I'm finally getting around to this now that football is taking a breather. This is from last Monday, and I'll also have a transcript of Billy Donlon's illuminating media day press scrum tomorrow before digging into the meat of the season preview.
- This was after only a couple practices, so it's light on specifics about how the team is looking right now, though there was still plenty to cover from the offseason.
- The team spent a lot more time this offseason on individual defense.
- Billy Donlon is, yes, a pseudo-defensive coordinator, and he's been very vocal in practice. Beilein notes that Donlon's defenses have been better than Michigan's, so he's listening closely to Donlon's input.
- Beilein may be rethinking autobench. (!!!)
- Xavier Simpson and Derrick Walton will play at the same time, perhaps with more frequency than we expect.
- I nearly forgot my question after Beilein said he likes my tweets.
[Joined just after the start of the opening statement.]
Excited to get back to practice again, my 42nd season, my tenth season at Michigan. It’s wonderful to coach this group of young men we have right now. The transition with our staff thus far has been terrific. Really, really love the new information, the excitement, the great parallels between Saddi [Washington] and Bill Donlon, and Val Jordan and Bacari Alexander. It’s been a really good transition thus far.
We’ve had two practices, I can’t tell you a whole lot. I think that we spent a great, probably 500% more, in the summer, on just individual defense as opposed to evaluating players, so I don’t have a lot of evaluation for you today. We haven’t scrimmaged yet. I would say we’ve probably scrimmaged for 60 minutes the entire summer, so I can’t give you much information for what I feel, who’s where, other than what I do know. We’re trying to get in a stance, we’re trying to guard people, we’re trying to do a much better job that what we did last year. I hope you’ll see a little bit, it’s going to be a very boring practice for you, it’s going to be an hour of some stretching, and there will be some shooting, and there will be a little bit more. There won’t be a dunk contest and there won’t be any type of scrimmage in there at all, but you’ll get a little idea for who the players are, what numbers they are, and that’ll be just about it.
As I said, I feel recharged and reenergized by so many things that have occurred with this class of really five new players coming, with the four freshmen and Charles Matthews. Last year we just had Moe Wagner, that was it. Reteaching things, retooling things has been really energizing for us. Listening to Saddi and to Bill has been great. You go back six years ago and having Bacari and Val walk in, and Jeff Meyer, and it’s like that time all over again where I can say, okay, this is what’s gone on the last six years, this is where the game has changed, have I changed enough, and then we just go from there. A lot of trial and error still in practice in these six weeks, and then I know we won’t have it perfect by the time of the first game. We just want to be really good by the time we get to that Big Ten schedule.
I hope you’re all excited about our football team right now being 5-0. It’s a great start. I was following the game the other day, for you Catholics out there I don’t know if I’m in trouble, but I was looking at my phone during a wedding Mass on Saturday. That probably didn’t give me absolution for that, but I was following the game on the phone. I probably shouldn’t have told the bride and the groom that just now, either, but I just did.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the transcript.]
After losing Caris [LeVert] to the NBA and a couple of transfers over the summer, you do have an influx of freshmen, so out of the starting five it’s a fairly different team. What’s your outlook for the season?
I think that we have experienced depth, we have some depth, and it’s experienced depth with the bigger guys at the center. Whether Moe [Wagner] or Mark [Donnal] wins that position, we’ll see, but we’ll have one of those guys behind them. Whether DJ [Wilson] or Duncan [Robinson] wins that other position, we’ll have one of them behind them. That’s really good to have that type of veteran depth, I mean really veteran depth, guys who have played for a full year at least.
The backcourt is a different story, where we’ve got the one, the two, and three have logged a lot of minutes. But now we’ve got Ibi [Watson] and X [Xavier Simpson] coming off for them. So now we’ve got talent, yet very inexperienced. There’s a lot of things that go into this outlook, as we’ve found out. What is the bench going to play like, what are the starters going to play like, what is our injury situation? There’s a lot of things. I like the team right now and I like the way we’ve been practicing and, like I said, I’ve liked some of the things that we’re doing that would be a change from what we’ve done in the past.
When it comes to Billy, much was made about his defensive prowess. How would you define his role with the defense? Is he a pseudo-defensive coordinator, or what does that spot actually look like?
I don’t know what the word pseudo means, but I do know that it will be close to that. I am giving him a lot of responsibility, more responsibility—I probably should’ve given more in the past. I’m giving him a lot of responsibility for the defense. He’s got my eye, and the detail we do in offense, I think he’s got a similar eye for defense. We’re trying to combine that without confusing everybody. That’s going to be the delicate point—we don’t want them thinking too much.
He’s probably, and this is the adjustments that I have to make, he’s probably spoken more in practice right now than a lot of our assistant coaches were allowed to in the past. I’m not saying ‘allowed to’—either they did or they were always allowed to talk, maybe, just, I didn’t give them time, right? I’ve tried to really sit back and say, okay, when people scored 47% [against us] like we did last year, we had to have a different mindset in practice, and our players had to have a different mindset.
Obviously [Donlon] brings his defensive style, pack-line I believe is his forte. What will look differently, especially when you look back and saw what he did last year?
I think the biggest emphasis is, as this game’s evolved and the 30-second clock has come in, just individual, man-to-man, guard-your-yard defense. We have done it, we’ve worked at it. Just some of the principles he’s had, some of the help he’s had, some of the different angles he’s talked about, I think that will be really helpful for us.
You can’t talk about your team a lot, but individually you did a lot of workouts with them in the summer, at least some. What have you learned about the freshmen?
They love to practice. They do. The summer is a very busy time for them, as well. Between our two big guys and Ibi and X, they’re in the gym a lot, and they love basketball. What’s a learning curve gonna be, we’re going to find out that a lot in the weeks to come. But right now, just good kids, very coachable, are low-maintenance off the court, and then now we’ve got to see what they can do on the court. Charles [Matthews] should be in that category as well. Charles is, I would say, is not 100% but he’s pretty darn close to it. He’s been extremely receptive to coaching. He had a workout today from 7-8 am, before his 8:30 class, and did a tremendous job, just him and Coach Donlon.
I think I asked this to you in Dayton about Moe Wagner, about what you thought he needed to do physically to develop in the Big Ten, to take all the brunt down low. What’s that progress been? I know you haven’t practiced, but how has he come along?
You know what he did, we think it’s very important that he got back to the homeland. So he went back right after the end of April, but he came back, instead of coming back June 27, for the start of summer school two, he came back June 1, so he could get another four weeks of workouts in. So he had 12 weeks of intensive workouts. That really, I’ve seen a big difference in that—his body, everything. So now, he’s got to continue to work on things. If he’s in foul trouble every game again, now he’s not making the right strides. You’ve got to play defense without fouling, handle the ball without turning it over. I like the progress that he’s making, and what a terrific teammate and young man.
You spoke extensively about the defensive component that you’re getting. Beyond that, what are the greatest strengths of each of the two new assistants that you have?
When I interviewed Saddi and interviewed Greg Kampe about him, it was like, Saddi’s just got a presence about him, a commanding presence without being a guy that is intimidating kids. They like working for him. I love what he’s done with our post guys thus far. Again, I’ve sort of said, we’ve talked a lot about it, but I want him—you watch the Oakland guys, they’ve done a really good job in post offense, really good job. It looks to me like we can play through there more.
We’ve got two guys that have had a lot of minutes, even Moe got some minutes last year, Mark got some minutes, but all our big guys, DJ as well. Getting the same language to Austin Davis and Jon Teske is going to be big. Those two guys have such a big upside, it’s really encouraging. Bill Donlon, again, he is a head coach that is now an assistant coach. He’s got a lot of the head coach qualities already, where he’s strong with his command. Now he’s just got to take those 12 inches over on the bench and still put that together, but I just love the command he has, and I can tell by our kids’ eyes that they love learning from him and they love listening to him.
Is there any timetable for Mark Donnal’s status as far as a fifth year? Also, as the senior member of that position group, what are you looking for from him?
It’s the same thing. He’s a senior right now, and he’s playing in his fourth year, but he does have that extra year. We’re going to stop putting the redshirts next to the name, you know, you guys can figure that out. He’s in his senior year, and he’s been practicing okay. He’s got to get himself in great shape right now, but we’ve all seen what he can do. We need about 35 games like that at least from him this year.
Wright State’s defense—
You’re Ace, huh?
I am Ace.
You have some good tweets, Ace. I’m not following you now, it’s just when you put my name in there, I get to follow you. A couple of you hit me, too—first of all, I think I would have won the dance contest the other day, at the end, I needed to do that. But go ahead.
I would’ve liked to see that. Your defense have been very foul-avoidant during the last several years. Coach Donlon’s are on the opposite end of the spectrum.
It’s a perfect scenario.
So how do you balance playing more aggressive defense with trying to avoid fouls?
The perfect world is we want five fouls, five personal fouls going into halftime, with one or two minutes to go. I think sometimes, because of depth the last couple years, I wasn’t—if Zak Irvin or Derrick Walton in particular got their second foul in the first half, we didn’t have a whole lot of people coming in, and maybe we overdid that. You look at some of our guys’ stats, some guys didn’t average, didn’t average two fouls a game, so that’s a little bit too cautious. Somehow we’ve got to take Bill’s defense, where they foul more, and still stay out of the one-and-one and still keep our best players on the floor. That’s the thing we’ve got to work at. That’s my job to get that done. But you’re right, that’s a great question.
Talk about Zak and Derrick and the road they’ve traveled here, how they’ve improved from day one until now, and also what you’re looking for in terms of leadership from those two guys this year.
That’s been a big—both of those young men, and it’s natural, it’s natural today, there’s not too many walk-in leaders. It just doesn’t happen. They’re like everybody else. They go in and they grow into that role. Ever since this summer, I’ve seen just tremendous growth in both of those guys, to be able to speak, and lead, and push, and encourage, and pull, with the younger guys. As you know, seniors just want to win. They’re done with all the other stuff, the noise that they hear in the background, they just want to win. These two guys, if they could come out of here, given our injury situation, with three tournaments in four years, of hopefully having a great, great senior year that we’re in the championship hunt in the Big Ten all year long, that’s a pretty good career for both of them.
It’s not every day a practice squad player ends up on the roster. What do you see from Fred [Wright-Jones] to allow him to get that spot, and then what do you expect of him this year?
Fred just came in and from the beginning wanted to do one thing: he wanted to go and guard people. He just wanted to go guard people. It was great for Derrick, I mean, he is so quick, and he just drives people [into] fits. So we’ll go in there, and it gave us some depth. When Andrew [Dakich] had to be working out the last few years with the first team, just to give Derrick a rest, he was giving Derrick a rest, we had to have somebody that could be into somebody. His attitude—he’s a great student, not a good student, he’s a great student. He’s just given us a really good attitude for why he’s here. He’s here for all the right reasons. He’s just trying to help the team.
Is Zak back to where he was before the back injury in terms of explosiveness?
I haven’t seen enough yet, because we’ve just been doing drills. There were some indications of it recently. That’s what we expect. He got a little bump the other day, we’ll see what he does today—it’s nothing that is an issue. Hopefully he’ll be at full go today.
You’ve had some point guards that are great finishers at the rim. Can Derrick be that guy? How important is it that he be that guy instead of just looking for contact?
We’ve talked about Billy Donlon, a lot about the defense. He’s also the point guard and the guard coach, and really good at creating other way of gaining leverage, and the skill development and the ball-handling that you need to finish at the rim. Derrick’s had, I sense he’s going to have much-improved numbers in that area between 15 feet and one foot, where it is tough, tough twos. Every NBA team, every college team is trying to get guys to take tough twos, right? And that’s what Derrick will have to make, right, for as long as he plays basketball, because he’s an elite shooter, and so people are going to try to take that away. He’s not going to go up and dunk over people, so he’s going to have to make tough twos, and that’s a thing he’s worked on, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does.
With Billy, have you had to pull yourself back, and is it hard for you? Because this is new for you if you’re going to give him that much room.
No, not really. We’ve known each other for so long. When I was at Richmond and he was playing at Wilmington, those games were absolute wars every single time, and I just said, dang, why can’t we score on Wilmington? We never seem to get an open shot. And as a result, I’ve got so much respect for how he has been taught the game, so how he teaches the game.
But it really hasn’t been anything—I’m sure there are going to be days where he is the former head coach, probably goes and says, “I wouldn’t do it that way.” But at the same time, I’ve gotta make that call. I think, right now, if Billy, if you really believe in strong in that—look at our stats last year, I’m going with you. Look at your stats, look at our stats. Like transition defense, they were maybe 100th in the country, we were 200th in the country, and we weren’t sending guys to the backboard, so that shouldn’t happen. So when he’s talking about defensive transition right now, I’m all ears.
Have you told him, like, I want you to stand up to me and tell me—
I tell our guys all the time, I don’t want yes men. I don’t want ‘em. But I also don’t want somebody sulking because I didn’t take their idea. That does happen out there, all of a sudden. So it’s important. But I don’t want yes men, absolutely.
Are there any lingering injury concerns from the offseason?
No. We’re as healthy as we have been in a long, long time. So let’s, just [knocks on wood podium] keep it that way. We deserve one of those years right now.
Talking to guys at the end of last year, I think it was pretty clear that they felt they still had the reputation of a team that could kind of be pushed around, but that wasn’t the toughest group, I think there was a certain reputation there. Is that something you’ve addressed, and if so, how?
I think it has something to do with what we discussed before, right, the lack of fouling leads to baskets leads to trying to put our best players on the court because of a lack of the depth that we had, especially at some key positions. Somehow we’ve won championships, we went to the Final Four, we went to the final two, and people still think we play like wimps. If we can win two championships in the Big Ten every five years, I’ll take it, and they can call us as wimpy as they want. There’s a lot of ways that you can be physical and you can be tough. I’m sure some years we’ve been wimpy, but we’ve probably had a bunch of young guys out there that weren’t ready to play, they’re just not, but now they are. I don’t pay attention to that thing, but I’ll tell them when they’re not playing tough enough.
When you look back at the Elite Eight team, for instance, when Nik [Stauskas] carried himself a certain way. There were guys that had a certain attitude that they carried on the floor that I don’t really know if that was there the last two years. Is that something you would like to see return, and if so, how could it manifest?
Yeah, I think Nik was one of our least physical players his first year. He grew into that. He grew into that. You just don’t change that overnight. You just don’t change the mentality—as I’ve told you guys so many times, you get really good kids, and sometimes that’s bad news, they’re really good kids, and you’ve got to teach them how to have a little bit of an edge, but it doesn’t come overnight. Some of this stuff takes times. Ironically, you would say that about Nik. Not one of you guys in that first year would say about Nik, man, he’s one tough dude. He left one tough dude. That’s part of the assimilation I think they all go through.
Who would you like to see be those guys this year?
All 16 guys on the roster. I would like to see them, I would like the presence every day of those guys that have that stuff. [Zack] Novak walked in as one tough dude. Trey Burke walked in as one tough dude. If we can get more guys to just grow—Tim Hardaway and Nik walked out of here that way. I think everybody has to do that, and it usually starts with our captains showing that every day, whoever our senior captains are, or juniors, whatever it turns out to be.
Xavier Simpson comes in as your most highly touted recruits. What it is about his game immediately that you think can really add to the squad, and has Derrick Walton taken him under his wing to show him the way at point guard?
Here’s what I’ve seen with Xavier: he’s very, very quick in small spaces, when he’s got to. He’s almost like a running back that can hit the hole and just cut and get into spots, he’s really good at that. He really sees the game very well. He sees what’s going on. Our upperclassmen, no matter who it is and who the younger guys are, are really encouraging and helping them. There’s a lot of arm around in practice, here’s what Coach is talking about, and it’s been very helpful. But Derrick, yeah, Derrick knows that he is the heir apparent here, and Derrick is going to challenge him. You should look forward to seeing both of them in the backcourt at the same time, let Derrick come off and just hunt shots and let X run the team. You could see that more than you’d ever expect.
Duncan obviously isn’t Nik Stauskas but can you envision a scenario in which he gets the ball a little bit more?
I’d like to play him in a couple different positions, so at 6’7”, 6’8”, he can play off the ball screen. Duncan’s whole thing is now, every year has been this great step. The next step is, I’ve got to run a little faster, I’m a marked man. This is not a game of HORSE, I’ll tell him often in practice. You’ve gotta be—watch Kyle Korver, you’ve gotta be running at high speed, because the scouting report is out on you. You are maybe the best shooter in the country. They’re not gonna get you open, you’ve got to get yourself open. That’s that nice, next progression. Guarding his yard, diving on the floor, becoming a more rugged defender. That’s another step.
Then you mentioned Mark has to get in great shape. Did he do enough over the summer and did your guys, do you feel—
Yeah, all our big guys really have to get in tremendous, a big guy has to be in better shape than maybe anybody else on the team. He’s no exception.
Just to follow up on the Xavier-Derrick dynamic. Do you think that can prove to be something that puts an extra charge into Derrick, to have a guy behind him that, no disrespect to Spike [Albrecht], but have a guy behind him who is clearly hunting for those minutes and can maybe push him a little more than he has been?
I know one thing is that when we went through the last couple years, that are well-documented, are the depth at key positions just went with a snap of the foot or whatever it was. So now these guys, they get beat defensively, and it was like the coaches didn’t have a whole lot they could do at times to make changes. You could do it, but it also could go the other way, and have confidence that through the next timeout you could get them to play better defense. The bench is a tremendous motivator. But I also like the idea, having that quickness out there, we have two very, very quick guards. When Connecticut won the national championship a few years ago with two quick, small guards, that’s very appealing to us defensively to have that type of quickness on the perimeter. And nobody’s talked about Muhammad-Ali [Adbur-Rakhman]. He’s had a really good postseason, preseason. He has some pretty good athleticism in the backcourt as well.
With the rookie big men, what gets them on the court the quickest?
Probably who can really show us, probably who’s going to be the best defender, who’s going to pick up things the quickest. Both of them are making just tremendous strides. I’m telling you, Austin Davis, the kids call him Big Country, we talked about country strong, you know, country strong. He just grew up that way. He’s so strong, and Jonny is so tall, and so big. I don’t know how it will play out, but we’ll know when the months go. Usually with big guys it’s who picks it up, who picks up defense. The center in defense is so key right now, and whoever’s a little bit behind, and you go back to Jordan Morgan as a freshman, it was not pretty, his defense, he was learning a lot of things. As a senior, he was the best defender in the country at that post position, he was really, really good. We’ll see how that all develops going forward.
I know the Big Ten race is still a couple months away, but any perception how those teams you think are contending, and where does Michigan fit into that contention?
It is, as I’ve seen this league evolve, with the new teams coming in, with people going pro early, not going pro early, coming back, I don’t think any of us could’ve imagined some of the dynamics that have gone the last couple years. Teams that would all of a sudden, you think were fourth or fifth, won the championships, and people that they predicted to win are fourth or fifth. It’s going to be really interesting. I’m not like that. I’m not looking at the other teams at this point. I’ll wait until I see video, I’ll wait until the weeks before them. We’ll prepare for the actions that the coaches will run, now, during the year. But I won’t be focused on, okay, who do we gotta beat? No, we’ve gotta beat everybody, we’ve gotta try and beat everybody. You’ve gotta win your games. I looked at the schedule one time, my stomach hurt, I said I ain’t looking at it anymore. I’m gonna look at it three days before who we’ve got next.
I spoke with Duncan on Friday night, and he talked about how he feels this team has a little bit of a chip on its shoulder, that you’re still being overlooked a little bit. Do you get a sense of something extra in this team in practice, something to prove at all?
I would hope so. We did not take it lightly, that 13-point, I think it was a 13-point lead against Notre Dame, and that absolutely, just an awful second-half performance. They know about that. We’ve talked about that a lot, and that was not going to be acceptable going forward. I don’t care, forget about that we just played, that had nothing to do with that. We did not play with that type of grit that you needed when you needed it the most. Hopefully that’s created a chip. They got a taste of the NCAA Tournament. Most of these guys, all but Zak and Derrick, had not played in one. They got a taste of the NCAA Tournament, but hopefully there’s a chip, that they want to get back to that tournament. The only way you get back there is day-by-day, you have grit every day.
How big a year is this for DJ and what does he need to do consistently to give you consistent minutes?
He’s got to keep doing what he’s doing right now. He’s had a really good offseason in the weight room. He’s understanding who he is. He’s an athlete who can shoot, he’s not a shooter who’s an athlete. I want him to be a guy that’s a great defender, a guy that is always giving the opponent fits. I told him Troy Williams is a great example, what Troy was able to do just cutting and slashing to the basket without the ball, and use your length. He’s had a really good offseason, a really good fall, and he’s going to have a great chance. Sometimes, just as all our transfers happened last year, you emerge with people—we had a lot of options at that position the last couple years if something didn’t work. We have options still, not as many as we’ve had. He’s going to get a great chance to prove himself, both in practice and games.