on the roster. He can play the two, but he is more of a three or a four if they chose to go to a small lineup.

So there’s still a need at guard, right?

Well, yes. But after a few months of scanning the portal and courtships there, the staff seems to have moved on to the 2021 and 2022 recruiting classes. After months of building for this next season, it feels like it is time to look inward for answers as opposed elsewhere.

That leaves Michigan with a guard rotation that includes Eli Brooks, Smith, a true freshman in Jackson and a player without a ton of productive minutes in Adrien Nunez. Sophomore Franz Wagner can play the two, but four guys figure to rotate in for the two guard spots.

Brooks and Smith are going to play a lot and while the former can handle the basketball, he might be best suited to remain in the two-guard spot in the starting lineup. This is where a player like Smith — who is coming from the Ivy League and will experience a major leap in competition — has a lot to prove on both ends of the floor. While he once looked like he might be insurance, it now appears his play is critical to the ceiling of this team.

Jackson and Nunez are going to play right away. There are question marks with both of them, but there’s no stashing them at the end of the bench this season. Michigan is going to need productive minutes out of both.

While the makeup is not quite to the caliber of talent and positional flexibility that Howard is looking to build at Michigan, they still have Isaiah Livers (assuming he does not stay in the NBA Draft) and Brandon Johns to play the four and Johns has shown the ability to slide over to the five spot in certain configurations. The Wolverines have only two true centers on the roster next year in fifth-year senior Austin Davis and Dickinson, who has the look of a college-ready center but might need some time.

It has been said here before that the ceiling of the team feels dependent on the point guard play this team gets, as well as how big of a step Wagner takes from his freshman to sophomore year. At this point, it does not feel like adding a transfer does much to alter the outlook of next season.

There is a lot to like here. We thought that in a certain scenario of player additions this spring, this could be a top ten team heading into the season. It probably is not that right now, and their ultimate ceiling might be about what we thought the 2019-20 squad could do before the season ended abruptly. Find a way to get through the gauntlet that is the Big Ten Conference and see if you cannot play yourself into the second weekend of the tournament and see what happens.

We know that young guys were likely going to be stepping into big roles next season, but we were not sure it would be these young guys as opposed to the NBA-ready ones that may have been on the way.

Everything feels set here for now and with players returning to campus for team activities, now they will look to build.

From there, we’ll see what happens.