ANN ARBOR — He is a 7-foot shot swatter for Purdue one week, only to become a pick-and-pop shooter for Wisconsin and an inside banger for Minnesota the next.
Before Michigan freshman Mark Donnal plays against the big men of the Big Ten next season, he is burrowing inside of their heads as a member of the Wolverines’ motley scout team.
Each week in practice, the 6-foot-9 Anthony Wayne graduate imitates the center of Michigan’s upcoming opponent, then, with coaches choosing to redshirt him this winter, takes a front-row seat to watch his teammates summarily dispatch another challenger. No. 10 UM (15-4, 7-0 Big Ten) heads into today’s game against Purdue alone atop the conference and coming off three straight wins over top-10 opponents — the first team to accomplish the feat since Iowa in 1987.
"My role is to try to give our guys the best look possible, basically just helping them to prepare for the games," said Donnal, a four-star prospect who committed to UM the summer after his sophomore year at Anthony Wayne. "I’m just trying to get my body physically ready for the college game so I can be prepared to play next year."
If this were any other year, Michigan coach John Beilein said Donnal would have played as a freshman. But his team featured a backlog in the frontcourt, with preseason All-American Mitch McGary, senior Jordan Morgan, and junior Jon Horford all ahead of Donnal. Even McGary’s potential season-ending back surgery this month barely changed the equation.
"It still does not make sense for Mark to share minutes when he’s so young,” Beilein said.
Donnal, who averaged 18.1 points and 10.4 rebounds for the Generals last season, is instead spending his first year on campus packing on weight — he has already added eight pounds of muscle to his 230-pound frame — and playing a key behind-the-scenes role.
He is the only scholarship player on the piecemeal unit that mimics the opponents’ game plan. The group includes a former UM football walk-on (6-4 sophomore guard Brad Anlauf), the son of former Bowling Green State University coach Dan Dakich (freshman guard Andrew Dakich), and, as needed, a 34-year-old assistant coach. Consider LaVall Jordan, a standout guard at Butler from 1998-2001, the de facto captain of the scout team.
"Yeah, he’s pretty good,” Beilein said with a laugh. "I like the way the [scout] team is sort of coming together, but when Vall joins that team, they take another step."
Donnal, meanwhile, offers welcome versatility. The former All-Ohio forward can extend the defense but also hold his own inside. He spent the past three days playing the role of Purdue 7-footer A.J. Hammons.
"He’s made great progress," Beilein said. "He’s increased his strength a great deal. He’s probably like Horford or Morgan as far as a rebounder. He’s got great hands, and he’s so much stronger than he was. He’s country strong anyhow, but he’s gaining weight.
"What he has, and what I’m looking forward to coaching, is he can really shoot the ball and he can really pass the ball. When you have big men who can do that, it can really open up your offense."
Beyond this year, look for Donnal to be the kind of stretch big man Beilein has long coveted. Morgan will be gone, and so, too, could McGary if he chooses to leave for the NBA.
When his time comes, Donnal vows he will be ready.
"[Redshirting] was the best choice for me to develop and just be ready to go next year," he said. "Even though I'm not playing, it's a great experience to go in there to places like Duke and the Breslin Center [at Michigan State], and to play against Kentucky and Arizona. I’m just taking it all in and learning."