It has been seven months since the Michigan Wolverines got blown off the court in the National Championship Game against Villanova. For the past two seasons, the Wolverines have secured the Big Ten Conference and have proven to be tough outs in the March Madness. While the team has lost some players, Wolverines Coach John Beilein believes his squad can compete for another Big Ten championship.
“It’s going to be a dogfight all year long,” said Beilein. “I think the league is as balanced as it’s ever been, maybe more than it’s ever been. It’s going to lead to a lot of excitement all across Big Ten country and around the country as well.”
Players Exiting Presents Opportunity for Michigan Additions To Make Impact
Michigan is losing the heartbeat of their offense this season in Mo Wagner. Last season, Wagner generated 14.6 points per game on 39.4 percent three-point shooting, with 7.1 rebounds per game. He started nearly every game last year and was a consistent offensive threat on the pick and pop.
“Michigan will always be this place where, if you work hard enough, and you work together enough– you can become your best self,” stated Wagner upon his departure to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.
Michigan’s two powerful defenders, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson, will also be missed this season. Abdur-Rahkman recorded 12.9 points a game and generated shutdown defense on opposing guards. Robinson averaged 9.2 points per game on 38.1 percent shooting, becoming a powerful defender over the course of the season.
While these losses will take a toll on Michigan’s defense, which was number three in adjusted defensive efficiency, it presents the opportunity for the new acquisitions to fill the void and make an instant impact. Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis from Canada led scoring last summer in Spain, showcasing his athletic playmaking skills and terrific shooting stroke. David DeJulius is ready to be a threat at the point guard position, showcasing his stellar ball control and shooting abilities. And don’t forget about Colin Castleton, who at 6-foot-11 could evolve into a potential Mo Wagner successor. With the youth on this team, Beilein believes that Michigan can contend not just in the present but in the future.
“Guys want to learn, they want to get better,” Beilein said of his team. “We should have some solid depth, even if it’s young. That makes you want to go to that gym every day when you know you’re going into an environment that is really positive.”
Michigan Will Continue to Maintain Defensive Identity
The Big Ten will once again be a very competitive conference. Michigan State is projected to be the top-rated Big Ten school heading into the season. Spartans coach Tom Izzo has three returning players who averaged double-digit scoring last season. The Indiana Hoosiers have senior forward Juwan Morgan returning, who averaged 16.5 points per game last season and will add offensive depth to this team.
Michigan will look to rely on its stout defensive identity as a recipe for another successful season. The Wolverines don’t give up a lot of three-point opportunities and are one of the best teams in the country preventing opposing teams from scoring on the transition. For Beilein, he has emphasized the importance of his offensive stars learning to become two-way players. Sophomore guard Jordan Poole has put in extra work this offseason to become a defensive threat, limiting his mistakes on that side of the ball from last season. Brazdeikis, who is a sharpshooter, is spending a lot of time working with coaches on defense. It is clear that the Michigan coaches are going to be holding their players accountable early in the season, making sure they maintain a strong defense.
“Defense is probably the most important part of basketball, I feel like,” Brazdeikis says, “so I definitely embrace what the coaches are doing.”
Michigan has made the National Championship Game in two of the last five seasons. But both times, they came away with disappointing losses. As the season opens against Norfolk State, the Wolverines should not be taken lightly. They are a well-coached machine who will look to wear teams down with defense, mixed in with some efficient scoring.
“We have to adopt again,” says Beilein. “I love embracing change, trying to change your team both offensively and defensively what can work. I think we have a chance to be a good defensive team again, but I think offensively we’re a work in progress.”