The season is over for the University of Michigan men’s basketball team, and it was a good one. Not quite as great as it could have been, but way beyond the preseason expectations. Michigan won the Big Ten regular season championship, and advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. They ended up with a record of 23-5. It was a good season.
Preseason expectations were mixed for Michigan. Most of the experts picked Michigan to finish 5th or 6th in the Big Ten, although a few picked Michigan as a “dark horse” contender for the title. Here are the results.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the season started about three weeks later than usual, and the schedule was smaller than usual. The last few years, teams were allowed to play 31 games, but this year most teams played 25-27 games. Michigan played five non-conference games, along with 20 Big Ten games. Michigan started the season ranked #25 in the polls, but quickly dropped out after a couple underwhelming victories over outmatched opponents, including an overtime win over Oakland. Still, they were victories, as Michigan tried to develop team chemistry on the fly. The only interesting non-conference game was going to be against North Carolina State, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but it was cancelled due to COVID-19 issues on the NC State team. Fortunately, Michigan managed to hustle up a last-minute replacement (Toledo), and they got in all five non-conference games, and won them all.
UM started the Big Ten schedule with six straight wins, including three 19+ point victories in a row over Top 25 teams: (#19) Northwestern, (#16) Minnesota, and (#9) Wisconsin. The Wisconsin game in particular was a good, old-fashioned butt-whipping, probably the best game of the season. By this time, Michigan had climbed to #7 in the polls, with an 11-0 (6-0 in Big Ten) record. Despite having crushed Minnesota in Ann Arbor (82-57), Michigan lost the rematch in Minneapolis badly, 75-57, for their first loss. This was easily the worst game and the low point of the season. They won their next two games, to raise their record to 13-1 (8-1 in Big Ten), and then … the whole UM athletic department shut down for two weeks, even the teams with no COVID-19 problems, like the basketball team. That forced them to postpone five games, including one that had already been postponed once before. They ended up rescheduling two of these five games, so they only played 17 of their 20 Big Ten games, which became an issue later. Read on.
When UM finally returned from their two-week shutdown, they won their next five games, which gave them a new seven-game winning streak, and pushed them up to #2 in the polls. At this point, the Big Ten realized that a few of the Big Ten teams, including Michigan, weren’t going to be able to play all 20 games, so they announced that the regular season champion would be decided by winning percentage. Based on the standings at that point, it meant that Michigan had to win just one of their three remaining games to win the regular season championship outright. The good news is that Michigan did win one of the games. The bad news is that they lost the other two games. One of the losses was a 23-point beatdown by the 2nd place team, (#4) Illinois. The other loss was a heartbreaker on Michigan State’s Senior Night. Sandwiched in between was a 19-point thrashing of MSU in Ann Arbor.
So, what was the issue mentioned above? The final Big Ten standings showed:
Michigan 14-3 (0.824)
Illinois 16-4 (0.800)
The Illinois team, fanbase, and even athletic director got it into their heads that they were the regular season champions, since they beat Michigan head-to-head and won more games. They didn’t seem to understand the concept of “winning percentage”. As it happened, Illinois won the Big Ten Tournament, so they got their championship, but not the regular season crown.
Karma is a b*tch. Illinois went into the NCAA Tournament convinced that they were going to beat up everyone, but they were upset in the 2nd round by Loyola-Chicago. Actually, other than Michigan, the Big Ten laid an egg in the Big Dance. All of the other Big Ten teams in the field were eliminated in the first week (first two rounds):
- Michigan State (11-seed) lost to UCLA (11-seed) in a “First Four” game on Thursday
- Ohio State (2-seed) lost to Oral Roberts (15-seed) in a 1st round game on Friday
- Purdue (4-seed) lost to North Texas (13-seed) in a 1st round game on Friday
- Illinois (1-seed) lost to Loyola-Chicago (8-seed) in a 2nd round game on Sunday
- Wisconsin (9-seed) lost to Baylor (1-seed) in a 2nd round game on Sunday
- Rutgers (10-seed) lost to Houston (2-seed) in a 2nd round game on Sunday
- Iowa (2-seed) lost to Oregon (7-seed) in a 2nd round game on Monday
- Maryland (10-seed) lost to Alabama (2-seed) in a 2nd round game on Monday
Of those eight losses by the Big Ten teams, one of them was a “toss up” (MSU), three of them were expected (Wisconsin, Rutgers, and Maryland), and four of them were upsets (OSU, Purdue, Illinois, and Iowa).
Even though they did the best of the Big Ten teams, Michigan still was eliminated earlier than their #1 seed suggested. They really should have beaten UCLA in the Elite Eight and gone on to the Final Four.
Here are the final grades, with the mid-term grades included for comparison:
- Hunter Dickinson (A/A) – Hunter was the heart of this team. He led the team in scoring (14.1 points/game), rebounding (7.4 rebounds/game), and blocked shots (40). He was 2nd on the team in shooting percentage (59.8%). He played in all 28 games, and started the last 23. He scored in double figures in 23 games, and broke 20 points in 5 of them, including 26 and 28 points. On the “minus” side, he did lead the team in turnovers (64) and fouls (71), and he went 0-for-4 for the season from 3-point range. Still, he was the undisputed MVP, and he earned 2nd team All America honors on all four of the major teams.
- Jace Howard (Inc./Inc.) – Jace is on scholarship, but he wasn’t part of the main rotation of players this season. He played in 11 games, for a total of about 32 minutes, and scored 12 points. He did have an exciting moment when he scored 3 points in the closing minutes of the Florida State game in the NCAA Tournament on an “and-one”.
- Zeb Jackson (Inc./Inc.) – Zeb is on scholarship, but he wasn’t part of the main rotation of players this season. He played in 16 games, for a total of about 86 minutes, and scored 16 points. He also had an exciting moment in the NCAA Tournament, when he hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the 1st half of the Texas Southern game. He’ll get his chance at point guard next season.
- Terrance Williams II (C/C) – Terrance is on scholarship, but he wasn’t part of the main rotation of players this season. He played in 21 games, for a total of about 159 minutes, and scored 40 points. He looked good in some of the non-conference games (7 points vs. Oakland, 10 points vs. Central Florida), but he had way too many 0-point games. He’s learning.
- Brandon Wade (Inc./Inc.) – Brandon is a preferred walk-on. He played in 3 games, for a total of about 3 minutes, but didn’t take any shots. He’s part of the scout team.
- Franz Wagner (B+/A-) – Franz was very good defensively, but inconsistent offensively. He was 3rd on the team in scoring (12.5 points/game), 2nd on the team in rebounds (6.5 rebounds/game), 2nd on the team in blocked shots (29), and 1st on the team in steals (35). He never quite found his 3-point shot this season (35-for-102 = 34.3%).
- Jaron Faulds (Inc./Inc.) – Jaron is a preferred walk-on. He played in 10 games, for a total of about 29 minutes, and scored 4 points. He’s part of the scout team.
- Brandon Johns, Jr. (B/B+) – Brandon played a lot at center when Michigan played “small ball”, and the results were uneven. He picked up a lot of the slack when Isaiah Livers went down with an injury at the end of the regular season. He didn’t score much (4.9 points/game), and he didn’t rebound as well as he did last season (2.3 rebounds/game).
- Adrien Nuñez (Inc./Inc.) – Adrien is on scholarship, but he wasn’t part of the main rotation of players this season. He played in 10 games, for a total of about 32 minutes, and scored 6 points.
- C.J. Baird (Inc./Inc.) – C.J. is a walk-on. He played in 4 games, for a total of about 11 minutes, and scored 2 points. He was part of the scout team.
- Eli Brooks (B+/A-) – Eli mostly played shooting guard, with occasional stints at point guard. He was 4th on the team in scoring (9.5 points/game), 1st on the team in free throw percentage (90.9%), 2nd on the team in steals (29), and he hustled when he was in there. He’s a very good defender, and he’s what’s known as a “glue guy”.
- Chaundee Brown Jr. (B/B) – Chaundee was the “6th man” on the team this season, and he had some great games and a lot of mediocre games. He was 6th on the team in scoring (8.0 points/game), and 2nd on the team in made 3-pointers (39) and 3-point shooting percentage (41.9%).
- Austin Davis (B/B) – Austin was the starter at center for the first 5 games, until he injured his foot. Dickinson started in his absence, and did well enough to keep starting, even when Austin returned after missing 5 games. Austin was very smooth and efficient scoring in the paint, and he played good defense. He led the team in shooting percentage (70.5%).
- Rico Ozuna-Harrison (Inc./Inc.) – Rico is a walk-on. He played in 1 game, for about 3 minutes, attempted 2 shots, but didn’t score. He was part of the scout team.
- Isaiah Livers (A/A) – Isaiah is the other MVP on this team. He’s a senior leader, and a fierce competitor. Unfortunately, he broke a bone in his foot midway through the season, played on it despite the pain, re-injured it late in the season, and missed the last 5 games. He was 2nd on the team in scoring (13.1 points/game), 3rd on the team in rebounds (6.0 rebounds/game), 3rd on the team in blocked shots (17), 1st on the team in 3-point shooting percentage (43.1%), and 2nd on the team in free throw percentage (87.0%).
- Mike Smith (B/A-) – Mike did a very nice job running the team as the main point guard. He had some very good games offensively, and a lot of mediocre games offensively. Michigan didn’t really need him to score much, so any points he chipped in were a bonus. He led the team in assists (149), but was 2nd in turnovers (59). He was 3rd on the team in 3-point shooting percentage (41.8%).
- Luke Wilson (Inc./Inc.) – Luke is a walk-on. He played in 2 games, for a total of about 4 minutes, but he didn’t attempt a shot. He was part of the scout team.
- Juwan Howard (A+) – Juwan has done a fabulous job as head coach, in only his 2nd season. He has recruited well (see below), he does a great job preparing the team before the game, and he does a great job during the game. He was voted Big Ten and National Coach of the Year by several organizations, and he deserves it.
Here comes the hard part: predicting who will even be on the team next season. In years past, this was a lot easier, with only the seniors leaving, and all the incoming freshmen lined up and ready to join the team. Now, it’s chaos. Here’s why:
- It is much more common for underclassmen to leave school early for the NBA Draft.
- Many of the incoming freshmen change their minds and go to a different school, or skip school all together and go to the G-League or play overseas.
- For this season only, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA has a new rule allowing players with senior eligibility to return to their current team (no transferring) for a “free year” of eligibility. These “free year” players won’t count against a team’s scholarship limits.
- The infamous Transfer Portal.
With all these complications, it’s almost impossible to guess what Michigan’s roster will look like next season. So, here’s what we know or can assume at this point:
- Baird – Probably won’t come back for his “free year”.
- Brooks – Has announced that he is coming back for his “free year”.
- Brown – Has announced that he’s entering the NBA Draft.
- Davis – Hasn’t announced his plans, but would be a good candidate for a “free year”.
- Ozuna-Harrison – Probably won’t come back for his “free year”.
- Livers – Hasn’t announced his plans, but would be a good candidate for a “free year”. If he hadn’t injured his foot, he would be a lock for the NBA Draft, but his recovery time after surgery is 6 months, well past the draft.
- Smith – Has announced that he’s entering the NBA Draft.
- Wilson – Probably won’t come back for his “free year”.
Leaving Early for the NBA
- Dickinson – Hasn’t said anything about the NBA Draft, but he’s certainly good enough to be drafted. I expect him to return for his sophomore season.
- Wagner – Hasn’t officially announced his NBA Draft intentions, but he’s projected to be a lottery pick, so he’s probably gone.
No one on the team has entered the Transfer Portal at this point. Coach Howard might try to pick up a seasoned point guard in the Transfer Portal to replace Smith, and maybe a backup center.
Michigan signed a fabulous class of incoming freshmen for next season, the #1 recruiting class in the nation. Whether they will all show up on campus in the fall remains to be seen. Several of them are good enough to skip college and go right to the G-League or play overseas, and some of them may look at Michigan’s crowded roster and decide to play elsewhere. As of right now, the incoming class looks like this:
- Isaiah Barnes (6’7”, 195 pounds, F) – Isaiah is a 4-star small forward, and the #25 small forward in his class.
- Kobe Bufkin (6’4”, 185 pounds, G) – Kobe is a 4-star combo guard, and the #4 combo guard in his class.
- Frankie Collins (6’1”, 180 pounds, G) – Frankie is a 4-star point guard, and the #10 point guard in his class.
- Moussa Diabate (6’10”, 220 pounds, F) – Moussa is a 5-star power forward, and the #6 power forward in his class.
- Caleb Houstan (6’8”, 205 pounds, F) – Caleb is a 5-star power forward, the #3 power forward in his class, and the highest ranked of the incoming freshmen.
- Will Tschetter (6’8”, 235 pound, F) – Will is a 3-star power forward.
My best guess at the roster is:
Barnes, Bufkin, Collins, Diabate, Houstan, Tschetter
Dickinson, Howard, Jackson, Williams
Faulds, Johns, Nuñez
Free Year Players
Brooks, Davis, Livers
Of the players listed, only Faulds and Wade are not on scholarship, which adds up to 12 out of 13 possible, so Coach Howard will have at least one scholarship to play with. His son, Jace Howard, could easily move to “preferred walk-on” status to free up another scholarship, if necessary.
Let’s look at positions:
Brooks, Bufkin, Collins, Jackson
Brooks, Bufkin, Jackson, Nuñez
Barnes, Howard, Johns, Livers, Williams
Diabate, Houstan, Johns, Livers, Tschetter
Davis, Diabate, Dickinson, Johns
The two forward positions seem well stocked, if Livers returns, but both guard positions are a little thin on experience, other than Brooks. The center position is in great shape, IF both Davis and Dickinson actually return to the team. Look for Coach Howard to try to find an experienced point guard or combo guard in the Transfer Portal, and maybe a backup center.
Very early (way-too-early) preseason predictions for 2021-2022 all have Michigan as a Top 5 team, based on their performance this season and the great incoming class. Those predictions could easily change, depending on who actually shows up in the fall. If the players mentioned above all show up, Michigan could have a special season.
Check back in October for another season of Nothing But ‘Net.