Unlike in football, where you have a game a week and, thus, all carry a pretty high significance, basketball has far more games with varying levels of import. Last year I basically started this column with the tourney run, and so far the season has been just disjointed enough that it was hard to get a bead on what this team was capable of. So it wasn’t until this week’s games against Wiscy, Iowa, and MSU did I feel like I could do justice to a full-fledged Best and Worst on a series of games. Note that while I can at least impersonate someone who knows a couple of things about football, I am an avowed fanboy of basketball who begged his mom for a Charlotte Hornets Starter jacket and Bobby Hurley’s ITZ so that I could ball in the Michigan winters all day long.
Also, there might be wrestling references in here. To paraphrase Mel Gibson to Joaquin Phoenix, “Neg away.”
Best: Wrecking Ball
Even the most optimistic fan looked at this slate of games and said “2-1 would be fantastic, but just get 1 win and survive.” Then came the signature win at the Trohl Center, and everyone rejoiced for a day until the Ent Globtetrotters were seen emerging from a fertile Plains state. Then UM felled it’s second top-10 team of the week and the mood turned pure Lloyd Christmas with the possibility of a sweep at the Breslin, but for most that fantasy was quickly snuffed out by the realties of playing against a third top-10 team, on the road, before a rabid crowd that could easily sway the officials in ways both great and small. And it’s not like MSU is a pushover; led by the lilliputian Tom Izzo, one of the nation’s top coaches and 18-time winner of the Frances Pomeroy Van Gundy award for coaching, he’s the reason Cedar Village’s Google Image Search is virtually indistinguishable from that of London’s during World War 2.
(Click to enlarge. The black & white ones are London)
And yet, it was hard to shake the feeling at halftime that UM was going to sweep the week, or at the very least come damn close. Yes, the shooting has been unsustainably hot, but they were also able to weather some horrible officiating and Gary Harris’s amazing performance to keep the game close, and at some point a short-handed MSU team* wasn’t going to be able to hang with this squad, even if they weren’t at full-strength themselves. And so, like the other two games, UM won a bit going away, hitting their foul shots and playing stout enough defense to salt it. Basically, they followed the same formula MSU and UW have used for years to choke the life out of teams.
So now, midway through a season that started with much uncertainty, pocked with consternation and some despair, UM sits atop the best conference in the country, 7-0 for the first time since before anyone on this team was born. Though this is certainly not the last tough stretch for the team, and you have to expect some type of letdown in the coming weeks, these guys went from safe-if-unspectacular tourney team to one of the most dangerous outs in the country, a designation that seems perfectly appropriate for a Beilein squad. Speaking of which…
* This has been discussed elsewhere, but losing Payne to injury was tough. Losing Dawson to a “Fist Punch of Leadership” is just having an idiot on your team. Everyone loses players throughout the season, and sore wrists and bum shoulders weren’t the reasons UM has won 5 of the last 7 against MSU.
Best: The Beilein Hypothesis…
I’ve always believed that there are two types of successful college coaches: guys who thrive in chaos of new players and transition, and guys who thrive at installing players into a system. The archetypes of the prior are the one-and-done maestros like Calipari, while the patron saint of the latter are guys like Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan. Obviously, most coaches fall somewhere in this spectrum, with guys like Pitino, Krzyzewski, Boeheim, Self, and Williams making do with varying mixtures of near-pros and matriculating talent. But in general, their greatest successes fall into one of these two camps.
John Beilein has always been a system guy. Now, when I hear that term as it relates to college basketball, I think of your defensive taskmasters; your Ryans and Izzos who recruit annoyingly-good offensive rebounders and defense-first guards who want to leave teams looking like Zach Novak and muttering “Jon-a-than!” as they board their bus.
But with Beilein, the focus has always been about his offense, and he’s recruited those players with a very specific set of skills with aplomb since he arrived in Ann Arbor. Sure, he made do with imperfect lineups featuring guys like Morris, Harris, and Sims, talented players who helped carry UM back to respectability even when they weren’t great fits for the system. But you always saw him tinkering at the edges, trying to create the type of team that, well, he’s had for the past 2-3 years (though perhaps still a bit too guard-heavy, with McGary’s injury being a major factor).
Still, it has gotten to the point with Beilein’s team that they can lose one of the best players in the country and another first-round NBA player and really not miss a beat. Sure, Stauskas and Caris have made strides and the Morgan/Horford combo has impressed, but this team is still down 3/5ths of the starting lineup that took them to the championship game last year. And yet, after a couple of early stumbles as the pieces settled into place, the offensive productivity remains elite while the defense remains in line with last year’s acceptable rate. And unlike defense-heavy teams, which seem to be better able to plug in, how do I say this charitably, “high energy” guys with limited offensive games and still come out on top, Beilein’s system requires players to be able to actually score with some consistency, a skill that (I presume) is far less abundant.
It seems that it has gotten to the point with Beilein (and more importantly this team) that players have become largely interchangeable provided they possess certain basic skillsets and a decent level of athleticism. And in some ways, perhaps his best teams are going to be those bereft of a great many “stars” from an NBA perspective. This isn’t meant to invoke the Ewing Theory because losing in the championship game could never be construed as “underachieving”, but I do think that the Burke-Hardaway squad was hurt at times by having two NBA-ready players sometimes vying for the same shots and space; you heard various people complain gently that the “hero ball” at the end of games by Burke and Hardaway felt forced at times. Obviously it didn’t cost them in the end, but his WVU teams weren’t overflowing with NBA talent and yet they held serve in a remarkably tough Big East for years. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to recruit the best kids, but his team seems capable of holding serve without the superstars guys like Calipari need to replenish year-in/year-out.
My only nagging concern is that the defense, perhaps by design or due to the players best suited for this offense, seems to have settled at about average, which puts pressure on the offense to be significantly more efficient than other teams to compensate. It is a relatively minor concern and one that should further shrink as more talent arrives, but it should be noted when discussing Beilein’s successes.
So while I’m not yet ready to consider that any future Beilein team at UM can be penciled in for a certain number of wins and a tourney run, it is safe to say that the era of “fretting” about the state of the program is at an end. Given a reasonable number of healthy bodies and at least some talented offensive players, Beilein’s squads will be highly competitive in the toughest conference in the land, always in the running for conference banners and capable of beating anyone on a given night. That is the best mark of a good system, and given the past two decades of UM basketball, a welcome sign.
[He isn't even close to done with Bests yet. Jump!]
Best: Closing Time
(yes, I know it’s a dumb song)
One of the hallmarks of good teams that I’ve noticed is a unit that plays either even or better in the second half of games, especially on the road. Teams can always race out to big leads when emotions are high and adjustments haven’t been made yet, but being able to respond successfully to your opponent’s halftime changes hasn’t always been the case for Michigan. Yet over the three-game stretch, UM either took over or extended the lead after the break (+2 against Wisconsin, +4 against Iowa, and +11 against MSU), sometimes rather spectacularly. True, this is also the team that let Nebraska nearly catch them while in Lincoln and played Stanford to a stand-still, but it has been impressive to see the team come out of the lockerroom and maintain the focus that (usually) got them to the lead at the end of the half.
And it’s not like the offense was shooting the lights out in those second halves. Against Wisconsin, the 3 pointers rimmed out for most of the second half (2/9), but the defense stiffened (Wiscy went from 61% to 48% shooting overall in the 2nd half, including 3/8 from 3 after being Gasser-ed [3/3] as part of a 4/5 in the first) and hit their free throws at the end. With Iowa, a team constantly itching to start running, they kept everyone in front of them and rebounded well despite a clear size mismatch. And despite MSU enjoying a pronounced difference in foul shots (2/3 for UM versus 8/11 for MSU) and dead-eye (52/40/73) shooting led by Harris’s 5/8 helping the Spartans hold an early lead, UM kept the heat on with more selective shooting from outside while waiting for MSU to cool off. In the end, it wasn’t just UM keeping the fire hose open while the other team wilted; they won each of these games going away by playing solid defense and opportunistic, in-synch offense, even more amazing given the differences in styles between all three teams.
Best: How Do You Say “Swag” in Canadian?
Now, I know at some point Beilein’s magic diamond-making machine will need to head in for repairs and he’ll miss on a couple of recruits, but man is that guy batting like Barry Bonds with an XXXXL helmet right now.
First he took a flier of sorts on moderately-hyped Tim Hardaway Jr., who had a great name but wasn’t a pretty generic 3*, and he blossomed into an NBA first-rounder, full stop (I know people will complain about some of his shooting and defensive issues, but he’s been playing pretty well so far). Then he “lucked into”/cultivated Trey Burke into arguably the best PG in team history and a lottery pick. And most recently, he mixed bona-fide blue chippers like McGary, GRIII, Walton, and Irvin with less heralded recruits like Caris and Stauskas into a championship-level team with multiple draft picks possible after the season.
True, it has helped in recent years that the caliber of players to choose from has gone up rather spectacularly, and he’s had some misses (Brundidge, Smotrycz to an extent), but these teams look like WVU++, and unlike that other guy from the Mountaineer state*, he’s found a way to stay true to his system while recruiting players that are a step above earlier iterations.
* A common refrain during RR’s era was that he still recruited the fringe cases despite being at a school with a much stronger recruiting profile. Personally I didn’t think his classes were that far off historical norms at UM when you take into account the tumultuous start and recovering from that first season, but there were definitely concerns when Beilein came to UM that he might not be able to recruit the types of kids who could “compete” at UM.
Obviously the biggest jump made this year has been from Stauskas, who has blossomed from for-sure 4-year player to possible early-entrant to the NBA draft. The always-reliable Internet has him just outside the lottery, though it also has the center from Kentucky who plays 26 minutes a game and averaging a 8/6.8/3.4 (blocks) while shooting under 50% from the line as the #9 pick, so this is obviously fluid. Still, after losing so much offense from last year’s squad due to the draft and injury, and returning players like GRIII and Caris struggling at times with the heavier load, it has been a revelation to see Stauskas assume far more import in the offense without disrupting the overall flow and design. It shocks me that both him and Gary Harris are off the mid-season Wooden list, but at this point I’ve given up on figuring out how awards ballots are designated.
I suspect Stauskas’s stock will drop a bit if he continues to have issues getting separation from NBA-level defenders like Harris, Thornton, and Jones, but if he continues to shoot like he has this conference season he may still get enough interest to bolt. I’d be fine with that because, well, who am I to tell a kid to turn down millions of dollars because I don’t want to watch UM lose to MSU in 2015, but it would also be another feather in the cap of Beilein and his rapidly-expanding reputation for getting guys to the league. Speaking of which…
Best: J+B Basketball Factory
As noted earlier, Beilein produced, at best, 1/2 of a single first-rounder while at WVU (Joe Alexander went pro the year after Beilein left), but since coming to Michigan he’s gotten four kids onto NBA squads, including three via the draft (Morris a 2nd rounder in 2012, Burke and Hardaway last year, along with Harris as a FA). This year, Stauskas and Robinson will likely explore the waters, and McGary could very well leave despite the recent injury history. That’s 7 guys in 7 years, and that doesn’t include guys like Walton, Irvin, and Caris who could all wind up on NBA rosters in the coming years. Sure, UM isn’t going to be minting first-rounders like Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas most years, but Beilein has helped to turn UM into a healthy cultivator of NBA talent, on par with basically any other program in the conference.
For reference, between 1999 and 2012, UM put a total of 3(!) players in the league, and that includes Jamal Crawford’s 17-game career. The two other players were Maceo Baston, who was drafted in 1998 but didn’t make it to the league until 2002-2003(!!), and Bernard Robinson Jr., who along with Daniel Horton and LaVell Blanchard were my favorite players from the post-sanctions Dark Ages and earned a cup of coffee with Charlotte for a couple of years.
This is a bit of a digression, but I figured it needed a space to be said. I attended UM between 1999 and 2003, during which point the basketball team never won more than 17 games and finished under .500 in conference 3 out of 4 years. I sat through the death rattle of Brian Ellerbe’s last two years and Tommy “Swing my Finger Offense” Amaker’s first two years, where everything seemed made up on the spot and the points, sadly, never seemed to matter.
I remember attending an early-season game in which they played a “highlights” package from the year before that maybe included 2 dunks, a couple of threes by Louis Bullock, and what felt like minutes upon minutes of layups and scrum-like steals. Michigan, this team helped usher in a new era of college basketball by playing young superstars and imposing their physical will on other squads through unbridled athleticism, sadly looked like a mid-level MAC team that stayed in games with “grit” and “I guess that guy CAN dunk” surprise. It just felt so, I don’t know, defeated, and it made my season ticket purchasing a pretty easy expense to cut out.
People complain about football being in “dark” times because RR had a couple of losing seasons, MSU has been good, Hoke hasn’t been lights-out since he took over. I’m here to tell you that the Ellerbe/Amaker eras were f’king DARK, man, and so don’t ever take for granted how much fun it is to have a coach like Beilein who pumps out winning teams and exciting players.
Worst: So this is how it feels…
This is specifically about the MSU game because ESPN thought it was a good idea to release Dick Vitale from his weekly orgy and let him call a game, but man was it infuriating to listen to two+ hours of announcers fellate a guy who last won a championship 14 years ago. As others have noted, UM fans are often accused of “living in the past” by speaking fondly of the 1997 national championship; to talk to a certain subset of the Spartan fanbase, the “Flintstones” are still thriving and Izzo is poised to lead a team to another championship as long as they aren’t burned by “injuries.”
Yes, Izzo has been a very good college coach for going on two decades now, but he’s been to one championship game since and was blown out, and at times it’s seemed like college basketball is slowly passing his style by. Like Bo Ryan, a “great” Spartan team is predicated on defense and rebounding, max-effort guys who aren’t afraid to elbow you in the face and pound away on younger, smaller teams. He typically has more talent than Wisconsin and similar squads so he has a bit more leeway, but the style always feels like it is stuck in a single gear. Just like how Wisconsin always crumbles in the tournament when they run into teams that can out-talent their murderball tactics, Izzo’s teams can’t really adjust to teams with similar or more skill players, as you can only squeeze so much blood from “lunch pail” guys before they run dry. And even when he does possess some reasonably talented offensive players (like this year, a couple of Kalin Lucas seasons, and some years ago when he had Shannon Brown, Paul Davis, and Maurice Ager on the same team), he can’t seem to let them truly take off. He found a system that won him a championship in the same way the Knicks and Heat nearly destroyed pro basketball, and he seems unwilling to let that go. And guys like Vitale keep falling over themselves to tout “Tommy Terrific” for being a good coach because it’s easier to spout off cliches and empty platitudes than open your damn eyes.
Watching UM beat Wiscy and MSU this week, it reminded of Brian’s concerns about Al Borges and the Michigan offense being on the wrong side of history. Playing defense is going to keep you in most games, and a great way to hold up against more talented teams is to be older and more experienced, but with the best HS players having to play at least a year in college, it feels like the game is pivoting again toward more open offenses that unleash these young superstars. MSU will sometimes nab a Harris who can keep up, but at some point you run into a team that can overcome your “toughness” and intensity with basketball skill. Maybe teams like MSU and Wiscy will evolve, but I’m kind of doubting it, just like I’m doubting we’ll hear the end of it from the announcer’s booth.
Best: So apparently being tall isn’t an issue
Sure, UM continues to struggle on the offensive rebounding side of the slate a bit (only 3 against Wiscy), but against Iowa and MSU (without Payne and Dawson) they more than held their own, and as noted by Ace and Brian, this MSU team wasn’t a classic rebounding monster even with those two guys. Losing McGary, even in his weakened state, undoubtedly lowered the ceiling for this team offensively by a bit, but with Korgan you have a couple of guys who can rebound well enough while playing some solid defense inside. Coming into the season one of the concerns was UM’s relative shortness and how they’d match up against the giants of college basketball. So far, after playing FSU and Iowa, it is safe to say that they can at least hold up better than in years past. Foul trouble will remain an issue (witness Morgan and Horford’s 2 early fouls), but unless they play Arizona the rebounding numbers should remain pretty consistent regardless of opponent.
Worst: Yeah, I remember Steve Wojciechowski Too!
If there is ever a war crime-esque tribunal held for college basketball’s worst offenses, “WoJo” smacking the floor for Duke would be early on the docket, up there with whomever told Duke students that making up dumb chants was a good idea, Marshall Henderson being allowed to make eye contact with fans, and all of the athletic directors who keep thinking John Calipari “definitely wouldn’t break rules at X”.
It was dumb when it was just that dorky guy at Duke, but MSU has made a habit in recent years against UM (and maybe other teams, I don’t know or care, though it feels like something they’d totally save up for Michigan) of slapping the floor to, I don’t know, signal that they were finally ready to play defense. Or they just played Super Smash Brothers as Donkey Kong and can’t get him off their mind. After Trey Burke gloriously mocked them last year, you’d think the tradition had died, but you’d be wrong. At least 3 times somebody on MSU slapped the floor to either signal renewed vigor in stopping UM or secretly inform the refs that they were about to assault the UM player with the ball and to not draw their whistles for 10-15 seconds.
Worst: And don’t get me started about those “Yes” Chants
So in the WWE, there is a former independent wrestling darling called Daniel Bryan who invented both “Yes” and “No” chants (depending on his character’s leanings) for the fans to chant at various times. In part because of its simplicity and in part because Daniel Bryan is an amazing professional wrestler, somebody in MSU’s spirit squad convinced the fans to chant “Yes” before the game against OSU. It was (admittedly) pretty impressive, and kudos to MSU fans for not screwing it up. But since then, it doesn’t seem like most of the fans even tried to figure out the reason behind the chant, or why they should put a good effort behind it. So fast forward a week, and when certain UM players walked to the FT line, you’d see about 80% of the Izzone half-heartedly chanting “Yes” while pointing their fingers in the air because “Rainbows are Miracles” is too long.
I know it’s wrestling and all, but the reason the “Yes” chant resonates so well for Bryan is because he is the ultimate underdog; overlooked because of his size, diminished because of his “Indy” background, ignored in favor of bigger guys who look like a million bucks but move like a buffalo nickel. The chant is defiantly telling the authority figures, the Arbiters of the status quo, that he is the best in the world and you can’t ignore that regardless of how far into the sand you can bury your head. I’m probably making too big of a deal about it, but there is something idiotic about MSU fans, who have been lording over their team’s “dynasty” for over a decade now, chanting what amounts to an anti-establishment message because it makes for a cool visual.
Best: The Future looks bright
After a slow start to the year, I’ve been impressed by the improved play of guys like Walton and Irvin, along with the continued maturation of Caris and Stauskas. Despite a recent bout with the flu, Walton has played solid defense and scored in double figures 4 of the 7 conference games. Caris has emerged as a solid second scoring option, and while he’s had some trouble with turning the ball over he’s still been a nice surprise as Robinson has struggled carrying a heavier load offensively. Irvin’s been through some bumpy times, but I think they’re figuring out how to use him, and his shot is still dangerous. The team now enters into a bit of an easier patch, which should help to address some of the issues we saw in these wins while gearing up for another tough stretch starting @Iowa in early February. But after a week that started with dreams of 1-2, it is hard to not look at this team as one capable of another long run into March.