This year is something of a "Yes, but" season for Michigan. This is a team that seemingly lost a lot of key pieces from last year's squad. Rotation big man Ricky Doyle, sharpshooter Aubrey Dawkins, senior combo guard Spike Albrecht, and former 5-star forward Kameron Chatman all transferred. Oh, and there's also the small matter of Caris LeVert departing for the NBA.
Doyle's inconsistency had him firmly down the depth chart by the time conference play rolled around. Ditto Chatman, whose minutes—five-stars be damned—were basically garbage minutes (with the notable exception of his heroics in the Big Ten Tournament). Dawkins had value, certainly, but his defensive shortcomings led to more time on the bench than a player possessing such offensive brilliance might otherwise deserve. And Albrecht and LeVert, while valuable, were injured for virtually the entirety of the conference season.
So, even accounting for those losses, this is still a tournament team that returns over 80 percent of last sreason's conference minutes. Additionally, Wright State's strange decision to fire coach Billy Donlon has turned to Michigan's gain, as he's now an assistant. Donlon's defenses at WSU were solid, so there's an expectation he'll be able to impart wisdom to the Wolverines, who have been mediocre defensively under Beilein.
Donlon's slot had to come from somewhere, and Michigan lost two assistants—Bakari Alexander and Lavall Jordan—to head coaching jobs. Jordan's loss might be especially felt, as he's widely credited with developing point guards in Ann Arbor. Under his tutelage, UM has produced top floor generals such as Darius Morris, Trey Burke, and now Derrick Walton. Further, it's impossible to ignore the point guard skills that have been developed in shooting guards such as Nik Stauskas and LeVert. Sometimes these things can be overstated, but time will tell.
We've seen enough Beilein Ball to know what to expect out of this year's team. No matter the frontcourt talent level in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines will space the floor and execute ball screens effectively to allow for easy looks for big men.
But with Dawkins gone, the Wolverines are uncharacteristically short on shooters. Even assuming a Zak Irvin reverses his 3-year slide in three-point accuracy, Michigan returns just three high-volume and accurate outside shooters. That would be an exception for a Beilein team—the only other one that managed to sustain a good offense despite a similar number of shooters also had the luxury of Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson, Jr. converting on 60 percent of their numerous two-point attempts. That will not be the case this season.
Defensively, we likely will not see what this team is made of until the conference season. Michigan tends to revert to zone defense against tougher opponents. If that starts coming out against non-conference foes, then it's safe to assume Donlon's influence has not made the desired impact.
Even so, I wonder if the Wolverines aren't being picked just a touch low. Last year's squad was quite the patchwork job, given the number of injuries. Assuming the team is healthier this season, there's a lot of minutes coming back (despite the transfers), and some of those minutes figure to come from leaping sophomores. Plus, Michigan welcomes a quality class headlined by point guard Xavier Simpson.
On paper, it's hard to see this team matching the success of the halcyon days of Burke and McGary. On the other hand, I have a hard time seeing a floor that's lower than last year's NCAA Tournament team. A season that puts them back in the play-in game (or worse) would be a disappointment, and a team that is still in the hunt for the conference title toward the end of February would be rousing success.