Grading Michigan’s Roster Halfway Through Conference Play

Michigan has played nine Big Ten games so far and have nine more to go. Their record in these nine conference contests is 6-3, which is currently good for fourth in the Big Ten behind Ohio State (9-0), Purdue (8-0), and Michigan State (6-2). The Wolverines have also played 22 games overall and sit at 17-5.

I would like to go through U of M’s roster and grade each player so far based on their expectations heading into the season and their performance so far now that conference play if halfway over. While the roster is composed of 17 players, I am only going to grade players who have played in at least half of the teams games so far (my apologies to C.J. Baird, Austin Davis, Brent Hibbitts, Naji Ozeir, Rico Ozuna-Harrison, and Luke Wilson).

I am going to list the remaining players alphabetically and talk about how each player has performed so far and what they can improve on moving forward. I will then give each player a grade.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman– The senior is currently third on the team in both points per game (10.5) and rebounds per game (4.0). He also is one of the best in the nation with a 5.82 assist-to-turnover ratio. The one improvement I was hoping to see from MAAR this year was in his scoring. He has improved on his 9.1 PPG from last year but his shooting percentages overall and from beyond the three-point line have dropped. He needs to attack the basket more and get to the free throw line more often as he is shooting a crisp 87% from the charity stripe. Abdur-Rahkman needs to show a little more senior leadership as this season moves forward as well.

Mid-Season Grade: B-

Eli Brooks– The freshman point guard has been a solid option off the bench for coach John Beilein. He provides a spark in his limited action and has held his own while giving starter Zavier Simpson a breather. His biggest knock so far on the season has got to be his shooting. He is shooting an abysmal 29% from the field and an even worse 25% from 3. Brooks needs to improve on his shooting if he wants to be a consistent contributor to the team.

Mid-Season Grade: B-

Isaiah Livers– The freshman from Kalamazoo has had a great season so far. He is averaging 4.6 PPG while shooting a fantastic 52% from the field and 41% from downtown. He has also taken his new starting role in stride. He came in for the struggling senior Duncan Robinson and has held his own against other teams starters. The one knock I have for Livers is his rebounding. He is 6’7″ but is only averaging 2.6 RPG. I think this can, and will, improve as he learns how to play with the big boys.

Mid-Season Grade: A-

Charles Matthews– The transfer from Kentucky is having a fine season so far, leading the Wolverines with 14.6 PPG and is second on the squad with 5.2 RPG. He is fearless when attacking the rim and is shooting over 52% from the field. His one weakness is shooting from beyond the arc. His 33% from 3-point range needs to improve as the season progresses and if this team wants to be successful come postseason play.

Mid-Season Grade: B

Jordan Poole– The freshman from Milwaukee has been a revelation off the bench for Coach Beilein so far. He is fifth on the team with 6.3 PPG in only ten minutes per contest. He is shooting over 41% from deep and 49% from the field overall. The biggest struggle for Poole so far has been his court vision. His assist-to-turnover ratio is an awful 1:2 as he has only seven assists on the season to 14 turnovers. That needs to improve if this young buck wants to see more minutes off the bench.

Mid-Season Grade: A-

Duncan Robinson– Even though Robinson, a fifth year player, was demoted from the starting lineup and replaced by a freshman, he is still contributing nicely. He is fourth on the team in PPG (9.0) and has the best free-throw percentage (minimum 10 attempts) with a sparkling 92%. His area of weakness is on the defensive end and is usually a lot slower or undersized compared to many of the players he is defending.

Mid-Season Grade: B

Jaaron Simmons– The graduate transfer from Ohio has provided this team with some solid play in a backup point guard role with a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But I was expecting more from the 2017 first-team All-MAC selection, especially on the offensive end. He averaged 15.9 PPG last year while shooting 43% from the field, 34% from beyond the arc and 72% from the FT line. I know his role has diminished since his days as a Bobcat and the Mid-American Conference is a far cry from the Big Ten, but his dip in shooting percentages is alarming. This year he is shooting 26% overall, 20% from 3-point range and 62% from the charity stripe. Maybe I was just expecting a little too much.

Mid-Season Grade: C

Zavier Simpson– The sophomore, who dropped the “X” from his name and took on a “Z”, has played outstanding so far this season. He is leading the Wolverines with 3.5 assists per game and 1.2 steals per game. Simpson has taken on the role of starting point guard for this team and has led them admirably after learning under the U of M great Derrick Walton, Jr. last year. His biggest area of improvement has got to be at the free-throw line. He is only shooting 51% from the line and some teams have gone with the “Hack-A-Shaq” approach with him late in games.

Mid-Season Grade: A-

Jon Teske– The sophomore has played pretty well when he has had to fill in for Moe Wagner, whether it be for injury or foul trouble, this season. He is fourth on team with 3.6 RPG, which is nice, but I also think this is the area where Teske can improve. He is 7’1″ and is usually one of the biggest guys on the court. He needs to use that big body of his to accrue even more rebounds in his time on the court.

Mid-Season Grade: B

Moritz Wagner– The big man from Germany has had an excellent junior campaign so far. He is second on the team in scoring with 14.3 PPG and is first with 7.1 RPG. He has also produced four double-doubles. Wagner’s biggest area of improvement though has got to do with his consistency. He’s had some monster games (21 points, 10 rebounds against UC Riverside, 27 and 4 against Michigan State, 18 and 11 vs. Maryland) but he has also produced some duds (4 points and 6 boards at Iowa and 2 points with 7 rebounds at Nebraska). Wagner is a tremendous talent and just needs to play like he is every game.

Mid-Season Grade: B+

Ibi Watson– The sophomore has provided a nice option off the bench for the Maize and Blue. He is only averaging 2.8 PPG, albeit in only 6 minutes per game, and is shooting a nice 37.5% from downtown. Watson’s biggest knock is his size (6’5″ but only 200 pounds) and is generally undersized when Beilein uses him in small forward role. But he is still young and will continue to grow and get stronger as the year moves on.

Mid-Season Grade: B-

 

 

 

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Good Week for Michigan Hoops (Which Could’ve Been Even Better)

This past week the Michigan Wolverines basketball team played three games. Two of them came against top five ranked programs. They took on the Purdue Boilermakers at home in the Crisler Center and traveled to East Lansing to take on MSU. U of M then came back home to take on Maryland. They went 2-1 in those games and had a great chance to have gone 3-0.

The Purdue game was a good test for this Wolverine squad as they were hosting the number five ranked team in the country and their fantastic big man Isaac Haas. It was also their second game against a ranked opponent this season after losing to the North Carolina Tar Heels in late November.

It was a hard-fought game with Purdue leading throughout the night and by as many as 14 points early in the first half. But U of M clawed their way back and took a 64-61 lead with just under five minutes to go in the second half. Ultimately, they ended up losing 70-69 and fell to 3-2 in Big Ten play.

Michigan then traveled to the Breslin Center to take on the fourth-ranked Spartans. Michigan State, which was coming off a blowout loss to Ohio State and a close overtime win over Rutgers, had to be fired up to play their arch rivals, especially after losing to them 86-57 the last time they met.

But that was not the case. Michigan State held a slim 37-34 lead at the break but it was Michigan who came out to play in the second half and arrived back home in Ann Arbor with a 82-72 win over their in-state rival and a 4-2 record in conference play.

The Maryland game was also a hard-fought battle with the Terps leading by as many as 14 in the first half but the Wolverines coming out victorious 68-67. They also ran their Big Ten record to 5-2, good for third in the conference. It probably shouldn’t have come down to that as Michigan led by ten with just under six minutes to go, but a win is a win regardless of how you get it.

Over the course of these three games, the Wolverines showed plenty of things to be happy about moving forward, but there was also some signs for concern as well.

The biggest positive over this past week was the play of junior big man Moritz Wagner. While his game against Purdue wasn’t his best (11 points on 5-11 shooting and 6 rebounds), he showed up against the Spartans.

He scored a career high 27 points and grabbed four boards. He also shot 8-8 from the free throw line which is a good sign as he came into the game shooting just 65% from the charity stripe.

He also came to play against Maryland. He racked up a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds and was a big spark for his team in the second half. And while many will still say he is inconsistent, which is fairly true, he showed he has tremendous talent and can show up in the biggest of games.

Another positive for this team over the past three games was the play of their underclassmen. Zavier Simpson set a career high in points scored with 15 against Purdue and bested himself again with 16 against MSU. And while his game against the Terrapins wasn’t anything to write home about with five points, he still dished out five assists too.

Isaiah Livers scored 10, 6 and 7 points respectively in the three games and has provided John Beilein a nice option over the struggling senior Duncan Robinson. He even made the beautiful half-court pass to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman that set up the game winning free throws against the Terps.

Even lesser used young bucks like Jordan Poole, Eli Brooks and Jon Teske have held their own. Those three have come in and answered the call when they give starters like Wagner and Simpson a break.

Poole may have even forced his way into more playing time with his performance against Maryland. He scored 11 points on 4-5 shooting in 13 minutes and was the only other Wolverine besides Wagner to score in double figures. He also went 3-3 from beyond the arc in a two-minute stretch which saw Michigan go from being down seven to up by four.

The biggest negative takeaway from this past week of games has been the play of the two seniors who see playing time in Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson. MAAR shot 8-29 from the field and 3-10 from the 3-point line for a combined 28 points over the three games.

Robinson shot 4-11 from the field and 3-7 from beyond the arc for a total of 13 points. He was also replaced by Livers in the starting lineup for the MSU game.

And while Abdur-Rahkman hit the two clutch free throws to beat Maryland and became the 52nd Wolverine to score 1,000 points in his career (which is an awesome feat), he still needs to play better as the most tested veteran on this budding team.

Another negative from these past three games has been the free-throw shooting. They haven’t been good all year as their team percentage has hovered in the low to mid 60s all year and the Purdue game was no different. They shot 7-11 (63%) and lost by a point. Against Michigan State they actually shot 80% (28-35), but started off 20-20, and went 8-15 down the final stretch of the game when they mattered the most which gave MSU life. The Maryland game wasn’t good either with the team shooting 7-12 (58%) and Zavier Simpson missing two near the end of the game, which almost cost his team a win.

But even with those negatives, this Michigan team proved they can play with anybody in the country. Purdue is no joke and is currently ranked behind only Villanova and Virginia in the latest AP poll. Michigan State is still a good team with the talent to make some noise come March. Maryland is no slouch either and should end up in the top half of the conference.

U of M also entered the AP Top-25 for the first time this season with a number 23 ranking after their victory against MSU. And while they almost lost it right after they earned it with the nail-biter against Maryland, they should be a mainstay in the rankings for the rest of the season.

Coach Beilein always has his teams prepared as the season goes on and this team is no different. Michigan fans should be excited for the rest of this season, especially after this past week.

The Wolverines are a very young team as they rely on five underclassmen to perform and contribute. So while that could be a negative, I think it will be a positive, as they are only getting better. This past week clearly proved that.

A 2-1 record in your past three games may not be what many teams would want to write home about but, with the three teams they played and how they played, Michigan should be excited for what is yet to come.