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Offseason Storylines: Can Michigan’s big men step up?

Basketball season is a couple of months away and over the next few weeks we’ll run down some of the biggest storylines facing the 2015-16 Michigan Wolverines. In this edition, we discuss Michigan’s frontcourt and what’s next for Ricky Doyle, Mark Donnal, DJ Wilson and Mortiz Wagner.

Basketball season is a couple of months away and over the next few weeks we’ll run down some of the biggest storylines facing the 2015-16 Michigan Wolverines. In this edition, we discuss Michigan’s frontcourt and what’s next for Ricky Doyle, Mark Donnal, DJ Wilson and Mortiz Wagner.

There’s no questioning the wealth of guard talent on Michigan’s roster. Caris LeVert is a projected first round pick, Zak Irvin transformed his game late in his sophomore season, Derrick Walton is a reliable Big Ten lead guard, while Spike Albrecht flourished in the ball screen game during Walton’s absence. Even unheralded sophomores Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins emerged in Big Ten play last year.

But someone needs to play in the frontcourt and the burning question facing the 2015-16 Wolverines is whether the big men can step up. Michigan’s roster options standing 6-foot-9 or taller include two sophomores (one redshirt) and two freshmen (one redshirt) and all of them have questions to answer.

With four McDonald’s All-American big men entering the league — Maryland’s Diamond Stone, Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan, Indiana’s Thomas Bryant and Michigan State’s Deyonta Davis — along with returning post players like AJ Hammons, Isaac Haas, Alex Olah and Adam Woodbury back for another year, the importance of steady post play will be vital.

Freshmen centers that aren’t All-Americans generally don’t fare well in the Big Ten, so in that respect Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal were in well over the head to begin with. Both players took their fair share of lumps throughout their freshman years. Donnal looked over-matched physically and failed to influence the game with his highly touted jump shot. Doyle showed flashes of brilliance — big early games vs. Oregon and Syracuse and several impressive performances early on in Big Ten play  — but eventually conditioning caught up to him and his performance plateaued.

By the end of last season, Michigan’s most-reliable big man was the one that John Beilein and his staff chose to let walk — across the conference — as Max Bielfeldt will suit up for Indiana this season. The move was a gamble on Doyle, Donnal, Wilson and Wagner’s inevitable future.

Interior defense must improve

Michigan has never been known for a dominant interior defense under John Beilein, but the best Beilein teams in Ann Arbor have graded out favorably in several key metrics. The Wolverines don’t necessarily have to block many shots, but they need to be solid on the defensive glass, play sound post defense and prevent easy layups.

In 2014-15, Michigan had the Big Ten’s worst post-up defense and ranked in just the 7th percentile nationally. The Wolverines surrendered .961 points per possession (including pass outs) in the low post last season according to Synergy Sports, Michigan also allowed a 51.8% two-point shooting percentage in Big Ten play, third-worst in the conference, and allowed opponents to rebound a third of their misses.

While Michigan’s never had a great interior defense, these Big Ten ranks over the last several years show that the Wolverines have at least managed to be average.

big ten interior d

Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal both struggled defensive in their first season. Doyle’s defensive rebounding rate of 11.9% was only better than Spike Albrecht, Aubrey Dawkins, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman in the Wolverine rotation.

DJ Wilson is an intriguing option to bolster the front court with his length and shot blocking potential, but does he have the strength to battle at the five for extended stretches? Moritz Wagner has shown promise, but entering his freshman season listed at 6-foot-10 and 210 pounds, it’s hard to imagine him making an impact with his low-post defense.

Doyle’s offense shows promise

Offensively, Michigan’s expectations at the center role are fairly straightforward. If you can catch and finish effectively than the rest of the offense can shoulder the heavy lifting.

Ricky Doyle was an effective finisher in the pick-and-roll game last season, shooting 70% when he caught the ball rolling to the hoop. He shot a better-than-average 61% on his two-point attempts for the season and he was also an impressive offensive rebounder. Overall his freshman offensive base shows more than enough promise to envision him blossoming as a sophomore.

Even Mark Donnal’s final stats showed some promise. He performed well in limited ball screen action, made 37% of his three-point attempts and finished at a 57% clip inside. Those numbers feel a bit hollow given his limited role, but they are all solid statistically.

DJ Wilson and Mortiz Wagner are x-factors offensively as both have been touted as fours down the line, but could be forced to play five at some point early in their careers.

Rebounding guards need to help

Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton are two of the best rebounding guards in the Big Ten, if not the country, and they will play a critical part in Michigan’s defensive rebounding approach. Similarly, the versatility and size of some of the other Wolverines wings — Duncan Robinson at 6-foot-8, Kameron Chatman at 6-foot-7, Zak Irvin at 6-foot-6 — should all help on the defensive glass.

Michigan has relied on guard rebounding in the past — planning for their bigs to box out and the guards clean up the loose balls — as it is an approach that suits the Wolverines’ roster and also can generate to increased transition and unsettled situations on offense.

Bottom line

Ricky Doyle’s name hasn’t received much buzz this offseason, but the 6-foot-9, 250 pound sophomore could be the most important player on the roster. The Wolverines need more minutes from Doyle, who accounted for just 44% of Michigan’s minutes last season.

But Doyle can’t do it all alone and Michigan’s ceiling this year will likely be determined not only by how reliable Doyle is over the course of the entire year, but who else can step up. Down the stretch last season, it was Max Bielfeldt that accounted for over 50% of minutes at the five spot and he played well enough to deserve them.

Wilson with his increased size is the x-factor in the equation. He can provide an entirely different aspect with his versatility and length, but defining expectations for the redshirt freshman who saw action in just a handful of games is tough to do.

Michigan has pieces in place, but after a learning season last year it doesn’t have time to be patient. The future is now for the Wolverines’ young frontcourt.

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