So we’re going to be doing things a little differently this year. Gone is the regimen of dedicated team previews and regularly-scheduled recaps. Much more of a “write about what we want to, when we want to.” So with that, welcome to the new season.
Also, I started writing this preview before I knew how much I had to say about both teams. So this is really long. Here’s a jump to Michigan, if you just want to read about the Wolverines. _
Just 60 miles or so separates Ann Arbor from East Lansing, and there isn’t a lot that separates the two teams right now. They’re both coming off very similar seasons, for instance:
Even more, coming into this season, both teams lose roughly half of last year’s minutes. And with both teams, that’s probably underselling it. Michigan State for its part lost three starters to the NBA and graduation (Keith Appling, Gary Harris, and Adreian Payne), and another rotation player to a failure “to meet necessary obligations” (Kenny Kaminski), although Tom Izzo made sure everyone knew it was “just a minor setback” (seriously?).
Replacing those players on the roster is largely freshmen along with an impact transfer. On paper, this freshman class is the second substandard one in a row, though that’s applying the standards of Michigan State. Lourawls Nairn is the lone top-100 player in the class (RSCI #78), but I don’t see him being all that good as a freshman, though I like his long-term potential. That’s not what Spartan fans want to hear, I’m sure, because there aren’t exactly a ton of ballhandling options on the roster (more on that later). Nairn and his classmate, Marvin Clark, Jr., played on the same AAU team in their summer before their senior seasons. Nairn didn’t exactly have the desired shot selection from someone who will likely be charitably listed at 6-0, as just ten of his 179 field goal attempts were 3s. And it’s also difficult to claim his reticence from deep was due to things going swimmingly inside the arc, as he shot just 44 percent on his 2s. More likely, Nairn just wasn’t all that confident in his outside shot, as his 58 percent free throw stroke indicates.
Clark is an interesting option—the forward was his team’s leading scorer, though his 43.8 eFG wasn’t all that stellar. But a 6-7 forward that devotes nearly half his attempts to 3s, and wasn’t so bad at them, is worth a look. But that’s not all—Clark was also extremely skilled at getting to the line, which is where he excelled (84 percent). Free throws and three-pointers are great ways to find efficiency, so I’m very intrigued by this guy. Alas, he might be too raw as a freshman, given his turnover-prone ways (17 turnovers against just 2 assists). But as sleepers go, Clark isn’t a bad pick.
Javon Bess appears to be another underrated 3-star. A double-digit scorer, Bess is also a strong rebounder and appears to have some pretty good handles to go with it. Yes, that does sound a lot like Draymond Green and Denzel Valentine, though I’m sure Spartan fans are hoping he’s more like the former.
Finally, MSU got a much-needed boost to its outside shooting when Cleveland State transfer Bryn Forbes was given a waiver to play this season. I don’t expect Forbes to do much beyond shoot 3s (42 percent last year at Cleveland State), but given the lack of other outside options on the team, that should keep him plenty busy.
So does this incoming quartet have a chance at replacing the aforementioned exodus? Of course not—that group included a couple of first rounders, after all. Michigan State is not going to compete for the Big Ten title this season, that much is clear. But we’re still seeing a lot of projections putting the Spartans in the top-25, though I’m not sure I can sign onto that, either. For one, I’m not sure where the improvement comes from. The only returning sophomores are Gavin Schilling and Alvin Ellis. Schilling had his moments last year, but he, like Ellis, is an extreme role player that seems unlikely to grab a larger share of the offense. Travis Trice is a three-point specialist who sometimes plays a point guard on TV, though Valentine might actually be better-suited for the role. Valentine and Branden Dawson are nice enough players, but I’m not sure there’s a lot more to see out of either of them. Both players were third and fourth options while on the floor last year, but now they’re expected to be the centerpieces of this attack. While Valentine should improve on his finishing (just 49 percent at the rim last season), the added responsibility will likely lead to more bad shots. As for Dawson, he’s incredibly effective around the rim, where over two-thirds of his shots have come from in his career. But he’s not a jumpshooter. When the shot clock is winding down, he’s not someone I want to see with the ball in his hands at the top of the key.
And ultimately, that’s the problem I see with MSU’s offense this season. A lot of players who are good in the right role, but all role players to be sure. I see a defense first, second, and third team here, and one that appears headed for the bubble.
OK, so what about Michigan? Coming off an outright Big Ten title and another deep Tournament run, is this just another reload? After all, this team lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., and didn’t miss a beat. Why can’t that happen again down a Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Jordan Morgan, and Jon Horford?
Well, one reason is because I couldn’t read that sentence out loud without taking in another breath. The losses are more significant this season. But perhaps more importantly, there’s not quite as much upside here. What made Michigan’s runner-up season all the more impressive was the amount of not-NBA ready freshmen were on the floor for John Beilein’s team. Over half of the conference minutes in 2013-14 were played by freshmen that came back for their sophomore seasons. It almost doesn’t matter what you lose when that’s the case.
This year, there are no such resources to draw from. Sure, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton are fine prospects that played a lot of minutes last year, but that amounts to under a quarter of last year’s totals.
And it’s also worth mentioning that not all freshmen are alike. Stauskas himself is pumping the brakes a bit on Irvin, and for good reason. It’s one thing to expect a freshman to improve on something he is doing poorly—it’s quite another to expect him to fundamentally change his stripes:
% of Shots at Rim
% of Shots 2P Jumpers
% of Shots 3PAs
This is the first reason why I’m a bit bearish on Irvin’s breakout prospects. Unlike Stauskas, Irvin was very much just a shooter (it’s also worth noting that Stauskas’ shot distribution did not change very much in his sophomore campaign).
The second reason that I’m bearish is that Irvin is already a pretty good shooter, making 43 percent of his 3s last year. His 13 assists in 569 minutes also indicates he’s not much of a creator. So with Irvin, the question is what is going to get better? The only answer I can come up with is “more minutes.” Frankly, that’s not so terrible—this guy was attempting 25 percent of his team’s shots when on the floor with a blistering eFG (59.2). So maybe he will be a breakout player, at least to those who rely on counting stats.
I do see more potential in Derrick Walton, mostly by means of whittling down his turnover rate. For a freshman, it was very reasonable, but that caveat should be dispensed with this season. His already-advanced ability to run the pick and roll figures to take off this season as well.
Alongside those two sophomores will be Caris LeVert, who figures to be the centerpiece of the offensive attack. He won’t be Stauskas, either, but he should be good enough to push for the 1st team. He’s not quite the outside shooter Stauskas was (who is?), but otherwise he’s similar.
That’s a very good backcourt, and possibly the best in the conference. If basketball were 3-on-3, Michigan would likely repeat as conference champs. But the frontcourt is a mystery, and that’s putting it mildly. The options are:
Max Bielfeldt, who has attempted all of 11 shots at the rim over his two years at Michigan (making 5, all in his freshman season). He’s not a real option, and it should be unnerving that I’m mentioning him this early.
Mark Donnal, a reshirt freshman, and Ricky Doyle, a true freshmen, are reportedly locked in a battle to start at the 5 position. Neither was a top-100 recruit coming out of high school, neither has separated himself as the starter. The odds that Beilein found two diamonds in the rough is probably low.
Kameron Chatman, a top-50 true freshman (RSCI #27), who is probably going to play 30 minutes a game simply because he can rebound. Chatman was the 7th-leading rebounder in EYBL play last year, behind some well-known names like Cliff Alexander and Jahlil Okafor. What else can he do? That’s much more uncertain. He averaged roughly 16 points a game for his AAU team, but it was a very inefficient 16 points (42.9 eFG). As best as I can tell, everyone on the team aside from Kameron Chatman and Daniel Hamilton (a 5-star shooting guard headed to UConn) needed written permission to shoot. My guess is that one of the first things Chatman will need to learn is the value of shot selection—certainly, someone who hits 17 percent of his 3s probably should not attempt 54 of them over a 17-game stretch.
True freshman D.J. Wilson, who missed a good chunk of the summer with an injury. I don’t know much about him other than the fact that “potential” is thrown around a lot. So, probably not someone we’ll see a lot of this year.
Aubrey Dawkins, who grew from 6-4 to 6-6 late in his high school career. Dawkins went to prep school before heading to Ann Arbor. He’s the son of Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, which makes one wonder why he isn’t in Palo Alto. Apparently, it’s grades. Score one for Harbaugh. That said, Dawkins didn’t have a ton of offers even very late in his recruitment. However, Beilein does have a knack for finding underrated players.
This list has potential, but mostly it has questions. And that’s why I don’t see Michigan at the top of the Big Ten this season—too many questions in the frontcourt. But the guards should be good enough to propel the team to the NCAA Tournament yet again.