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Today’s U Top 25 Countdown: No. 19 Michigan Wolverines

Photo: Icon Sportswire

Michigan returns everyone–all the key players. But the likes of senior guard Caris LeVert, senior guard Spike Albrecht, junior point man Derrick Walton, Jr. and junior wing Zak Irvin each need to get fully healthy before the Wolverines can start to seriously think about making a charge toward the top of the Big Ten standings.

In their current condition, the Wolverines won’t be able to run with conference frontrunners such as Maryland, so health–not to mention the development of underclassmen–will play a key role in Michigan’s season. Luckily, coach John Beilein, who enters his ninth season with the program, is known for doing just that.

An up-and-down 16-16 season wasn’t what the Wolverines had hoped for in 2014-15, but it did give Beilein a chance to groom some of his up-and-coming talent, such as will-be-sophomore guards Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (or ‘MAAR’ in these parts).

“As you know, it is painful to go through that. It is painful for them as well,” Beilein said on Big Ten media day, according to a transcript provided by Michigan. “We had a lot of close losses, and right now you can see the effect has been terrific. They’re hungry. But we make no mistake about it and say we’re not close.

You know, we’re not going to talk about it. We’re a few wins here or a few wins there. No. We have a lot of gap to make up with this young team. But without question, now that we look back on it, it was very beneficial for all of us, including the coaching staff.”

Key Departures

Front court depth and production was an issue for the Wolverines in 2014-15. Losing fifth-year senior Max Bielfeldt–who transferred to Indiana–hurts the overall picture but the move created scholarship space. It was a necessary shuffle.

Key Additions

After redshirting, Duncan Robinson, a transfer from Division III Williams College, is in position to prove that he really is–and hands-down, according to everyone in 2014-15–the best shooter at Michigan. Albrecht talked about Robinson’s shooting. So did LeVert and Irvin.

Everyone raved about the 6’8,” 210-pounder’s workouts and practices–even Beilein.

Michigan welcomes freshman  Moritz Wagner of Germany. The 6’10,” 225-pounder turned 18 back in April. He’s young. Real young. This could be a learning year for the versatile forward. Expecting a lot, if anything, from him just doesn’t seem logical at this point.

Schedule Analysis 

The Wolverines will play in the “Battle 4 Atlantis” tournament, giving them early exposure to March-like environments. Michigan is scheduled to play UConn on Nov. 25. Depending on advancement, there are possible meetings with Texas, Texas A&M and Gonzaga.

And that’s all before facing North Carolina State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 5.

Michigan plays conference-favorite Maryland twice, gets Michigan State on the road Feb. 6 and travels to Ohio State on Feb. 16. That’s just a quick look, as the regular gauntlet of Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue, Penn State, Illinois and Iowa, etc. will present its standard set of challenges.

Preview and Prediction

Now a sophomore, Kam Chatman should be one of Michigan’s go-to guys in 2015-16. After shooting just a shade less than 32 percent from the field and averaging a paltry 3.6 points per game, the 6’8,” 215-pound small forward appears to be in line for much more this time around.

“He’s made great strides so far. He has — his shooting has really improved,” Beilein said. “His body continues to improve, like they all should at this time, with another year of weightlifting and another year of quickness training. Just his knowledge of you can accomplish a lot more if you maybe try to do less a little bit. Just his general understanding of the game and his body and his ability to shoot the ball right now that has really improved.”

This past season, Chatman often looked lost on the court. He averaged roughly a turnover during 15 minutes per game and shot just 67 percent from the line. However, if he takes the next step, he’ll be a dynamic complement to what should be a respectable Wolverines frontcourt.

A year ago, Beilein mentioned how he didn’t know if Ricky Doyle was the inside or outside guy. He said the same about Mark Donnal, too. Beilein just knew that he had two guys with immense potential–both offensively and defensively. Doyle proved that he could bang in the paint with the best of them. He often stood toe-to-toe with the opposing team’s center and power forward.

He never backed down, either.

At 6’9″ and 245 pounds, Doyle is built for monster finishes, rebounding and the all-important defense. He is, without a doubt, Beilein’s inside guy. Look for him to nearly double his freshman averages of 6.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per game this season as a sophomore.

Donnal, on the other hand, enters his third year. After redshirting two years ago, the 6’9,” 240-pound forward has gained enough experience to become a reliable contributor. He only averaged 3.4 points per game, but his 13 points in 14 minutes during a 62-51 home loss to SMU certainly shed light on his ability. He went 4-for-6 that night and had four rebounds. Like Doyle, he’s due to double-up on his numbers.

D.J. Wilson had knee problems as a freshman, so he was given a redshirt year in order to recover and develop. At 6’10” and 240 pounds, Wilson could evolve into an incredibly dangerous rebounder and scorer. A year ago, players often spoke highly of Wilson’s raw ability. This will be a “put it together” type of season for him.

Of course, everything revolves Beilein’s backcourt. He’s know for athletic fronts, but he’s heavily relied upon a steady stream of guards throughout his tenure at Michigan–and that won’t change this season.

Now with a year of experience, Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman are primed to deliver points and highlights on a nightly basis. Flash back to 2014-15, and you’ll remember an emerging tandem who dazzled spectators with 20- and 30-point exploits.

Beilein has two of the most underrated sophomores in the nation, and the pair of 6’6″ athletes could lead to an embarrassment of riches during clutch time. In 2014-15, MAAR shot 93 percent from the line and Dawkins shot nearly 44 percent from beyond the arc. Put it this way, they’re both capable of making big buckets.

When at full strength, Walton, who had ankle issues this past season, is one of the best point men in the Big Ten. He’s played at much higher levels, too. He has the skill set to compete for All-American honors, there is no doubting that. Despite playing in just 19 games, he averaged 10.7 points and three assists per outing. More importantly, he was the team’s second-best free-throw shooter, per average (.833). For a team that averaged 75 percent from the line, Walton could and would have been useful during tight games.

The 6’1,” 190-pounder could easily average 12 to 14 points and upward of five to six assists this season. Easily. It’s just all about health.

That’ll be true for Zak Irvin, one of the most athletic weapons in Beilein’s arsenal. In late summer, the 6’6,” 220-pound do-all underwent corrective back surgery. He’s expected to be available at some point before the Wolverines slide into Big Ten play. Irvin topped 20 points five times as a sophomore, which is something most will expect from him in 2015-16. Another basket or two, and that total would have shot up to nearly double that; he scored 17 or 18 five times this past season.

At this time a year ago, LeVert was being viewed as a potential first-round NBA draft pick and All-American. However, neither of those happened for the 6’7,” 205-pounder who was limited to 18 games due to a foot injury. Instead of taking chances in the 2015 draft, LeVert opted to return for his senior year in Ann Arbor.

When fully healthy, he’s more than capable of averaging 16 to 18 points per game. He’s always a threat from anywhere on the floor, making him one of the Big Ten’s most lethal scorers. Needless to say, he’s the Wolverines’ most important player–production-wise–heading into 2015-16.

At 5’11” and 175 pounds, Albrecht, a senior, is the unquestioned emotional leader of the team. That was especially evident toward the end of 2014-15, when he often gutted it out while battling two painful hips (both were repaired in offseason). In 2014-15, the Wolverines lacked assertive vocal leaders. But that shouldn’t be the case this season, according to Albrecht, via Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press.

“Both Caris (LeVert) and myself are more lead-by-example type of guys, and last year I think what we lacked was more vocal leaders,” Albrecht said. “Guys who aren’t afraid to get on other guys. It’s not easy to do for me to check somebody and hold them accountable. Tell them ‘we need you to pick it up, you’ve got to do more.’

“There were times last year where Caris and myself, we need to do that but we didn’t. But this year we said: ‘Screw it, it’s our senior year, I’m yelling at everyone.’

The Wolverines have enough talent to compete in the top-third of the Big Ten standings–assuming that they enjoy some sort of consistent health, of course.


Follow Adam Biggers of Today’s U on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained from a press release provided by the University of Michigan and the Big Ten Conference

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