2020-21 ITH Season Preview: Michigan Wolverines

  • 10/19/2020 7:57 am in

With the start of college basketball season slated for late November, we’ll be taking a long look at the conference at large as well as Indiana’s roster over the next month. Today, we preview Michigan.

Year two of the Juwan Howard era in Ann Arbor will begin with far more questions than his debut season last winter.

As a rookie head coach, Howard inherited a well-oiled machine from John Beilein, who abruptly departed in May of 2019 for the Cleveland Cavaliers job.

Under Beilein, Michigan advanced to the national championship game twice, won multiple Big Ten regular season and tournament championships and helped springboard a number of players to the NBA.

When Howard took over last season, he had a pair of seniors in Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske to rely on. The experience of both players showed early in the season as Michigan won the Battle 4 Atlantis and ascended to No. 4 in the national rankings by early December.

The Wolverines came back to Earth in Big Ten play and finished the season 19-12 overall and 10-10 in league play. It would have been enough to qualify for the NCAA tournament in Howard’s first season had the season not been ended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While there’s still plenty of holdovers from the Beilein era still on the roster, the Wolverines are welcoming many new faces in Howard’s second season. Simpson and Teske both graduated and David DeJulius (Cincinnati) and Colin Castleton (Florida) both transferred away from the program.

The headlining returnees for Michigan are wings Franz Wagner and Isaiah Livers.

Wagner, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, is the younger brother of former Wolverine standout Moritz Wagner. He started slow last season due to a wrist injury, but was arguably the league’s third best freshman behind Kofi Cockburn and Trayce Jackson-Davis. Wagner averaged a stellar 11.6 points and 5.6 rebounds last season and shot 61 percent on 2s. The German talent is already firmly on the NBA radar and a breakout sophomore season could make him a candidate to leave school early.

Livers tested the NBA draft waters in the offseason and is Michigan’s leading returning scorer at 12.9 points per game. Livers missed 10 games last season due to injury, which was a major reason the Wolverines struggled for a long stretch in conference play. The 6-foot-7 Livers is a career 40 percent 3-point shooter and Michigan is going to need him to be more assertive offensively this season.

The duo of Wagner and Livers is one of the Big Ten’s best, but the pieces beyond those two will determine how good the Wolverines can be in year two of the Howard era. Senior Eli Brooks, who is only 6-foot-1, has played off the ball for the majority of his career due to Simpson’s presence. He averaged 10.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, two assists and shot 36.4 percent on 3s as a junior.

Two other key names to know in the backcourt are Mike Smith, a grad transfer from Columbia, and freshman Zeb Jackson. Smith averaged nearly 23 points in the Ivy League last season, but his team finished just 6-24 overall and 1-13 in league play. It’s a significant jump from the Ivy League to the Big Ten so expectations for Smith should be tempered.

Jackson, who committed to the program when Beilein was still the coach, is a 6-foot-5 southpaw guard from Toledo, Ohio who played his final prep season at Montverde Academy in Florida. The No. 87 player in the 247Composite rankings for the 2020 class, Jackson could be in line for minutes right away depending on how Smith plays and the eligibility status of Chaundee Brown, a transfer from Wake Forest. Brown, who averaged 12.1 points and 6.5 rebounds last season for the Demon Deacons, has not yet been granted eligibility to play this season.

Freshman Hunter Dickinson will likely get the first crack at replacing Teske in the Michigan starting lineup at center. A top 50 player from DeMatha Catholic (D.C.), Dickinson turned down an offer from Duke to suit up in the maize and blue. He’s a massive presence at 7-foot-1 and 255 pounds. Fifth-year senior Austin Davis, who averaged 4.9 points and 2.6 rebounds last season, will likely back up Dickinson.

Two other names to know are junior Brandon Johns Jr., who has been up and down in his first two seasons and freshman Terrance Williams II, a Gonzaga Catholic (D.C.) product. A former top 100 recruit, Johns Jr. averaged six points last season. Williams II, a top 100 recruit, originally committed to Georgetown, but opted to reopen the process last December and eventually signed with Michigan. He should provide size and athleticism at 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds.

Bottom Line: There are varying opinions on how good Michigan will be this winter as Blue Ribbon recently picked Michigan to finish ninth in the league, but our offseason power rankings had the Wolverines at fifth in the league. Guard play is a big question with the departure of Simpson, who was a leader on both ends of the floor. Howard is going to have to figure out how to best maximize Livers, Wagner and Brooks for this team to hit its ceiling as he will be relying on several unproven pieces around that trio.

Quotable: “I feel the same type of ownership that I had last year when I became a head coach. This is my team and each and every one of them are players that are part of this Michigan program, have accepted me into the program and I have of course welcomed each and every student-athlete with open arms. I know it’s been said that there are a lot of these players that I didn’t recruit. At the end of the day, this is my team, so I don’t put guys in categories or say, hey, he wasn’t recruited by me. … I have an excellent relationship with all of them.” – Howard in a press conference earlier this month.

(Previously: NebraskaNorthwesternMarylandMinnesotaPenn StatePurdue, Rutgers, Ohio State)

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