To get back to the Final Four, the Michigan Wolverines need a consistent inside presence.
Michigan basketball is in rare territory as a consistent inside presence is the missing piece to the Wolverines’ postseason success puzzle.
Despite earning a 2016 NCAA Tournament bid, the Wolverines didn’t do enough in postseason play to satisfy the Michigan faithful’s desire to enjoy a deep March run. Michigan fans are well aware of the Wolverines’ wild success in the tournament preceding this year’s first round loss to Notre Dame. Arguably the best backcourt in the nation in 2013, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke led Michigan to an appearance in the national championship game against Louisville.
Wolverine fans remember Burke’s overtime-forcing 30-foot three-point shot that ultimately earned Michigan a victory over Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen that year. Both Burke and Hardaway Jr. went on to be first-round picks in the NBA Draft. The following season, sophomore guard Nik Stauskas led the Wolverines to the Elite Eight before Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison nailed a deep three to punch the Wildcats’ ticket to the Final Four.
In spite of miraculous performances by Michigan’s backcourt during their 2013 and 2014 postseason runs, neither Burke, nor Stauskas, were key to the Wolverines’ success in March. Do the names Mitch McGary or Jordan Morgan ring any bells? They should for Michigan fans. McGary rarely played in the Wolverines’ 2012-13 regular season before earning the starting job and averaging 16.0 points and 11.6 rebounds per game during Michigan’s run to the championship game. Morgan started in 2014 and averaged 12.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in the postseason. What do McGary and Morgan have in common? They both experienced time at center, a position that has gotten lost of late amid the plethora of talented guards head coach John Beilein and the Wolverines have at their disposal.
To be fair, Beilein has had to deal with more than his fair share of injuries throughout the past two disappointing seasons. A season-ending leg injury to Caris LeVert and nagging foot injuries to Derrick Walton Jr. were detrimental to the Wolverines’ depth, not to mention the numerous early departures of young talent to the NBA.
Early departures aren’t currently an issue, and unless multiple players suffer season-ending injuries at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Michigan will likely be expected to compete with not only the elite teams the Big Ten but the top programs in college basketball. The expectations probably won’t be met, unless the Wolverines can find their next McGary or Morgan.
Michigan isn’t on the same recruiting level as Kansas or Kentucky. It can’t bring in multiple high-schoolers who will be future NBA lottery picks and send them off to the NBA after just a year in college, while still competing at college basketball’s highest level season after season.
Michigan has a few candidates to fill the void in the middle. Mark Donnal showed flashes of promise this season, and given that he’ll be a senior next season, Donnal could help the Wolverines. Ricky Doyle, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, didn’t exactly scream breakout potential after averaging 3.8 points and two rebounds per game in an expanded role this season.
Moritz Wagner, a freshman from Berlin, Germany, played an extremely limited role during the Wolverines’ regular season. However, in Michigan’s upset win over the Indiana Hoosiers on March 11, Wagner went 2-for-2 from the free throw line and 3-for-3 from the field, including a three. In the Wolverines’ First Four matchup against Tulsa, Wagner again was perfect from the field (2-for-2), while grabbing eight boards and blocking four shots. Wagner showed enthusiasm and fire throughout the season, even from the bench. The team first mentality is something many young players lack, and it will serve Wagner well in the future. Expect to see a major increase in minutes and productivity for the energetic freshman next season.