Juwan Howard, on Thursday, wasn’t ready to discuss the questions facing his Michigan men’s basketball program this offseason. It won’t stop us.
There’s reason to believe Michigan can keep the momentum from a season in which it won the Big Ten regular-season title, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and reached the Elite Eight.
Before the Wolverines take the court again, though, several questions need to be answered.
Will any underclassmen declare for the NBA draft?
Michigan has two players who might consider leaving early for the NBA. Hunter Dickinson was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a second-team All-American according to many outlets. The 7-foot-1, 255-pound center has NBA size. He’s skilled. He’s also not appearing on mock drafts. The guess here, for now, is that he stays to continue developing under Howard, who’s already earned the reputation as a big man guru.
Franz Wagner, a sophomore, probably raised his stock in the NCAA Tournament, despite his performance in the loss to UCLA. An exceptional two-way player, Wagner is tall (just shy of 6-foot-10) and long, and he won’t turn 20 until late August.
While Wagner is his own person, it’s worth remembering that his brother Moe flirted with leaving after his sophomore year at Michigan, stayed, then left after his junior year to become a first-round draft pick.
“It’s not my fault that college is four years,” the older Wagner said in 2018. Forget the fact that Franz is his brother; that’s a good point for any prospect to consider.
Will any seniors return?
As noted in this space yesterday, a one-time NCAA rule change allows seniors to return next season and not count against their team’s scholarship limit. Michigan has five scholarship seniors: Eli Brooks, Chaundee Brown, Austin Davis, Isaiah Livers, and Mike Smith.
Brooks didn’t close the door on returning when asked immediately after Michigan’s final game. Smith was asked about it earlier in the year and said he’d give it thought after the season. Livers, after getting hurt during the Big Ten Tournament, said he’d considered the possibility that he’d played his last college game. Brown and Davis haven’t discussed their plans publicly.
Howard spoke about his seniors on Thursday, during a video conference call hosted by the Associated Press, which had named him its Coach of the Year. “I hope they remember that it was a free year,” Howard said, laughing. “If they choose they want to come back, the invitation is open.”
What about the transfer market?
Michigan, at the moment, is at its scholarship capacity for next season. The six-man freshman class combined with the seven returners put Michigan at 13. (Remember, the seniors wouldn’t count, so their decisions don’t matter in this regard.) If any current Wolverine decides to leave the program — for the NBA or another school — it would open up a spot.
Interestingly enough, several freshmen Michigan recruited hard out of high school are in the transfer portal: North Carolina’s Walker Kessler, Illinois’ Adam Miller, Texas Tech’s Nimari Burnett, and Duke’s Jaemyn Brakefield among them. That doesn’t include stars like Minnesota’s Marcus Carr.
Again, Howard didn’t discuss the current portal, but he was asked about how he went about choosing the two transfers he brought in last season, Brown and Smith. In addition to watching film, Howard said he wanted to make sure the players were the right fit for Michigan’s locker room and that they cared about winning more than stats.
Is the coaching staff staying put?
The two Big Ten jobs, for which Michigan assistant Saddi Washington figured to be a candidate, have been filled. But just because Minnesota and Penn State went elsewhere doesn’t mean another program will. Boston College filling its vacancy perhaps means alum Howard Eisley is more likely to stay put, though a return to the NBA is always possible. Phil Martelli has very much enjoyed his two seasons at Michigan, but he could return to a head coach role elsewhere.
Michigan has several talented staffers behind the scenes — director of basketball operations Chris Hunter and video analyst Jaaron Simmons, to name two — who could entertain leaving if the right opportunity arises.
How will the freshmen acclimate?
Michigan’s freshman class is ranked No. 1 in the country. That’s helpful any year, but especially given the production Michigan could potentially lose. Michigan’s top six players as far as minutes and scoring have all been mentioned here already: Brooks, Brown, Livers, and Smith because they’re seniors; Dickinson and Wagner because they could leave early.
Even if only the seniors leave, Michigan will need contributions from its newcomers. They are certainly capable. Caleb Houstan is ranked No. 8 in the class, per the 247sports composite. Moussa Diabate is No. 18. Kobe Bufkin (42), Frankie Collins (51), Isaiah Barnes (104), and Will Tschetter (146) round out the group.
Perhaps their acclimation is more of a preseason question than an offseason one, but it’s never too early to start figuring out how the pieces fit for next season.
For Howard, though, it might be. He said on Thursday he was still reviewing Tuesday’s UCLA game, thinking about what he could have done better.
“I don’t think this is the forum right now to talk about what is going to happen with the program or the future of the seniors as well as my staff,” Howard said, politely. “Honestly, it’s been less than 48 hours where I’ve sat down and had an opportunity to think about any of that.”