The Wolverine

November 2016

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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38 THE WOLVERINE NOVEMBER 2016 2016-17 BASKETBALL PREVIEW BY CHRIS BALAS O ver the last five years, no program in the Big Ten has had more first-round NBA Draft selections than Michi- gan under head coach John Beilein. Guards Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke and Caris LeVert, wing Nik Stauskas and big man Mitch McGary were all off the board early — and all of them but LeVert left with eligibility remain- ing. Few programs could recruit well enough to overcome those losses, and none would have been able to keep a streak of deep NCAA Tournament runs alive given the injuries the Wol- verines endured over the last two sea- sons. Michigan missed the tournament altogether in 2014-15 and squeaked in last year when LeVert missed almost all of both Big Ten seasons, while players like seniors Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin played hurt or missed significant stretches as well. As of Oct. 18, the 2016-17 team was (knock on wood) ready to roll with a full roster. "We're as healthy as we have been in a long, long, long time. Let's just keep it that way," Beilein said. "We deserve one of those years right now." Starting with senior wing Irvin (6- 6, 215), who insists he's back in game shape and as explosive as he was two years ago before hurting his back last summer. There have been some indi- cations of a healthy Irvin during the first practices, Beilein said, and like his senior wing, the coach is invigo- rated. "I feel recharged and re-energized with this class of really five new play- ers coming in with the four freshmen and [Kentucky transfer] Charles Mat- thews," he said. "Last year, we just had [sophomore big man Moritz] Moe Wagner. That was it. "The transition with our staff so far has been terrific," he added of new assistant coach hires Billy Donlon and Saddi Washington. "I really love the new information, the excitement, the great parallels between Saddi and Bill and [former assistants] LaVall Jordan and Bacari Alexander. It's been a re- ally, really good transition thus far." SENIORS ARE READY TO LEAD It starts with a pair of seniors in Walton and Irvin who have a number of victories and plenty of big-game experience between them, including a Big Ten title and a trip to the Elite Eight as freshmen. Though they once deferred to their All-American and All-Big Ten teammates, it's their turn to lead. "There are not too many walking leaders," Beilein said. "It just doesn't happen. Like everybody else, they've grown into that role. Ever since this summer, I've seen tremendous growth in both those guys to be able to speak and lead and push and encourage and pull with the younger guys. "Seniors just want to win. They're done with all the other stuff, that noise they hear in the background. Making three tournaments in four years and having a great, great senior year where we're in the champion- ship hunt in the Big Ten all year long would be a pretty good career for both of them." Walton (6-1, 190) could be the cata- lyst. A preseason All-Big Ten selection as voted by the media, he has yet to reach his potential. He's been slowed by injuries (though he did earn third- team All-Big Ten honors last year after averaging 11.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game), but Beilein calls him an "elite shooter" who just needs to finish better at the rim to open things up for the long ball. He shot 38.7 percent from three-point range last year but only 37.7 percent overall. Donlon could help with that, hav- ing brought some new ideas with him from Wright State. He's always been known as a defensive specialist, but he's much more, Beilein said. "We talk a lot about Billy Donlon and the defense. He's also the point guard and guards coach, and he is really good at creating other ways of gaining leverage, the skill devel- opment and the ball handling you need to finish at the rim," Beilein said. "Derrick, I sense, is going to have much improved numbers in that area between 15 feet and one foot, where it is tough. "Every NBA team and college team is trying to get guys to make tough twos. That's what Derrick will have to make for as long as he plays basket- ball. He's an elite shooter, so people are going to try to take that away. He's not going to go up and dunk over people. He's worked on tough twos, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he does." Walton can also distribute, as evi- denced by his Big Ten Tournament record 12 assists in a win over Indi- ana last season. Behind him, freshman Xavier Simpson (6-0,'s No. 65 player nationally in the 2016 class) is ready to spell him at the point, or — according to Beilein — even take the floor with Walton and allow his senior to play off the ball. "Xavier is very, very quick in small spaces," Beilein said. "He's almost like a running back that can hit the hole, cut and get into spots. He's re- ally good at that, and he sees the game really well, sees what's going on. "Our upperclassmen, no matter who it is, are encouraging in helping him. We've seen a lot of arms around him in practice — 'Here's what Coach is talking about.' Derrick knows Xavier is the heir apparent here, so Derrick challenges him. "You should look forward to seeing them both in the game at the same time, letting Derrick hunt shots and X run the team. You could see that more than you'd ever expect." The team's best drive-and-finisher a year ago, junior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, (6-4, 190) is back SOMETHING TO PROVE Michigan Aims To Regain Its Spot Among The Big Ten's Best Senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. aver- aged 11.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in 2015-16, and could have an even bigger season this year if he can improve his field goal percentage. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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