There’s a battle brewing in Ann Arbor this fall and it’s to determine who will start in Michigan’s frontcourt. Ultimately, the player who makes the starting lineup could have massive ramifications on whether the Wolverines are able to have success this season.
Since head coach John Beilein took over at Michigan heading into the 2007-08 season, the frontcourt has seen some pretty good players come through the door including Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan. After all, the Wolverines made the Final Four in 2013, won the Big Ten title in 2012 and 2014, and made the NCAA Tournament in five of the last seven seasons.
Despite this, many have viewed this year’s Michigan frontcourt in a different light. After a rough season where Michigan failed to make the NIT, many are expecting the guards and wing players to have to make up for what some view as an underwhelming frontcourt.
However, that projection might be changing.
There’s no debating that there are plenty of question marks coming into this season for Michigan’s frontcourt. The team is losing senior forward Max Bielfeldt and though Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle showed some potential, neither showed the consistency needed to compete at the highest level.
(Stats via Sports Reference.)
Nevertheless, this year’s frontcourt situation is much different than last year’s frontcourt that was a major area of concern all season. The biggest differences come from added depth, experience, and size.
Unlike last season, the center position is no longer based around two players (Donnal and Doyle) who had never played a minute at Michigan. Not only are both Donnal and Doyle back after playing some significant time last year, but the Wolverines also added a four-star power forward in Moritz Wagner and have former four-star recruit DJ Wilson coming off a redshirt season.
Even if none of these options is extremely exciting by itself, the fact that there are options alone is a pretty big step forward from last year. Michigan has gone from three freshmen who never played a minute and a career backup to two sophomores with experience and two talented freshmen.
Use Wagner as an example. Though he still needs to hit the weight room before hoping to be a quality big man, his raw skillset gives him a ton of upside in Ann Arbor. He has a good bit of speed for his 6’10” size, has a natural shooting stroke, and a great feel for the game. In fact, teammate Andrew Dakich said that he’s “never seen someone understand [Michigan’s] offense so quickly.”
The exciting thing though, is that Michigan doesn’t have to even use Wagner this year. Unlike last season where the Wolverines had to play all of the team’s young players out of necessity, Wagner will not be forced into action. In fact, Wagner will probably get either a bench role or a redshirt this season.
If Wagner is productive this season for the Wolverines, it’s almost just icy on the cake.
This group has also become much more physically ready for game action. Last year’s group had talent, but several of the players still needed some time in the weight room. However, since then, Doyle gained roughly 10 pounds and Wilson went up a remarkable 20 pounds.
Wilson noted that gaining this weight was a designed plan. He “felt better being down low” and “knew it was something he was going to be doing” this season, so adding the size was a major offseason goal. With this size and another year of development, both Wilson and Doyle could be ready to contribute more.
All told, this depth and size has changed Michigan’s dynamic upfront.
Beilein noted that there has been “fierce” competition in the froncourt and Michigan’s big men expressed similar thoughts. Donnal noted that he and his teammates are trying to create a “competitive environment” to ensure the best players get minutes and Wilson noted that everyone in the group does “a great job competing with one another.”
Competition alone won’t guarantee Michigan has a great frontcourt this season, but it goes a long way coupled with the team’s improvements in depth, experience, and size. This is no longer a competition for who is the best option of a group of inexperienced players. This is now a battle for which players have to earn the right to be on the court. That’s a huge difference.
If Michigan’s big men can build on this competition, it could be an exciting year in Ann Arbor.