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 depth and how John Beilein will manage his rotation.
Previously: Can Michigan’s big men step up?
John Gasaway published an article at ESPN recently that named Michigan the third most experienced team in college basketball.
While John Beilein does finally have a couple of seniors in his rotation, the roster still features only four upperclassmen so the headline was a bit of an eyebrow raiser. A closer look revealed that Gasaway’s methodology relied on returning minutes and usage rate rather than actual age. While Michigan’s traditional experience is up for debate, its returning minutes and production measures aren’t.
Michigan returns its entire roster other than Max Bielfeldt next season and John Beilein could have his deepest roster since arriving in Ann Arbor. Depth is obviously a luxury, but it also presents unique set of challenges for the Wolverines.
Beilein has traditionally favored a tight rotation during his tenure in Ann Arbor. He’s only played his bench for more than 30% of available minutes in three seasons — usually when he was unsure of the correct rotation and usually on bad teams. When he has eight players he likes, he generally isn’t shy about riding those eight.
Here’s a look at bench minutes under Beilein with data from KenPom.com.
Michigan played its bench for a larger percentage of minutes than any season under John Beilein last year and the decision was driven by necessity rather than choice. In mid-December of last season the Wolverines were ranked just 317th nationally in bench minutes.
The 269 spot climb in bench minutes wasn’t smooth — it featured a stretch of seven losses in eight games — but it could be invaluable going forward. If Michigan wasn’t snake-bitten by injuries then players like Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman wouldn’t be nearly as prepared to play critical roles this season. On the other hand, Derrick Walton and Caris LeVert are back which means that Michigan’s sophomores aren’t going to have the opportunity to play anywhere close to as many minutes as they saw over the final two months of last season.
For John Beilein and his staff, this will present a challenge to ride his future pro and work his highly touted point guard back into the mix, but still find situations for Spike Albrecht to excel or find shots within the offense for Aubrey Dawkins or Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
Options to experiment
While John Beilein isn’t likely to go with a Kentucky-style platoon system any time soon, he’ll have the ability to experiment with different rotations and combinations early on.
This could be especially valuable in the front court where the Wolverines seem to have as many questions as potential answers. With Max Bielfeldt in Bloomington, Michigan will rely on some combination of Ricky Doyle, Mark Donnal, DJ Wilson and Moritz Wagner to handle the 40 available minutes at the five. I’d expect Doyle to command the majority of those minutes, but the rest are as good as up for grabs.
Overall, I still expect Michigan to be more likely to opt for small ball than a bigger lineup. Two point guard looks with Derrick Walton and Spike Albrecht should continue to be a fixture, but there are other options as well. I love the idea of experimenting with a tall lineup of Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin and Aubrey Dawkins at the one through four. Pair that big guard lineup with a lengthy center like DJ Wilson and suddenly there’s a potentially dangerous 1-3-1 zone lineup to tinker with.
Zak Irvin just underwent back surgery and Spike Albrecht, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton are all recovering from injuries or surgeries over the offseason or late last season. While it’s easy to point to Michigan’s depth on paper in September, the Wolverines aren’t entering the season completely healthy either.
LeVert and Walton are back in workouts and Spike Albrecht is expected to be cleared for full contact before the season. Irvin’s timeline calls for a return near the start of the season, but specifics on his back procedure haven’t been made available.
Having Abdur-Rahkman, Dawkins and Kam Chatman on the wings should give Michigan the luxury to ease its upperclassmen back into the rotation gradually rather than playing them 35+ minutes per game right out of the gate.
Last February, Michigan was relying on walk-ons to provide rotation minutes off the bench in Big Ten play. This year, the Wolverines will have four bench players who started at least ten games last season. That’s a luxury that few teams have in this day and age of transfers and attrition.
I’d be shocked if Michigan didn’t settle on a steady eight or nine man rotation by January, but after last season’s disaster the safety blanket of some added experience will be a welcome sight to Michigan fans.
The real key for Michigan to click could be in working out the balance in shots rather than minutes. Early on last season, Caris LeVert looked like he was trying to do everything and like he didn’t have much help. Now he does with Zak Irvin demonstrating marked improvement late in last season and the sophomore class all having made critical impacts in at least a couple Big Ten games.