For each of the last two seasons, Michigan basketball has received heaps of optimism before the start of the season. The Wolverines were expected to be contenders by most of the national media and were ranked in the top 25 in the polls on opening night.
Unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned.
While Michigan did post a 39-29 (.574) record over those two seasons, the team suffered from a combination of injuries, youth, and bad breaks. The Wolverines made the NCAA Tournament last season, but missed it altogether in the year prior and recorded just a 1-5 record against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State.
Perhaps no group during the last two seasons has underperformed more for Michigan than its backcourt. Despite lofty projections and an eventual first-round NBA Draft pick in Caris LeVert, the unit never performed well enough to compete with the nation’s and the Big Ten’s top teams. Much of last season’s backcourt contributors will return this season. How they perform will tell a lot about what to expect from the Wolverines.
Considering that Michigan returns its entire starting lineup from last season, there shouldn’t be much drama in determining the starters in the backcourt. Unless something surprising occurs, Derrick Walton should start at point guard and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (“MAAR”) should start at the two guard.
This season figures to be the most pivotal yet for Walton. Despite his hype as a recruit and a freshman, Walton has been closer to average than elite over the last two seasons. He’s been a quality passer and fantastic outsider shooter, but his inability to finish at the rim has hindered his progress. All eyes will focus on whether he can improve that aspect of his game this season.
Alongside Walton should be MAAR, who is coming off a relatively productive sophomore season. Although MAAR averaged just 8.6 points and 2.7 rebounds a game last season, he was really efficient (112.9 offensive rating) and shot 56.8 percent from two-point range in Big Ten play. If he can stay efficient and expand his role offensively, he could deliver an equation-changing performance for Michigan.
Given that both Walton and MAAR played more than 70 percent of Michigan’s minutes last season and are both upperclassmen, it’s hard to expect too much more than what these two delivered last season. However, both were still productive players; even slight upgrades from each could go a long way toward helping Michigan’s level of play and making the Wolverines harder to contend with at both ends of the court.
Over the last few seasons, injuries not only derailed the backcourt’s starting lineup, but also delivered major hits to the team’s bench. Michigan was not only forced to push bench players into starter minutes, but even had to play walk-ons for vital minutes in key games. These were costly hits that undeniably cost Michigan in numerous moments of significance the last two seasons.
However, unlike past seasons, Michigan has depth.
Starting at point guard, Michigan figures to have four options behind Walton: incoming four-star and top 50 recruit Xavier Simpson, walk-ons Andrew Dakich and Fred Wright-Jones, and MAAR, if the need arises. Simpson projects to be Michigan’s star guard of the future. By all accounts, he should push Walton for minutes in the backcourt. The other options should provide extra stability in the event of injuries.
MAAR should also have some decent players behind him, despite not having a clear-cut backup option. While many will point to three-star freshman Ibi Watson as the key reserve, Watson’s reportedly not practicing much at the two. Expect most of the backup minutes to be filled by Simpson and Walton and star forward Zak Irvin, if need be.
There might not seem to be a lot of faces for Michigan’s backcourt, but the beautiful thing for John Beilein and the Wolverines is that it’s loaded with players that can play multiple spots. Among the three top options (MAAR, Simpson, Walton) and other reserves, this should be a deep and experienced group.
Heading into this season, Michigan has the bittersweet experience of returning a backcourt that was solid, but not great, during the 2015-’16 season. There’s comfort in knowing the names and knowing that the players are at least decent, but it’s hard to see this group being too much better than it was last season.
Fans will have to look toward the two new additions, Simpson and Watson, for that hope. If those two, and specifically Simpson, can hit the ground running, perhaps the boost on the bench will be enough to take this group forward. Otherwise, Michigan’s backcourt will look the same as it did before.
There will be a lot of questions for the Wolverines heading into this fall, but if some of the returners and new additions can make an impact in the backcourt, perhaps Beilein and the Wolverines could make significant strides.