Nobody asked for it, the people aren’t chanting for it, probably nobody’s going to read it, but here’s an (abbreviated) Best & Worst for this crazy Sweet 16 team.
Best: The Ultimate Beilein Team
This is what basketball is supposed to look like under John Beilein, with a couple of the rough edges ground down by Billy Donlon on defense. It’s an experienced, heady PG capable of driving to the hoop, dropping absolutely dimes on the run or in the half court, and (as an added bonus) being a crack shot from outside. It’s having athletic bigs with 3-point range and good handles. It’s about having 5 guys on the court who range from “Not at all” to “No” on the SIBMIHHAT scale. And while it may be a bit cliche, it’s about the sum being a bit more impressive than the parts.
Michigan from 2012 until 2014 was some weird Upside Down world where Beilein had multiple NBA first-rounders on the roster every season and didn’t have to make due with Mike Gansey, Kevin Pittsnogle, J.D. Collins and guile. And outside of that one glass headlined by GR III and McGary, it wasn’t really portended by the offseason. It was grabbing future NPOY Trey Burke because he missed on Aaron Craft, or beating out Dayton and Ohio for future lottery pick Caris Levert. It was turning the #232 player in the country into Jordan “UnderChargeTaker” Morgan, the backbone of two Elite 8 teams. And while it was great, it was never sustainable; you can’t rely on sifting dust for diamonds, because the pickings are slim, and with the vagaries of recruiting and how difficult it is to extrapolate 16- and 17-year-olds in college, even guru-approved commits can seemingly sputter and flame out.
This senior class, on paper, was supposed to keep Beilein’s surprising recruiting prowess going, a top-15 outfit headlined by 2 top-50 players in Irvin and Walton. It wasn’t quite “reloading” with the departure of Burke and Hardaway, but these players were expected to carry on that tradition under Beilein. At least in the part, the most optimistic of Michigan fans assumed that if Beilein could do go toe-to-toe with Kentucky and come within a room full of not-dead hookers (sorry Craig James) against Louisville for the title with relatively unheralded recruits, could you imagine what he’d be able to do with a couple of elite players?
And yet, while they showed glimpses of this promise for the past 3.5 years, it is safe to say they had been underwhelming overall. Walton was a PG who struggled to get his shot at the rim and Irvin was trying to be the offensive identity for a team that works best when that role is undefined. They weren’t bad players as much as fine players tainted with outsized expectations. Coming out of HS, Walton was a 6’ PG with okay athleticism, and Irvin was Just a Shooter who had a great frame but needed to both bulk up and refine his game on both sides of the ball. They were solid prospects, the type Beilein molded into good players as upperclassmen, but people expected much more much sooner, and the exodus to the NBA, injuries to them and others (especially the last 2 Levert years), plus some recruiting misfires forced them into more prominent roles than they were probably ready for.
The rest of the roster, though, was more in line with Beilein’s previous stops. He has supreme confidence in his ability to fix a guy’s wayward shot; witness MAAR going from sub-30% as a freshman to 40% from 3 this year, and Xavier Simpson hoping to see a similar trajectory over the years. Similarly, he knows that a good shot can offset a number of other deficiencies, as both DJ Wilson, Moe Wagner, and Mark Donnal were recruited because of their size and outside stroke even though they clearly needed some help in the weight room. Duncan Robinson was a transfer from D-III Williams College with a lights-out shot and serious questions about athleticism and defense.
They’re all guys with strengths to their games but also enough negatives that many of them would have been buried on other clubs. And yet, with Beilein, they aren’t just contributing, they are thriving. It’s why when the anonymous coaching quotes came out about this team a month ago, the money line was “[t]hey get guys eight or 10 points who don’t deserve to score.” It sounds like an insult, but it’s more a compliment to Beilein’s philosophy. It’s how he got WVU to have 3 straight top-25 offenses per Kenpom with mostly cast-offs, or how he’s had exactly 2 teams (2010 and 2015) finish outside the top-40 in offense the past 9 year.
And yes, his willingness to bring in Donlon to overhaul the defense, while initially rocky, has paid off in spades, with one of the best 3pt defenses in the nation and a team that forces turnovers at a top-100 rate. Those are new wrinkles to the Beilein formula. But the rest of this team remains true to form, and that’s probably what’s most encouraging to me. He doesn’t need NBA-ready players at every spot, he just needs guys who don’t turn the ball over, can spread out the court, and make teams defend them everywhere. It sounds simple but it’s not, and credit needs to go to Beilein for getting this team to get where it needed to be at the perfect time.
Best: Get Down with Your Beilein Self
You hear about certain coaches that are synonymous with a “type” of team, squads composed of players seemingly pulled from the primordial ooze destined to be cogs in a particular system. We usually hear this in relation to football, though; I say “Rich Rodriguez” or “Urban Meyer” and you just see a QB taking off down the field with an entire defensive staff clenched on the sideline, you hear “Mike Leach” and it’s a billion receivers streaking down the sidelines, or you hear a fullback led his team in TDs and called the Hammering Panda and “Jim Harbaugh” immediately jumps to mind. I say “Robotic” and you see Nick Saban, “Oregon” and you think of a million variations on highlighter colors bombing teams out of existence, or “Fun ‘n’ Gun and it’s just Steve Spurrier shirtless with a sun visor. Hell, whole conferences take on a certain identity: without looking, does Oklahoma 66, Texas Tech 59 sound more like a basketball score or a football one? And it helps that football let’s you “do” football in so many different ways because of the specialization on both sides of the ball, where the strengths of a player on offense don’t play into your defense and vice-versa.
In basketball, you don’t see this as often, for a plethora of reasons (limited roster size, massive player turnover especially at the top each year, the need for players to be passable on both ends of the court, etc.), and those teams that do have identities tend to become personifications of the perceptions (true or false) people have of their coaches.* So with Coach K and Duke, it’s talented “villains”, your JJ Redick’s, Christian Laettner’s, and Grayson Allen’s. The best MSU teams are like Tom Izzo, mean-mugging guys with equal part talent and “grit” that play like Bill Laimbeer’s fever dreams.
John Beilein’s defining characteristics (at least publicly) are being incredibly nice/genuine and being a bit, how do you say, hokey. In 2013, he celebrated going to the Sweet 16 with crazy subs, and this year has taken to ambushing players with water guns after big wins. It’s notable when he freaks out on the sidelines about the officiating because (a) it almost always means he’s getting a technical, and (b) he’s almost always right, and has held his tongue for untold transgressions up to that point. Maverick Morgan called Michigan “white collar” this year as a pejorative about their toughness, and more than a few fans felt the Wolverines reflected Beilein’s temperament. Both Louisville and Okie St. outrebounded Michigan this weekend, and a common refrain was that the team didn’t play tough enough on the glass.
But behind that gentile veneer is the heart of a killer. Okay, maybe not “killer”, but as Ace noted, quite evil. He knows what his offense can do to other teams. Matt Painter was exasperated trying to explain the difficulties defending Michigan, the harsh realization that your center has to defend a guy who shoots over 40% from three and can also shake-and-bake you behind his back on the way to the hoop. That even when the outside shot isn’t falling, Beilein will tax your team the entire time they are in the half-court offense, probing for breakdowns. And when they are firing from outside at a good clip, ooohhh. Oklahoma State scored 91 points and didn’t hold a lead after the 10-minute mark of the second half because Michigan shot 11-15 from 3 in the second half, a performance so scarring that OSU’s head coachg Brad Underwood left the Cowboys…for Illinois. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The old Harbaugh quote from his time at Stanford was “[w]e're going to win with character but we're also going to win with cruelty.” That’s been Michigan since that Ohio State game; just efficiently beating the tar out of teams unless they get eleventy billion more free-throws or the basketball gods smiling down upon them. Louisville had the #9 defense coming into this game; Michigan torched it for 1.2 ppp, and that included a relatively mediocre 6/17 from 3 and Walton going 3/13 overall.
* That’s not to say there aren’t styles; you have teams that love to press (Rick Pitino- and Shaka Smart-led teams jump to mind), or load up on bigs and grind down smaller clubs (Purdue and Minnesota most recently), or bomb away from outside (like Michigan, UCLA, Oregon, etc.), but because college basketball is such a recruiting arm’s race, and you usually are dealing with so many young players, it can feel so “generic” at times.
Best: Mobile Towers
In today’s basketball, it isn’t uncommon to see a team with a “stretch” 4 – a big who can handle the ball a bit and has a decent enough shot from 20+ feet to pull a defender out to him. It’s quite another thing to have 2 such players on a team, especially when both of them are above-average athletes capable of picking a guard’s pocket or breaking the press by himself. And yet, in Wagner and Wilson Michigan has two prototypical Beilein bigs capable of taking his man off the dribble, banging (a bit) inside, or spinning out to the 3 point line. Wagner scored a career-high 26 points in the win over Louisville, repeatedly getting his shot in that second half regardless of what the Cardinals threw at him. And when he was saddled with some early fouls and it was clear Michigan was going to be in a footrace with OSU, Wilson effortlessly slid over to the 5 and Michigan was able to rotate in Wagner, Robinson, and Donnal without upsetting their offensive flow. Plus, Wilson somewhat quietly collected 7 blocks this weekend, giving a little bite to the defense in key spots.
I want to say both guys come back next year; I know they’ve been moving up some draft boards but it still feels like they’re a year away from consistently playing like this, and in a loaded draft the first round isn’t a given. But regardless, it’s been great watching these two guys evolve over the year.
Best: The Old Guys
I’ve said quite a bit about Walton and Irvin already, but they’ve continued their stellar play into this first week of the tournament. Walton was the MVP against OSU, recording a 26-11-4 with 2 steals, but Irvin was nearly as efficient offensively and did a decent job defending the Cowboy’s hyper-aggressive attack. And against Louisville, where Walton struggled with his shot for much of the game, Irvin hit a couple of long jumpers to start that second half to keep the offense going and keep the deficit manageable until Wagner and co. got going. It took a little longer than everyone had hoped, but this is the type of senior play Beilein teams thrive on, and it’s a testament to their leadership that this team hung together even through the struggles.
Worst: This Seeding
After a grueling 4-day run to the BTT, Michigan was “rewarded” with a 7 seed against a top-25 Kenpom team in Okie St. and then the #9 team Louisville. This continued a trend of Michigan just facing a murder’s row of teams.
Per Kenpom, that corresponds to the #12, 36, 21, 23, and 9 teams in the country. The 2013 run to the national title game? #96, 18, 8, 2, 9, and 1. And Michigan isn’t going to get a gimme going forward; Oregon is #15 and then they’re looking at either the #12 or #7 team in the country waiting for them in the Elite 8.
And as you’ve probably read, this seeding “weirdness” isn’t limited to Michigan. Dayton had to play #8 Wichita St. as a 10 seed, while #42 Miami got to play #39 MSU, and #2 Villanova had #21 Wisconsin waiting for them in the second round while Gonzaga had #37 NW and UNC #35 Arkansas. Minnesota, the 35th team to Kenpom but a top-18 team to RPI and a 5 seed, and Maryland, #46(!) (behind Indiana and Texas Tech!!) were seeded at 6 while their opponent, MTSU, was actually ranked higher at #41.
Now, Kenpom, Sagarin, and similar metrics are not the be-all, end-all for determining the quality of a team. Both have Michigan as a top-20 outfit largely because of early-season struggles; right now it’s hard to imagine them not being considered one of the trop 5-10 teams in the country. But using RPI because it sorta looks like tough math isn’t remotely better, and it’s (somewhat) hurting the overall quality of the tournament because the seeding doesn’t reflect reality to a degree that stacks certain draws far too heavily.
Best: Shameless Plug
I’ll make this quick. I work for a company (Shoowin) that lets fans purchase tickets at face-value for a variety of sporting events if your team makes it to that game. You put down a small deposit, and if your team wins, you get those tickets at face value. During football we had deals with the NCAA for the Sugar Bowl and the National Title game, and with the B1G for the championship game. We’re running a similar program for the NCAA tournament. Michigan is a hot ticket, as you can imagine. Give it a look if you’re interested.
Best: Revenge Tour Rolls On
Michigan have been on an Inigo Montota-esque streak this month. First it was Illinois, the team that called Michigan soft and was then demolished by a team blown off the tarmac and wearing their practice gear. After beating Purdue, Michigan avenged their loss to the Gophers by apparently not fouling them 28 times. Then they beat Wisconsin, avenging so many shots that at the end of games and halves. Then their first NCAA opponent was a team with initials “OSU”…which is enough for me. Then they took down Lousiville, because “block don’t lie” even 4 years later. And now they wait for Oregon, the team that absolutely put the nail in Lloyd Carr’s coffin and set Michigan on a near-decade long trek into the abyss of college football. Sadly, they don’t have much lingering beef with Kansas or Purdue (though maybe the Jayhawks would disagree), but if they see UNC in the Final Four…let’s just say we might see a couple of Fab 5 members in the stands.