The Wolverines have enough talent to make the postseason. They return one of the Big Ten's promising young players in wing Franz Wagner, one of the nation's top shooters in forward Isaiah Livers and two-way guard Eli Brooks, a solid shooter and formidable defender. The question is whether Juwan Howard can pair the returning pieces with the six new players on the roster — a four-man freshman class and two key transfers in point guard Mike Smith and wing Chaundee Brown. There's redundancy on the roster (the top three players are all wings) and major questions in the backcourt and frontcourt.
For the Wolverines to play to expectation, they need a number of things to happen: Smith, who transferred from Columbia, must adjust quickly to the rigors of Big Ten play and give the Wolverines key minutes as either a starting guard or a top backup. At the other guard position, Brooks must maintain his high level of play on both ends of the court. Wagner, Livers and Brown have to shoulder the offensive workload that was previously carried by Zavier Simpson. And the Wolverines need at least one center to effectively defend ball screens — or, perhaps, Michigan can switch screens with fast, athletic lineups that feature Brandon Johns Jr. as a small-ball center.
This is a fascinating roster caught between two places, containing both the remnants of former coach John Beilein's recruiting classes, Howard's first full class and two unique transfers. But there's still enough talent to reach the NCAA tournament (assuming the Wolverines can avoid COVID-19 throughout the season) and finish in the upper half of the Big Ten.
Now, what must happen for Michigan to play above expectation and win the Big Ten? A breakout season from Wagner that boosts him into the lottery range of NBA mock drafts would help. As would other players outperforming expectations. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson already is a high-level offensive player but is an unknown as a defender; if he adjusts quickly on defense, it will go a long way toward solidifying the center position. Johns has the potential to be a game-changing player on both ends of the floor. Maybe one of the other freshmen, such as Terrance Williams or Zeb Jackson, can contribute at a high level.
Michigan's talent is undeniable, but there still are plenty of pressing questions. In his first season as coach, Juwan Howard tethered the team's offense to Simpson. Against most opponents, Simpson made the right reads out of ball screens and found open teammates, and the result was an effective offense that ranked No. 20 in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Simpson is gone now, and it's somewhat unclear how the Wolverines will account for his departure. How often will Smith and Brooks operate out of ball screens? Will they ask the wings to initiate the offense, too? And how will those players perform in bigger roles?
In a worst-case scenario, Michigan learns that no combination of players can make up for what Simpson did last season, and the Wolverines fail to adapt and find a new system that works. The lack of creation on the roster leads to significantly worse shooting from inside and outside the 3-point line, due to taking more difficult shots, and a spike in turnovers.
If Michigan can't figure out how to optimize the pieces on the roster, it wouldn't be unrealistic for the Wolverines to struggle to defend smaller, quicker teams with lineups that feature Wagner, Livers and Brown. It's also plausible they can't find a center who can defend ball screens and provide rim protection. Compounding all of the uncertainty is the possibility of missing games or players due to COVID-19-related issues. The Wolverines seem to have done a good job staying healthy, but college football has been profoundly impacted by COVID-19, and several college basketball teams already have paused activities due to COVID-19 or even canceled games. Even if everything goes perfectly for Michigan on the court, the season could be impacted by factors out of the Wolverines' control.
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