In the aftermath of Michigan's first tourney bid in forever and the looming (as in 2010) departures of the two guys who were the engine behind that bid there's been a lot of discussion about what we can expect in the future when Beilein doesn't have the services of two stars who wanted to play for someone else. There was a mailbag. There has been talking in comments and on blogs and on message boards. A winding response to various opinions follows.
It Can Work
Excellent diary from Bronxblue on the Beilein thing and potential ceilings it may have:
[Beilein's] system was designed to compensate for the lack of the "big time" star. The heavy reliance on three pointers that is a hallmark of his offense is designed to compensate for the lack of a post threat and/or a dynamic finisher around the basket. Similarly, the 1-3-1 was designed to create turnovers as a way to compensate for little interior defense from a dominant inside presence. …
Unfortunately … this type of system has a finite level of potential success - something I'll refer to as the Mid-Major Ceiling (MMC). Look at teams like Gonzaga (though their recruiting has gotten better over the years), Xavier, Creighton, and throw WVU into that mix (though they come from a major conference, they would never have succeeded in the Big East simply trying to out-recruit other teams). While they all are/were consistent NCAA teams, none ever made it past the Elite 8 (except George Mason, which was the flukiest of fluky runs), and even getting past the Sweet 16 was a crapshoot. The reason for this, at least in my opinion, was due to the fact that they inevitably ran into a team whose talent was great enough to expose the deficiencies each of those systems was designed to hide.
I don't think that necessarily has to be the case. John Hollinger put out an article earlier this year noting that the percentage of three-pointers attempted in the NBA is rising relentlessly, and the teams that are playing better than expected are doing it with the longball. Check it:
In fact, few stats correlate better with winning than 3-point attempts. If you tell me only how many 3-pointers a team has chucked up this season and provide no other information, I can tell you whether it is a winning team and be right eight times out of 10.
Check this out: The teams in the top 10 in 3-point attempts per field goal attempt have a combined winning percentage of .593 … and those in the bottom 10 have a combined winning percentage of .400.
That's no accident. Three-point attempts have correlated highly with winning for the past several years.
Now, the NBA is a completely different animal where just about everyone can shoot and everyone has legitimate post players, but that's just attempts, not actually making them.
You can see the power of the three-pointer in Michigan's numbers this year, which are at right: though Michigan was well above average at making their twos and well below average at making their threes, the eFG numbers are almost identical. If Michigan was even a little less unbalanced, the torrent of threes they jacked up would be a net benefit even though the stats would say they're better at twos.
Okay, yes, this sort of analysis misses a ton of factors: drawing fouls (advantage twos), turning the ball over (advantage threes), offensive rebounds(?). Also you just can't shoot all threes. Some percentage of Michigan's threes are really good looks, and those have the best percentage. Some percentage of them are okay looks, and those have an okay percentage. And some of them are "Manny… no!" or "Stu… no!" shots that have a poor percentage. Threes Michigan didn't shoot were bad shots indeed.
But the raw data from a place where the talent is much more evenly distributed is that if you can put together a team that takes a ton of threes you will be pretty good. Jackin' it up doesn't concede defeat.
As to the 1-3-1, we have not yet seen the full annoying extent of its power, not with 5'9" point guards and 6'4" power forwards and so on and so forth. When there's one guy shorter than 6'6" on the court and they've all got long arms it becomes much more of an issue. And I disagree with Bronxblue's characterization of it. The 1-3-1 doesn't seem like a necessary response to deficient talent, it seems like a way for Beilein to run his perimeter-heavy, three-mad offense without getting crushed on the defensive end. Beilein didn't have a talent disadvantage at Cansisus or Richmond, at least not an insurmountable one, and that's where his system was developed.
Take Evan Smotrycz. He's 6'9" but a stick. He's a super tall small forward and will remain that way if Beilein has anything to do with it. If asked to check a post player in man-to-man he won't do well. He'll do better than Zach Novak, but not well. If stuck on the wing in the 1-3-1 he'll make the skip passes that are its achilles heel long, looping, fruitless things, and then Beilein gets to use a 6'9" three-point shooting small forward on the offensive end.
The 1-3-1 and the Beilein offense have synergy, which is a horrible corporate word that happens to be useful. I don't think they're responses to a lack of talent, I think they're a single way of having an unusual system that happens to be unusually efficient at basketball.
Put it this way: if Evan Smotrcyz turns out to be Dirk Nowitzki and Matt Vogrich turns out to be Kyle Korver Beilein's system isn't going to hold them back on their Final Four run.
Okay, Then, Why Did You Say This?
… in the mailbag that started this:
Michigan basically abdicated on being a powerhouse when they hired Beilein.
Because of Bob Huggins, basically. The year after Beilein left West Virginia, Huggins landed five-star Devin Ebanks, who originally committed to Indiana, seriously considered Memphis, and then ended up with Huggins. That's Kelvin Sampson, John Calipari, and a guy who had a 0.0% graduation rate at Cincinnati. He's a microcosm of why this blog has a tag called "basketball recruiting is dirty like dirt in a dirt sandwich."
Yes, it is possible to have a legit powerhouse without sketchy recruiting stuff going on but it takes time and tradition; Michigan isn't starting from square one on the latter but it's not far off after ten years of crap and scandal before that. Fair or not, the last thing anyone outside the Michigan fan community remembers as a positive for the program happened in 1989, which is 1) 20 years ago and 2) before anyone we're recruiting was born. So the only way to go from zero to powerhouse was to cut corners and hire a John Calipari. We did not do this.
I've read a lot of criticisms of this position that I'd like to address, and the best way is probably through a rare-but-deadly double reverse fisk. The WLA quibbled. Now comes the thunder:
-The question appears to be “can Beilein recruit like Izzo/Matta/whoever,” and the answer is very probably not.
Frankly, if this is the case, someone better inform Beilein. Brian waves off the 2010 targets Trey Zeigler, Casey Prather, and Will Regan, but, like, why? Prather, Ray McCallum, and Zeigler are respectively the #30, #56, and #75 recruits in the nation. Brian is appropriately skeptical of Michigan’s chances with Prather, but, as shown by Beilein’s near-steal of Nate Lubick from Duke, things can happen. Regardless, given Beilein’s snag of Darius Morris from across the country, the landing of highly-praised Matt Vogrich, and Michigan’s current lead for Zeigler - arguably the state’s best player - the evidence that Beilein can’t recruit on this level just doesn’t exist, unless you care to assume that Beilein’s recruiting won’t improve from Morgantown to Ann Arbor - a theory he’s already disproven.
Okay: I know we're all excited about Beilein's highest-rated recruits ever, but Morris is #77 on Rivals, #100 on ESPN, and an unranked three-star on Scout. Vogrich is #100 on Scout, #137 on Rivals, and unranked on ESPN. Those are the crown jewels of the class.
According to Rivals, the following Big Ten teams have two players rated higher than Michigan's two best in the 2009 class (ie: one higher than Morris, one higher than Vogrich): Michigan State, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota. At best Michigan has the fifth ranked class in the conference, with Wisconsin and Purdue not far off.
I didn't say Beilein can't "recruit on this level"; I said he can recruit like Izzo or Matta or anyone else who can expect to regularly assemble top 25 classes. Michigan's 2009 class does not dispel this idea. By the numbers Michigan will be operating at a talent deficit relative to the conference.
He is a guy who will bring guaranteed respectability, likeable teams, and a host of tourney bids with some fun runs to the Sweet 16 or whatever. Michigan basically abdicated on being a powerhouse when they hired Beilein.”
Look - a horrible Wisconsin team made the final four in the unwatchable Dick Bennett days. George Mason made it. Eighth-seeded Villanona and NC State won championships. Flukes? Definitely.
Again the talking is orthogonal to what I am saying. Sure, Michigan can get hot in a tourney and Pittsnogle their way to a final four at some point. It can happen. It nearly did for Beilein at West Virginia. But that doesn't mean it's likely to. "Not a powerhouse" does not mean "never makes Final Four." It means "is not likely to make Final Four."
Even if we move Brian’s argument out of the Tournament and into the realm of general regular-season success, the point seems to fizzle. As mentioned ad nauseum - Beilien started a walk-on point guard and two freshmen who would have been coming of Valparaiso’s bench barring Beilein’s desperation to bring in a few players upon his arrival in Ann Arbor. This Michigan team possibly had four players that had the talent to justify significant minutes in a major conference - Harris, Sims, Grady, and Lucas-Perry, and they still garnered a #10 seed and earned a second-round game in which they gave Oklahoma a tougher game than #3 seed Syracuse. With Michigan’s best recruiting class in years on the way and the probability of at least one additional top-100 player arriving the following year, is a #2 or #3 tournament seed that far out of the question?
You're just going to have to trust me on this: yes, it is that far out of the question. Michigan vastly exceeded expectations this year but on a possession-to-possession basis they finished 50th in the Kenpom rankings, which was sixth in the conference. They were three-point jacks away from losing to three different horrible teams and missing the tourney. One Big Ten team got a 2 or 3 seed and it was Michigan State, #8 in Kenpom. There is a huge gap between Michigan's team this year and the sort of seed expectation you just threw out, and more experience plus the 2009 recruiting class only gets you halfway there.
Why Am I Bothering With All This?
It really bothers me to see evidence of people going from "I hope we make the tourney before I die" to "Now we're Duke!" This WLA sentence is why this 2000 word post exists:
Comrades, now is a time for optimism.
How did we get to a spot where making the tourney most years with a few runs to the Sweet 16 (or beyond!) isn't optimistic? Am I crazy? If Beilein does nothing more than he did at West Virginia—mid-conference finishes with consistent tourney bids, no high seeds, lots of fun in the tourney—he'll be an absolute roaring success. If there's a time to complain about Morgan instead of Appling or a stunning lack of Final Fours, it's fifteen years from now, when someone else is the coach.