The most unbelievable part of Michigan's run to the Championship Game last year was that it was a defense-led effort. The Wolverines finished 3rd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, and they held every NCAA Tournament opponent to a point per possession or less ('cept Nova, of course). Do we give credit to Billy Donlon, whose arrival coincided with the decrease in opponent three-point attempts? Is it Jon Teske's lateral quickness in the paint? Is it Charles Matthews' ability to man a variety of positions, allowing the Wolverines to switch with abandon? All of those things clicked last season, but defense has a way of leaving just as quickly as it arrived. Suffice to say, another season of stalwart defense will cement a trend.
And the Wolverines probably will need to defend at a high level to remain a threat to the Big Ten title. The offensively gifted Mo Wagner is gone, as is the team's ironman, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. The team also lost its best outside shooter in Duncan Robinson.
The cupboard isn't bare, exactly. Matthews' talents are still there, but he was a mess during the Big Ten season on offense, with a high turnover rate and an inability to make shots (45.3 eFG). His played picked up in the NCAA Tournament, but it's still fair to question how effective the Wolverine offense will be if Matthews is the alpha.
He very well might not be, however. Jordan Poole turned out to be an excellent shotmaker, and not shy about taking shots, either. The knock on his game is that he does not create his own shot off the bounce, meaning someone else will have to initiate the ball screen action. Matthews is Michigan's best option it would seem, as he took the ball to the basket 39 out of his 83 pick and roll possessions (per Synergy Sports), scoring a total of 43 points on such drives (by contrast, Poole took it to the basket just once on his 36 P&R possessions, and did not score). Isaiah Livers also showed an accurate outside shot, connecting on nearly half of his 3-pointers in conference play.
One storyline to follow is the development of point guard Zavier Simpson. While effective last year, I suspect his 55 percent accuracy on 2s is more of a testament to the offensive design that creates so much space inside the arc. But Simpson is a generous 6-0 in shoes, and I have my doubts that number holds. Not only that, but his free throw shooting nosedived all the way down to 47 percent in conference play. If Simpson is asked to expand his offensive role, his limited shooting touch will be a problem. Thus, there's a real need to find another scorer on this roster.
That brings us to the freshmen. John Beilein has turned into quite the recruiter in recent seasons, and this year's crop is no exception. But I'll come right out and say it—I'm a huge fan of Ignas Brazdeikis (I might start calling him "Iggy B" or something because I am not going to remember how to spell that). On the AAU circuit, Ignas averaged 22 points per game, shooting 57 percent on 2s and 30 percent on 3s. He pulled down 7.5 boards and handled the ball quite a bit. During Michigan's summer trip to Spain, he led the team in scoring. I usually don't pontificate all that much about rankings—after the first 30 or so spots, the accuracy is more macro—but his #74 RSCI strikes me as obscenely low.
Even still, replacing the high-efficiency talents of Wagner, MAAR, and Robinson is no small task. Virtually everything would have to break right for Michigan to repeat last year's performance. But we're talking about a Beilien offense here, and Beilein's offensive floor is quite high. The real question on next season is whether the defense we saw in 2018 was an aberration or the beginning of a trend. If it can stay in the neighborhood, expect another high seed come March.