Billy Donlon protects the rim against Xavier Simpson. [Isaiah Hole/247]
I planned to spend the assistant coaches portion of media day splitting time evenly between the three assistants. After wanding into Billy Donlon's scrum, however, I never made it out. Michigan's new de facto defensive coordinator, even if he's reluctant to use that term, gave a lot of insight into how he approaches coaching defense and guard play. I tried to pick and choose the highlights from the half-hour or so of audio I have from him; I still ended up transcribing nearly 4000 words.
- Donlon coaches a man-to-man defense with what he calls a gap philosophy, which is similar to the pack-line defense.
- Expect to see Michigan stop fast breaks more often by fouling—Donlon mentions this tactic as a significant breakthrough in transition defense brought over by European coaches/players.
- Toughness is a skill that can be taught.
- Saddi Washington is a "grand slam" hire.
- He's "in awe" of how John Beilein does his job.
- "When you’re an assistant you make suggestions. When you’re a head coach you make decisions."
On what he may have seen on film from Michigan last year that is correctable:
I think you just try to look at some things from film from last year that maybe we could work on or address or understand the rules, and for me just trying to familiarize just the Big Ten in general. That was what I tried to do with some of the free time, when you’re not recruiting, when you’re not with the guys. You’re always trying to get it better. We’ll continue to work really hard at trying to get it better.
On his defensive philosophy:
We’re a gap team. The gap is really similar to the pack-line. The pack-line is a little lower. In the gap you’re a little closer in terms of you’re up the line a little bit more, you’re one step off the line of the ball and your man versus maybe two steps in the pack-line. In the pack-line, that means it’s more contained. [In] the gap, the closeout isn’t as hard. There’s good and bad in everything that you choose to do. The great thing about both of those is you can easily go from the gap to pack-line and then back, because they’re similar. That’s been how I’ve grown up playing in it and also coaching it, and it’s similar to what they’ve done here, to be honest.
[Hit THE JUMP.]
On getting the guards, specifically Derrick Walton, better at finishing:
One is just the development in the weight room. You’re gonna go from your freshman year, having the body you have, to your sophomore, to your junior. I think two, somehow—Derrick had an incredible finish, I think it was at Maryland, where, it’s on a highlight, he finishes with his left hand and the guy has literally tackled his waist. And the other thing, sometimes perimeter players, they end their dribble too early. So they take a dribble out by the foul line, and instead of maybe taking one more dribble to give them more time to decide and still have athleticism—the earlier you end your dribble, it takes away your athleticism. So just some different things in what it takes.
But you also have to have, the perimeter guys, they’ve been really well-schooled, they have a great mentality for getting near the rim. I think Derrick has it, Mo [Abdur-Rahkman], all those guys. We’ll try to really embrace being physical on drive. You’ve got to be physical on drives. You have to have an awareness of the court. Your court awareness is important in finishing at the rim because you’ve got to be able to anticipate the help-side defender, shot-blocker coming over, who’s dropping to take away his man, you’ve got to be able to figure those things out too.
On if Walton has that ability:
Yeah, I think he’s been a pretty good player. I love Derrick, you know, and I just look forward to working with him every day. He’s a good player, and certainly, like everybody, there’s nights where he finishes and there’s nights where teams did a better job. But I think the one thing with Derrick is he has a great ability to make baskets. He puts it in the basket, and that’s a credit to what’s gone on here with shooting and all the skill development here Coach [Beilein] has done.
On the freshman guards (Ibi Watson and Xavier Simpson):
Any freshman, whenever you make the transition from high school to college, for the most part the speed of the game and the physicality of the game are just, they’re jumps. Both of those guys are working their way through it, they’re doing a great job. Ibi is incredible. He’s a quick study. X is highly competitive. They both are. But it’s a process because of the jump. It’s a jump. They’ve got a chance to have great careers. They’ve both got a good skill-set, but the physicality of the game and the speed of the game—when coaches say speed of the game, it then becomes about making the same decisions you’ve proven you can make, but faster, is really what the speed of the game means. It’s the natural curve of a young player.
Certainly here, when you look at the history of the guards, it ain’t me. It’s the gentleman up there in that big room. There’s only two other teams in the country with more first-round draft picks on the perimeter in the last six years than Michigan. Only two others. First-round picks. That’s a heck of a statement on the perimeter. That’s a fact. The last six years, nobody’s had more first-round NBA picks on a perimeter player than the University of Michigan, coached by John Beilein. So I feel like the perimeter guys are in great hands. It’s proven. It’s a really remarkable thing when you talk about it. It’s something I talk about frequently with our recruits.
On the balance between his more aggressive defense and Beilein’s past tendencies:
There’s always a balance, I believe, with fouling. You don’t want to foul too much. You don’t want to get guys in foul trouble. Certainly, I think, when you’re not coaching in the Power 5, and one of the struggles when you have to go play a money game, there’s some differences, too, that might’ve been a little different.
But I do think you have to have a mentality for physicality when you play defense. We want to find the proper balance of fouling. Sometimes there’s a really good foul. The Europeans were the ones that brought over to us fouling on the break. Like if there’s a 3-on-2 break and you have the ball, you weren’t in foul trouble, and you weren’t in the bonus, they were the ones that brought over here, take that foul to eliminate the transition. So there are times when there are smart fouls, and I don’t have any doubt that the coaching staff will continue to educate our guys on those kinds of things.
On whether toughness is inherent or can be improved:
I think any area—I think toughness is a skill, so any skill can be improved. I do think toughness is a skill. Certainly, like anything else, one guy comes in and his elite skill is shooting, another guy comes in and he’s already pretty tough, but whatever it is—competitiveness, toughness, I think those are all skills that certainly need to and will get improved as you move up the ranks. That’s just part of the process.
On Charles Matthews:
Just excited. He’s so appreciative to be here. Charles has been really, really coachable. He works, just works. It’s great to have him here. I think for anybody, me as a player, if I could go back and have a fifth year, instead of the four years, and be a 23-year-old senior, which is maybe what that’ll be for Charles, and this year will be great for him from that standpoint. And then also, I would assume he’ll be on our scout team, he’ll make our scout team a whole lot better, too, from that standpoint, Charles being on the offensive side of that. He’s been really coachable and he works really hard.
On early impressions of Xavier Simpson:
Love his competitiveness. He’s working, he can attack. He’s been a winner his whole life. Every day to go against a guy like Derrick, to practice against a guy like Derrick Walton every single day, I think that’s great for the both of them. Then those guys playing together in the two-guard [lineups], is also advantageous. He’s been really good, really competitive. It really bothers him when he doesn’t win a drill or he doesn’t win a competition, both individually or with his team. That’s a great, great trait to have.
On whether Walton has taken Simpson under his wing:
Yeah, I think the guys, there’s great leadership. The older players are showing the younger guys the ropes. You need that. You want that. Derrick, his personality—you know, every day, you’re blessed to work at the University of Michigan, you’re blessed to work for somebody like Coach Beilein, and also to have the guys that we have just as people, how coachable they are—really, really lucky. Really, really lucky.
On whether this is a defensive overhaul:
I’m lucky I have a voice in practice. Coach, we have conversations as a staff every day. As I’ve said when I got here, Coach Beilein can coach defense. He changed the game of college basketball for about a five-year period when he came up with the 1-3-1, when he took them to Monday night, they were a top-40 or 50 defensive team. So I just, maybe, some different terminology or those kinds of things that can be beneficial, but I wouldn’t in any way call it an overhaul or anything like that.
On adjusting to the Big Ten:
It’s exciting for me because I was a ball boy at Northwestern for like seven years when my dad coached there, so to be back in the Big Ten is great. I grew up outside of Chicago when we moved, [have] a lot of roots here, a lot of friends who played in this league, coaching friends. It’s exciting. It’s the best basketball conference in the country. It’s been dominating from a fan base standpoint for like 35 years, I think the Big Ten has led in attendance in men’s basketball in the country. It’s an unbelievable place. Everywhere you go, you’re going to have a great environment. Come on, as a competitor, who wouldn’t want that? So I’m really fortunate to have that opportunity, especially at Michigan for Coach Beilein.
On the transition from head coach to assistant:
When you get to do your passion, you’re lucky. I get to do my passion. I get to be on a gym floor almost every day doing my passion. To do it with the people we get to do it with at the place we get to do it at, I’m lucky. I’m one of the luckiest people alive. To be able to come to work every day and love it? Really, really lucky. Look at the practice facility. This is where we get to practice every day? Then we only have to walk ten yards to get to Crisler and if I go outside for lunch it’s the Big House? You can’t beat that. You can’t beat how fortunate I am to be here.
On coming in with another new assistant coach:
Saddi’s a grand slam. That guy is unbelievable. Unbelievable. In every aspect of being a coach. He’s an incredible human being. He was an outstanding player. If he doesn’t tear up both of his knees, he would’ve played in the NBA, and that’s not—I’ve had enough coaches tell me Saddi was a great player. As I said, we used to have to shake hands, one guy won and one guy lost when he was at Oakland, so it’s nice to be on the same team. Saddi Washington is a grand slam. He’s a phenomenal, phenomenal coach. For me what’s great is Jeff [Meyers] and Saddi and Chris [Hunter] and Waleed [Samaha], who’s a highly, highly successful coach here in high school basketball in Michigan—just lucky to learn and grow with those guys. But Saddi is outstanding.
On how much improving the defense requires emphasis in practice:
I think anything in general, if you want to improve an area, emphasizing that area is important. Defensively, the guys got to know the plan, the guys got to know the accountability of the plan. I think there’s definitely, just in general, even from the players, there’s a hunger to improve there.
It’s typically the number one offense in the country, so the standard is really high defensively to try to catch up to the offense. It’s typically one of the top five offenses in the country. But the guys have a great desire to—I don’t think you can move the offensive needle. If you’re being honest about it, you can’t really move the offensive needle. The pros steal it, the NBA guys are in here all the time. All the time! The NBA guys are going to be in here all the time. Yes, to see our players, but also to see the genius of Coach Beilein. I think the players are wanting to also move the defensive needle some, and I think they recognize that if they do that, if we do that, think what could happen.
On if it’s a matter of repetition and drilling concepts or making more wholesale conceptual changes:
You’re going to take this as a cop-out: I don’t know all the past stuff to know what’s been changed. I think Coach has been open to maybe calling something a little different from a terminology standpoint. But as I said, Coach Beilein, you don’t win as many games and as many championships and not be able to coach defense.
“He was in the presser like, hey, I’m taking a hands-off approach. I’m giving it to Billy. This is Billy’s thing. I’m learning some things from him. That’s what he just said up there. He put it out there, he said this is Billy’s show.”
(laughs) Coach is just trying to be nice. I’m a fired head coach, you know? So I think he’s just trying to be nice and make me feel a little bit better. But, you know, he knows what he’s doing. I don’t think it’s a huge change. I just think there’s some areas where we’ve got to get better every day.
Let’s be fair, Sam. We’re all honest people. Last year, it wasn’t like it was a bad year. If Caris LeVert plays, what happens to that team? I mean, the first-rounder was off the team, after like the Illinois game, right, in the middle of the year. They were 11-2 with Caris, right, and probably playing a lot better defense through those 13 games than they played after he was gone. Losing an elite perimeter defender? I think we have to be a little more—I mean, the defensive numbers would’ve been a lot better with Caris playing throughout the season. And give the coaching staff credit for doing what they did and being, you know, maybe a little better five minutes against Notre Dame from being an Elite Eight team, because that’s what Notre Dame did. Coach is the best.
“One more thing he said. One more. He singled out transition defense in particular. He said we were, like, 200th. They were, like, 100th. So just, not what Michigan did before, just give me your fundamentals of transition defense. What are the primary tendencies?”
Basket, ball, ball-side, those three things, I think those would be the pillars of anybody’s transition defense. Cover the basket. But then it’s always the how, that’s maybe the discussion. How do you cover the basket, how do you stop the ball, how do you fill the ball side, I think those are the things we’re talking about with our players to get better at.
When you look at this, certainly Saddi’s been great. The league that Saddi and I just came from played at the fastest tempo in the country. Say whatever you want, Kay Felder would’ve been the best guard in the Big Ten last year, probably. It would’ve been close. That might get me in trouble. But, I said it. So, like, you had to deal with that guy, right? It’s not necessarily the what—the basket, the ball, the ball side—it’s really the how, and I think we’re all in discussion of how to best do that when we play against the teams that really push it in the non-league and then certainly in the league.
On his coaching style and how the players have reacted to it:
I don’t know what they would say. Truthfully. I think the first rule you get taught as a coach by everybody, all the great Hall of Fame coaches in every sports, whether it was, like, I read a book by Lombardi, Hubie Brown, it’s: you have to coach to your personality. So I’m a passionate, energetic, enthusiastic guy, and that’s who I am, and that’s how I try to coach every day. I do know, I’ve seen it my very first year in coaching, I’ve seen it this past year, I’ve seen this with family, with close friends—you’ve got to treat every opportunity you get in coaching like it could be your last opportunity. So when that happens, I just come with a lot of energy, a lot of passion. That’s how I try to approach it every single day with everything. I don’t know how the players feel about it, truthfully.
On whether he’s taken it upon himself to make the team tougher:
There might be a quote in the locker room by some writer that’s standing very close to me that wrote something about, maybe, the lack of physicality of our team. We’ll use what we can. Every player, every team, you’ve got areas that you’ve got to improve. If physicality is an area we’ve got to improve, we’ll do everything every day to try to improve it in our practices as coaches.
I do think sometimes it’s, you know, if you look at the numbers, Michigan, we defended our backboard pretty well last year. You can’t be soft and defend your backboard. You can’t be soft. To be fair—there are certain things I think are unfair. But there’s always an area—the physicality of this league goes without saying. It’s a physical league. I do not mean that in a bad way. The reality is it’s a physical league and you’ve got to be prepared to handle that. And physicality, again, it’s more about a mentality. Mentally prepare yourself for what you’re in for. It’s really a mentality. Mentally prepare yourself for what you’re in for so you don’t get emotional on a major hit. You’re able to keep your resolve. I think that’s part of the biggest challenge, too, when you’re playing physical.
On whether his team will play ~90% man defense:
[points towards Beilein’s office] I think it’s right there. The Big Cheese office is right on the other side of that wall. That would be more of a question for him. I jokingly said this is one of the great parts of going back to being an assistant. I don’t have to answer that one. When you’re an assistant you make suggestions. When you’re a head coach you make decisions. I will suggest, we will all suggest, and then we’ll let the guy that I hope one day is in the Hall of Fame to make the decisions.
On whether his past teams were primarily man:
I was, yeah. It was probably 90-95%. … I’m not the defensive coordinator, I’m just a guy like all the other guys on the staff. I am not the defensive coordinator.
“Your boss says differently.”
He said I was the defensive coordinator today?
“Close to it.”
But he didn’t say it. He came all the way to the line [puts his foot right next to the midcourt line]. That’s still inbounds! You don’t get called for over-and-back right here! You don’t! You’re still right there! You know, yeah, to be fair, the last few years, Michigan, we’ve also been a man-to-man team. Occasionally bringing out the 1-3-1 or occasionally it looked like some 2-3. You’ve got to have a changeup, you’ve got to have other things you can go do. Sometimes you put in your zone and you strike gold, and you realize, hey, we’re really good at zone.
On John Beilein’s approach to coaching:
I’m in awe of what he does. I am. I’m in awe of how he handles his everyday. I mean that. His work ethic, his commitment to integrity, his commitment to the players, their improvement not just as basketball players but as people, and then preparing them for life after basketball, because there is gonna be one. I think it’s, what, 60% of the NBA guys only make it three years, or some number. Coach’s commitment to the values that really matter, they’re off the charts. He obviously has an incredible mind for basketball, but he takes the other stuff more seriously—your school, how you are in the community.
It’s not just lip service from me. This is not a political speech. You asked me the question. I didn’t volunteer it. That’s, for me, his everyday work ethic, and then how he handles the players, what he does with our players beyond the two-guard, or the defense. He’s the youngest—he reminds me of father in that way—he’s an incredibly young person for (reporter: “64”) whatever his age is. You said it, not me. He has an incredible amount of energy for a man of his age.
On how he’ll handle being an assistant again, in particular when he’s tempted to argue an official’s call:
It’ll be great. I’m on good footing! I didn’t get a technical last year. I went all year for the first time with no tech. That was my goal and I did it. You know, I think the neat thing is I’ll know a lot of the guys, because the leagues had a lot of similar guys. But yeah, you’ve got to be a lot more careful, because bench decorum, an assistant coach’s decorum is a significant factor for the last three years by the officiating. There’s no doubt that when that time comes, I’ll have to—and I said that, when I first got the job, any adjustments that need to get made are a thousand, 100% my adjustments, I need to make them. But have I thought about the first game? No. It’s a day-by-day deal, and you focus on the next practice.