Will next year follow a similar script? Honestly, I think it will in a lot of ways. Even though the non-conference schedule isn’t completed yet, we do know it will be absolutely brutal once again. The Legends Classic appears to be a very solid field, with Villanova, Oregon, and VCU being the other three participants. Michigan will also likely welcome an elite ACC program into Crisler for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Toughest of all, though, will be a trip to Tucson to take on an Arizona team that looks to be one of the three or four best in the country.
There will be plenty of growing pains throughout the non-conference slate, just as there was this year. However, it will only help, and in the long run the team will be better off having gone through it. For example, we saw how much a youngster such as Derrick Walton matured as this year progressed. By the end of the season, he didn’t even resemble the player he had been early on. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the same result with another youngster on next year’s team, Kameron Chatman. Chatman will certainly provide plenty of highlight reel plays next season, but he’ll have his fair share of struggles as well. The key is that he continues to improve as the season goes along, and honestly, there’s no reason to think he won’t.
Gradual improvement is not only the key for Chatman, but basically every player on the team. The two I think it will be most important for, though, are Walton and Zak Irvin. Along with Caris LeVert, these three players will determine just how successful next year’s team will be. Both Walton and Irvin had nice freshman seasons, but neither was asked to carry the team. Next year they will be asked to do that very thing.
I expect Walton to emerge as much more of a scoring threat. He showed that he could both hit from long range and get to the basket this year. Irvin’s progression, though, will be every bit as important as Walton’s. The only part of Irvin’s offensive repertoire we saw this year was basically his ability to shoot and make threes. His role will expand greatly, and I expect him to make a Stauskas-esque leap from freshman to sophomore year. Those expectations may sound a bit high to some, but Rivals.com had this kid as a former 5-star for a reason. I don’t think he’ll be as good as Stauskas was this year, but I don’t think he’ll be far off. Irvin will obviously be dangerous from deep again, but I also expect him to display a midrange game, and be able to drive and finish at the basket.
The final and arguably most important piece of next year’s backcourt will be LeVert. He will likely be the “go-to guy” in this offense, and it will be interesting to see if he can answer the bell. He was able to shine playing alongside Stauskas this year, but now that he is gone, the spotlight will be placed on LeVert. I expect him to be every bit as good as he was this season, but I don’t know how much more he’ll progress. That’s not a knock on him at all; I just don’t think his ceiling is as high as it is for Irvin and Walton. Limiting turnovers will be key for LeVert, as will his shot selection.
The bigs are what has most fans concerned about next year’s group, and rightfully so. At this point I’d be surprised if Mark Donnal doesn’t wind up being the starting center, but it’s impossible to know what to expect out of him. I could actually see him being quite good right from the get-go, but I could also see him struggling mightily early on. I do think he’ll have a very productive career at Michigan, but again, it’s impossible to know how he’ll perform early on. Veteran Max Bielfeldt will play a role as well, but it may not necessarily be a big one. He’ll be entering his fourth year in the program, and it just feels like his opportunities may have come and passed. Freshman Ricky Doyle will also likely be in the rotation, but like Donnal, it’s incredibly difficult to predict how he’ll perform. If this group of bigs is at least adequate and somewhat productive, it will go a long way in determining how successful this team will be.
As for the bench, Spike Albrecht looks to be the most valuable piece. He is a more than capable point guard who can spell Walton at times, and one who can be on the court with him at the same time. Plus, his experience and leadership qualities can’t be undervalued. Needless to say, Albrecht will be a very key piece to this team. It’s hard to say how much the other freshmen will play. D.J. Wilson will certainly see some time, but how much is yet to be determined. Both Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins seem likely to redshirt, but even that’s certainly not a guarantee. Given Beilein’s track record, I wouldn’t be surprised if one, maybe even both, become key players a few years down the road.
Considering everything that has happened to Michigan since this season ended, there will be plenty of criticism and negativity from the media surrounding them this offseason. However, Beilein has been criticized before during his time at Michigan, and his teams have generally responded incredibly well. As long as he is the head coach in Ann Arbor, I’m going to have high expectations heading into every season. He, along with his outstanding staff of LaVall Jordan, Jeff Meyer, and Bacari Alexander, have proven that they are one of the elite coaching staffs in the country. Whether it’s developing talent, handling adversity, or teaching mental toughness, this staff has shown there isn’t much it can’t do. Apparently some fans and folks in the media haven’t realized that yet, though, and that’s totally fine. On-court results are what matters, and Michigan has done pretty well in that department as of late. Michigan will have its fair share of doubters heading into next season, giving Beilein and his team another opportunity to prove them wrong…yet again.