Michigan basketball 2020-21 preview: Wolverines hoping for a quick rebuild
There’s an excitement surrounding Michigan basketball. It’s a familiar feeling, but a bit different now that former Fab Five legend Juwan Howard has taken over the Wolverines program. He has reeled in a pair of excellent recruiting classes — No. 15 in 2020 and No. 1 for 2021 — and brings the perfect combination of experience and attitude necessary to follow up John Beilein, arguably the greatest coach in UM hoops history.
They’re not ready to take on the world just yet — but the Wolverines are building, and they’re certainly on the ascent.
Since 2013, Michigan has been one of the most consistent programs in the Big Ten, finishing as national runner-up to Louisville in 2013 and Villanova during the 2018 season. Beilein’s work certainly paid off in Ann Arbor, and now it’s on Howard to continue that trend as he embarks on his 2nd season as the man at UM.
Without 5 starters from this past season, the Wolverines will have to quickly fill the roles of point guard Zavier Simpson and power forward/center Jon Teske, who both signed as free agents after the 2020 NBA Draft. Teske signed with the Orlando Magic, and Simpson inked a deal with the defending NBA champion Lakers.
David DeJulius, once a prized recruit, transferred to Cincinnati in April, so the would-be starter’s absence will also have to be addressed.
The future is now for Michigan. There’s no sense in rehashing the past. Howard has a young but talented roster to work with in 2020-21 — but if he’s anything like Beilein, he’ll get a lot of mileage out of his players when it matters most.
Best player: UM can’t live without Livers
Back in the spring, Isaiah Livers said the words that Wolverines fans wanted to hear. In fact, due to Simpson’s and Teske’s departures, they needed to hear it. And the 6-7, 230-pound forward delivered, deciding to return for his senior season instead of further entertaining an early exit for the NBA.
“What a crazy couple of months,” Livers said in the spring, according to Orion Sang of the Detroit Free Press. “However, I have learned a great deal from this process, and I’m extremely excited to return to Ann Arbor. My family and I are so appreciative of Coach Howard and all the staff for letting us really explore my dream of playing in the NBA.
“While it was a limited process due to COVID-19, I want to thank all the NBA teams who took the time to talk to me. The information I gathered is going to be invaluable moving forward. But now, we have unfinished business in Ann Arbor. I cannot wait to do everything I can and help lead this team to great things.”
Livers is known for getting crucial buckets, and he has blossomed into a high-level defender. He’ll certainly be in consideration for All-Big Ten honors during his last go-round with the Wolverines. Not only is Livers the best player at UM, he’s one of the most versatile players in the country, able to play 3 positions when needed.
Best newcomer: a pair of aces
This one is a toss-up, because 2 players have a realistic shot at earning this distinction.
Let’s start up front with 4-star, 7-foot-2, 260-pound center Hunter Dickinson, the No. 42 player of the 2020 class and Michigan’s highest-rated freshman. He’ll undoubtedly be tasked with providing valuable minutes in the paint — offensively and defensively. He has a decent mid-range/face-up game, but he needs to hone his athletic ability. He’s not exactly the flashiest guy, even for a big man, but it’s easy to see that he has the necessary size and skill set to become an invaluable asset to Howard’s Wolverines.
Zeb Jackson, the No. 9 point guard of 2020, is a crafty lefty — something Michigan hasn’t had in recent years. The 6-2, 160-pound southpaw has speed, agility and the ability to create in the lane. Michigan will need a driver in the future, and it could very well be Jackson, who certainly has the ability to make a quick impact in Ann Arbor.
Biggest team strength: solid mix all-around
The fact that Livers is returning is a major bump in confidence for the Wolverines, who’ll be relatively young this season. That alone has to be UM’s strongest attribute this season — having a real-deal star who’s ready to go at it from the start. There’s no question that Livers will be the heart and soul of Michigan, who have a nice mix of size among their forwards and centers.
With Howard — a former power forward — as coach, it’s easy to forecast Michigan’s frontcourt as a strength, despite having a solid group of guards in Eli Brooks, Franz Wagner — the younger brother of former UM star heel Moe — and Adrien Nunez. Chaundee Brown, a transfer from Wake Forest, should add some leadership and experience.
Wagner can dump high-teens into the scoring column on a good night. A year ago, he was good for roughly 12 points and 6 boards per game. The 6-9, 220-pound guard has the size to play up to 3 spots, giving UM another multifaceted force in the lineup.
Biggest weakness: missing stars, of course
As mentioned earlier, the Wolverines will be without 5 starter-caliber players this season. DeJulius’ transfer, Simpson’s and Teske’s departures to the NBA — it’ll be a challenge for UM to quickly adjust without 2 of their most productive players from the 2019-20 season. But that’s how college ball works, so don’t count on the Wolverines to sit around and pray for a miracle. Howard should have his guys up to speed once the Big Ten race heats up in February.
Regular season: time to see what Michigan is all about
The Big Ten season is still being finalized, so we’ll just look at the non-con slate for now. UM opens the season this week against Bowling Green, then they’ll face an early hurdle when they go up against Oakland University, a well-rounded program coached by Greg Kampe. OU might end up being Michigan’s most difficult pre-conference game of the season due to in-state ties, etc.
The Wolverines will get Ball State and UCF before tangling with North Carolina State in the ACC/B1G challenge.
Obviously, the non-con schedule will give the Wolverines a rough idea of where they’re at on the developmental scale.
March outlook: UM could dance
Despite an average record of 19-12 (10-10 B1G), Michigan didn’t really have any bad losses in 2019-20. UM had an incredibly difficult schedule and was without Livers for 10 games, in which they went 4-6.
If things click, the Wolverines could be a legit Sweet 16-caliber team. An NCAA Tournament appearance and top-5 finish in the Big Ten don’t seem like too much of a stretch.