Basketball season is around the corner and over the next several weeks we’ll rundown some of the biggest storylines facing the 2014-15 Michigan Wolverines. In this edition we look at Michigan’s youth and whether the Wolverines will struggle with another young roster. (Photo: Michigan Basketball)
Michigan is going to have one of the youngest rosters in the Big Ten once again this season. The Wolverines return just two starters from last year’s Big Ten Championship squad and seven of their 12 eligible scholarship players have freshman eligibility. Two freshmen are expected to start and many others will play critical roles. John Beilein could have his youngest roster yet in Ann Arbor despite the fact that the Wolverines have ranked 300th or worse in experience four times in eight years and have never ranked better than 207th.
As a program, the Wolverines are stuck in a constant cycle of youth. Transfers and attrition have played a small part in the equation, but the NBA Draft has been the catalyst. In the last five years, seven Wolverines have opted to enter the NBA Draft before exhausting their eligibility. (Despite having consistently young rosters, Michigan has also graded out favorably in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Ranking metric to track graduation rate.)
John Beilein has managed to build a dominant program in the Big Ten despite constantly recycling his roster. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten with 40 wins over the last three seasons and had the youngest team in the league in 2013 and 2014.
Projecting a rough lineup rotation for the 2014-15 season points toward having a roster comparable to the 2012-13 team. That means the 2014-15 Wolverines should be comparable to the 2012-13 Wolverines in terms of experience. That team went to the National Championship and was a tip-in away from a Big Ten title, but was also the Big Ten’s youngest team since 2009 Indiana, who went 6-25 (1-17).
The numbers show that there’s very little correlation between experience and Big Ten success. Since 2009, the conference’s best teams haven’t always been the oldest. There have been several good young teams and a handful of bad old teams to buck conventional wisdom. However, Michigan’s young teams been among the league’s most productive over the last five years.
The follow scatterplot shows conference efficiency margin plotted against average experience with Michigan’s last five seasons labeled.
While there isn’t significant correlation, it’s clear that Michigan’s last two seasons have redefined what a young team can accomplish in the Big Ten. The 2013 and 2014 teams were the most successful young teams in the conference by a wide margin. The Wolverines’ two-year cycle of player growth hasn’t caught up to them just yet, but could this be the year?
On paper, expecting Michigan (and its freshman) to exceed expectations once again seems unfair. The Wolverines have a deep freshman class, but only one player is ranked in the top-50 nationally (Kameron Chatman) and many flew well below the radar and weren’t added until late in the recruiting cycle (Aubrey Dawkins, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman).
Schools known for succeeding with young rosters are generally able to do it because they have NBA talent. It’s no coincidence that all five starters from Michigan’s 2013 team are now on NBA rosters. Right now, this roster doesn’t appear to have as many future pros. The Wolverines have Caris LeVert – arguably the top draft prospect in the Big Ten – but the other 11 players on the roster aren’t popping up on many other draft boards just yet.
It feels like everyone other than Wisconsin is either reloading their roster or hoping to make a big improvement in 2015, so Michigan should still be able to compete in the league, but where should expectations be set? A core of Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton is still very good. But the biggest difference between this Michigan team and other recent teams could be the absence of Jordan Morgan.
Morgan was the constant in Michigan’s rotation, locker room and roster over the past four years. He anchored the defense, took care of the defensive glass and provided leadership. In his place, Michigan will rely on redshirt freshman Mark Donnal and true freshmen Ricky Doyle and DJ Wilson. The good news is that Morgan was also a freshman once and he played the same role then.
Michigan has proven that it’s possible for freshman to overachieve, but the fact that the Wolverines will be forced to do it once again this season is enough reason to pause and reconsider the outlook of the 2014-15 campaign.