Nothing Easy Comment Count

Ace March 21st, 2016 at 3:27 PM

[Left and right: Patrick Barron; middle: Eric Upchurch]

Nik Stauskas, with his ability to make almost any shot a good one, made the game look easy. Trey Burke, with his varied and lethal methods for creating offense, made the game look easy, not to mention beautiful.

Nothing about this season's iteration of Michigan basketball felt easy. It's shown in the pictures, in which seemingly every layup attempt required a Herculean feat of strength and body control just to get the ball on the backboard. It's shown in the statistics; according to KenPom, 10.3% of Michigan's two-point attempts were blocked, a mark worse than all but 13 major-conference programs. It's shown in the despairing comments as the offense ground to a halt against Notre Dame before VJ Beachem delivered the coup de grâce to 2015-16 Michigan.

And that's on the good side of the court. Stopping the opponent has never seemed simple under John Beilein, especially the last few years. The flaws on defense have only been magnified as the offense has gone from historically great to merely good. Every flailing layup attempt swatted into photographers' row didn't just serve as a painful reminder of the team's scoring limitations, but also what they lacked on the other end.

[Hit THE JUMP for feelingsball.]


Joseph Dressler

College basketball is played on a razor's edge. This opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament stands as testament. Seasons ended on a fallaway corner three, a halfcourt shot, a third-chance tip-in, a series of botched inbounds plays, even a waved-off buzzer-beating dunk.

Even in this frustrating season, Michigan was a couple shots and one blown charging call away from facing a 14-seed for the chance to make their third Sweet Sixteen in four years. While that sounds great, it doesn't indicate how little this team resembled the other two.

The Wolverines were also one improbable Kam Chatman corner three away from missing the tournament entirely for the second straight year. That doesn't sound great at all, but it lacks the important context of injuries to star players plaguing the team in both of those seasons.


Bryan Fuller

It's impossible to shake the feeling that this program is at a crossroads. Michigan is slated to return everyone who contributed down the stretch this season. They'll add reinforcements that include Ohio's Mr. Basketball, Xavier Simpson, who'll fill the critical second point guard spot that Michigan once again manned with a walk-on after injury struck. A year of good health and nominal improvement across the board could see the Wolverines once again on a path deep into the tourney.

Before that happens, however, many questions must be addressed. Should John Beilein shake up his coaching staff after a third straight season in which the defense ranked below 100th? Can Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton, or Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman play the role of lead dog with efficiency? Will the center position be something besides an abject disaster?

There's hope in here that's not too hard to find. We've seen what Irvin and Walton are capable of doing, and it's much more than what's reflected in their season stat lines. MAAR improved every facet of his game this season and emerged as the team's best shot creator—if he can maintain his play while taking on more possessions, Michigan may not need Irvin or Walton to be the top option, and instead they can settle into more suitable roles. Duncan Robinson has Stauskas' outside shooting ability and is beginning to round out the other aspects of his game. Moe Wagner played so well at the end of the season we all wondered why he'd been glued to the bench in favor of Mark Donnal and (especially) Ricky Doyle. There's still a pile of young guys with untapped potential.

There's also the flip side. Irvin and Walton have faltered the last two years when asked to lead the charge; whether that's due to injury, limitations in their games, or both—and it's been both—it's hard not to feel trepidation heading into another season with them as the most experienced options. We're not sure how close MAAR (a 21-year-old sophomore) and Robinson (a D-III transfer) are to their respective ceilings. Wagner follows Doyle and Donnal as the latest new hope at center; for him to succeed where the others have so far failed, he has to start with one of the most basic aspects of the game—playing in control enough to stay on the court.



Next season will mark a turning point one way or the other. Beilein can lean on the team's experience to get the offense back to top-ten level, patch up the leaky defense, and make basketball look easy again while cementing Michigan's (health-permitting) return to the basketball elite. Or the team can look much the same, leaning on stars that aren't quite stars on one end and failing to address their myriad issues on the other, and it'll become more clear that a once-in-a-generation conflagration of talent and coaching is unlikely to be replicated here in the immediate future.

Something needs to click, if only so this basketball team is at least fun to watch again. The last two years have felt like karmic comeuppance for experiencing the joys of the Burke and Stauskas squads; if they were, fair enough, and I hope the debt is paid.



March 22nd, 2016 at 9:36 AM ^

I love their hustle, hard-nosed style, discipline, and player development.  They lost two All Americans and started out slow, but turned it around big-time.  The differrence is their coaching, IMO.  UW is the only NCAA team to make the Sweet Sixteen 6 of the last 7 years.  It's not an accident.


March 22nd, 2016 at 4:38 PM ^

Wisconsin's offensive efficiency rating over the last two years was insane. Last year it was the highest in the history of the modern era, obliterating the 2014 Michigan team you will probably hold out as the standard for "beautiful" basketball. But keep spewing nonsense that it's ugly. What else can you say about a program that's beaten you like a drum for the last 10 years?




March 21st, 2016 at 3:42 PM ^

it really woudn't surprise me if that was the case because after Atlantis and the NC State game I thought he was going to be the starter by a wide margin by the end of the year.  I guess after Donnal went Larry Bird on Illinois he kind of went off my radar but his absence could not have been play related.  It was clear that we were a much better team with him on the floor.


March 21st, 2016 at 4:12 PM ^

What Sam said was that Wagner at first needed to develop more of a "filter" because he would bark at his coaches/teammates when they'd offer him suggestions, and that this might have contributed to his lack of playing time (although his rawness and lack of strength were obviously big factors as well).  He added that Wagner did learn to do so as the year went on and got back on the same page with the rest of the guys.

That might have been something of a cultural difference.  I had a German coworker once who had a very direct style, telling you exactly what he thought about something, and he had to learn to put more of a polite face on things.



March 21st, 2016 at 4:53 PM ^

Your stereotyping of Germans is disgraceful. You should be ashamed of yourself for slandering the German people. I don't like your username and you are a loser with zero points. You post like a girlie-man with flabby arms. (is that obvious enough sarcasm?)


March 21st, 2016 at 3:39 PM ^

I wish we could get a big man or 2 that would try to dunk the damn ball with wreckless abandon.  I remember watching Marcus Camby in his early years in the pros and he would try to dunk everything.....I am so sick of watching our bigs go up with pansy soft layups that continusouly get sent back in their face.


March 21st, 2016 at 4:28 PM ^

I said that all year. I just don't get not wanting to throw down a power slam in the face of your opponent and make him take a good hard look at your nuts while they hang in his face. On some level it demoralizes the other team and it gives a boost to your team. A layup accomplishes none of that.

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Space Coyote

March 21st, 2016 at 4:37 PM ^

I mind not going up for layups strong. Morgan rarely dunked, but he finished at a really high clip (at least as a Senior, he had his own issues as a Junior that McGary luckily covered up in the tournament). He did so because he wasn't afraid of contact and got the ball on the back board without freaking out that he was going to get destroyed. This takes some coordination because you have to be able to alter your launch point if you aren't finishing above the rim, but you get the ball on the backboard and it's goal tending if they block it. Right now, though, Donnal tries to finesse every finish for the most part, or he doesn't have the body control to compensate for the potential of contact (thus overreacting to the belief contact will come, which is why I think he air mailed that layup at the end of the ND game, because he anticipated contact that never arrived).

Guys just have to have confidence finishing strong around the rim. Yes, dunks are nice, but I prefer buckets. There are a lot of dunkers out there that when forced to make a wide open 2 foot layup can't. I don't want those guys either. I want guys that can score at the basket, regardless of how that is.


March 21st, 2016 at 8:42 PM ^

much is due to the type of players beilein signs.  pick and pop finesse bigs vs pogo stick type athletes who are relentless on the glass and D - large humans capable of shooting 17 footers, putting it on the deck, etc while also playing above the rim on O and D and being an explosive force in the paint and on the boards will remain in short supply.  aside from the top 5-10 blue blood types, coaches prioritize skill sets and projections to their system / culture when recruiting.

they just havent had many quick jumping, explosive bigs - theyve had more bigs inclined to take charges than block shots, much slower and less explosive 2nd and 3rd leapers and those dudes often prefer the glass and finesse game to aggressively attacking the rim.  sure, the current guys can go up stronger more often but its deeper issue than that.  hopefully they honestly reevalulate their identity / culture, systems, recruiting profiles, etc this offseason.   bc its systemic


March 21st, 2016 at 3:46 PM ^

I agree with all of this. Even if he's a victim of bad luck, the hounds will be baying pretty loudly if we're not upticking next year. The W-L record is an achievement, but this wasn't appealing basketball to watch. Extremely curious what the forthcoming changes migth be.


March 21st, 2016 at 4:00 PM ^

he should go back to playing nearly exclusively zone.  He knows the 1-3-1 and coached it for a good portion of his career.  I personally think the 2-3 would be more effective in the BIG but that would take only some minor adjusments.  If we wants to match up out top that is fine.  He needs to make a change defensively.  We need some kind of defensive calling card.  I know playing zone presents some issues of its own but our defensive philosophy cannot be "sucky man to man." 


March 21st, 2016 at 4:57 PM ^

He doesn't have a great fit for the back 1. That guy needs to be super quick to get out on corner threes but also have some size in case they attack to a post player. Derick Walton and Spike Albrecht would usually get beaten badly down low in the 1-3-1. I think with Walton and MAAR he has two good guards for the 2-3 and Irvin and Aubrey could play the wings in the back line, if Aubrey could keep his head in the game.


March 21st, 2016 at 6:05 PM ^

You're wrong about the bottom guy needing to be both quick and tall. We ran this defense a lot in high school and our bottom guy was always a point guard (smallest guy on the court). The bottom guy needs to be able to get to the corners to defend/trap with a wing. The guy in the middle works a triangle from the free throw line to the ball side block. The weakness is and always is the short corners. If someone can get to the middle with the ball the opposite short corner can be exposed.

The guy on top and the wings are/need to keep the ball from going middle. Opposite wing shifts middle to take away that. Michigan actually lacks a quick long lanky defender for the top.


March 23rd, 2016 at 12:40 AM ^

the 1-3-1 is an awful, awful defense that is even more exploitable now that most teams make a concerted effort to stock a couple of corner gunners.  We got destroyed when we tried it early in Beilien's tenure at Michigan, we typically get destroyed when we deploy it now against B1G teams that have prepped for it, and we'd get destroyed even worse if we tried to do it exclusively. 

Candor for Sale

March 21st, 2016 at 3:48 PM ^

Really nice post, albeit bittersweet. We all knew this post-mortem was coming (as much as we had hoped it had been after an overachieving run to the Sweet 16). It really is fun to remember how special some of the players we have had the last few years have been. Obviously, it stands in stark constrast to how this season went, and it's frustrating to look back on how difficult the players seemed to make it at times. But Coach Beilein undoubtedly is able to get something out of players that don't fit the "superstar" mold, and I believe he will do it again before he is done here.


March 21st, 2016 at 3:49 PM ^

This season has brought about a lot of strong opinions, but the one I think that is irrefutable is that Beilein is at a crossroads.

Teams like this one can often make a big jump simply by experience, and many programs have built solid-to-great programs around experience and execution. But if this team doesn't make the leap forward, and recruiting continues to project to B/B+ by Big Ten standards, Beilein's job is in serious jeopardy.


March 21st, 2016 at 5:29 PM ^

If you think a repeat of this season next year wouldn't put Beilein's job in jeopardy, you're fooling yourself. There won't be any excuses for a senior/upper-classmen laden team with all the key pieces in place, at least as much as Beilein could have hoped by his own recruiting.

I personally think they'll improve enough that his job won't be in jeopardy, but they better for his sake.


March 22nd, 2016 at 11:42 AM ^

meaning Walton and Irvin are hurt and miss the big 10 season and Duncan has back surgery and the team still manages to win 20+ games and finish > 0.500 in the conference and win an NCAA tournament game, then yes, I'd say his job is safe. I certainly wouldn't want to pay a $6M buyout for a proven winner.…

P.S. just keep doubting him like the rest of the general public. He was 17-6-1 ATS before the Tulsa game. Why does this guy get no respect? It's baffling to me.…


March 21st, 2016 at 3:52 PM ^

The offense is hard to watch, and equally hard to perform when you have nobody that A) is great at creating their own shot and B) nobody that's great at creating shots for others.

Levert was great at A. Nobody else IMO would be considered above average at either A or B. You have a number of nice components to having a great offense without the main ingredient. It's like a great steak dinner that has all the trimmings but is missing the steak.

Walton is a great ball handler and rebounder, but not a great passer. With Burke/Stauskas you had the alpha dog who made others better and could also take over the game via ISO late 4th when you needed a bucket. This team doesn't have that player on its roster, hence its ceiling is likely a good not great team. A team that can have a winning B1G record and make a short tourney run. But that's it. In our system, especially with our poor defense, you need a player who is great at A and B. Think how much better Robinson, Irvin, etc...would be with increased open looks. Or our bigs would look with increased easy finishes at the rim. Hopefully Xavier Simpson can be that guy, otherwise next year won't look very dissimilar from this one.


March 21st, 2016 at 4:14 PM ^

You nailed it.  Once Levert went out, defenses didn't have to worry about anyone blowing by their defender and rotating over.  They could just play straight up man with little help responsibilities.  


March 21st, 2016 at 7:20 PM ^

Dead on. We can talk all we want about marginal improvements in this player or that one, but the question remains: How does this team beat solid man-to-man? We don't have shot creators. You can get around that if you screen off the ball really well, like old-school IU, but we don't do that either.

Maybe Simpson can be that guy. We'll see.

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March 21st, 2016 at 3:58 PM ^

I'll be extremely curious as to how JB (or WM) react and adapt to what transpired this season.

I remember just a few short years ago when:

1. Nik S. was blowing kisses into the crowd at Breslin

2. We were on an upward trajectory against our main rival, MSU, winning 3 in a row and 6 of the previous 8

3. Izzo missing out on a lot of big recruits (i.e. Jabari Parker)

It was talked much here that Izzo was "finished" or "washed-up" and we were going to continue to dominate them.  

Then something happened.  Izzo, backed into a corner, got his shit together and started to recruit better, and made a Final 4.  What's more, he has won 4 straight against us - could easily be 6 straight after next year with the talent they are bringing in.

This is what elite coaches do - no excuses, they find a way to win. Is JB elite?  I don't think so, but what he does this off-season could make me change my tune.  As mentioned, I'll be watching closely.


March 21st, 2016 at 5:15 PM ^

The core of this years' MSU team is Valentine and Costello (both seniors, got their butts kicked by Stauskas and Burke teams), and two transfers in Harris and Forbes, one of which in Harris Beilein either decided to pass on or couldn't close the deal on.  Sure, he did well on both player development and pulling in those two transfers.  Additionally, though, he only had to deal with one early entry in Gary Harris, while JB had 4 (and you can almost include Levert as #5 since he could have gone and was basically MIA anyway the past two years).  Not to mention, other than year 2 McGary, those M teams were as healthy and the past two years' teams have not been.

I'm frustrated too, the team this year was frustrating as heck to watch.  And the post recruiting has been a bundle of swings and misses.  I just wish there was context around this outrage (and not just from OP here), and an understanding that, as Ace said, college hoops is such a crapshoot sometimes, and that two years ago, Beilein's club won the B1G by a whole two games.


March 21st, 2016 at 9:49 PM ^

Think you meant 5 players leaving early for the NBA (Trey, THJ, Nik, Mitch and GRIII). And yeah, you could practically include Caris as well. Aside from the Duke, Kentucky, UNC types that clean up on the 5-star recruits, I'm not sure any other school's had such a large exodus to the pros in just two years.

And prior to Gary Harris leaving after his sophomore year, the last MSU player to go the NBA early was Zach 2001. So for well over a decade, Izzo got all four years of eligibility from every player to come through, most of whom were 4/5 star recruits.

That lack of attrition and consistently having a solid core of upperclassmen has quite likely been the key factor in his tournament success. It's also why the whole notion of Izzo being such a brilliant coach in March is incredibly overblown, IMO.


March 21st, 2016 at 10:54 PM ^

Except for the fact that...

...we were at our best when we were young. Weren't we the youngest team in the tournament when we went to the finals a few years ago?

I'm not diminishing the importance of senior leadership, but it seems to me that young talent may be more important to overall success.

Also, I think we overplay the "attrition" excuse. With the exception of Stauskus (and maybe Morris), there were no real surprises to those who left before their 4 years. There certainly was plenty of time to adjust recruiting to minimize the impact of this attrition.

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March 22nd, 2016 at 10:23 AM ^

It's a fair point.  And JB and team's inability to close the deal on potential game-changing recruits definitely hurt.


I guess my point though, is unless you're consistently bringing in the top of the line recruits (and really, only the blue chip programs are- Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, UNC), the key in college hoops to having a stable, consistent program is being able to have a steady roster of talent developing over 3 and 4 years.  And, to be honest, outside of McGary, none of those dudes that left early, when they were recruited, were projected to be early entries.  So if even a couple followed the Denzel Valentine path of development, and were solid contributors for three years until becoming a POY candidate in year four, then we're having a different conversation right now I think.


March 22nd, 2016 at 12:21 PM ^

My only concern is that your method only really works with players with "high ceilings".  I don't think JB does a good job of that.  He certainly squeezes every bit of talent out of his kids, but they are mid-level big ten talent for the most part (there are obvious exceptions).  

We will improve next year, but I don't think you'll see much out of our seniors - I think they have hit their ceilings.  Also, you have to consider that all top big ten programs will improve next year in some form or fashion.  The question is, can we do so at a faster rate than everyone else.  Or else we are just treading water. 


March 21st, 2016 at 4:04 PM ^

Sums it up.  I feel some optimism for next season, but not as much as I would have felt a couple years ago.  The last two years have put me in "show me" mode.

Wagner is the X factor.  He needs to have a big summer.  If he comes back having hit the weights and is ready to seize the 5 spot, we can have a strong team.



March 21st, 2016 at 4:04 PM ^

but this team really was setup for Lavert to drive and kick out to open players. Walton can't seem to penetrate unless it's 90 miles per hour up in the air with no where to go. MARR is our best hope for this next year. I'm not sure what our turnover statistics were this year, I heard some announcers say we were still among the best at not turning it over. It sure didn't look that way to me.


March 21st, 2016 at 4:04 PM ^

We just have huge disadvantages in size and athleticism. It'll be hard to win unless Coach B starts recruiting a more diverse mix of players. Yes, he did recruit some great players that left early after nearly winning a title. On the other hand, we had a ridiculously efficient offense with 6 NBA players and still didn't win a Championship. If that's the formula, it's going to be hard to recreate. I think he has to focus on getting more athletic and/or bigger players -- even if they are raw and/or poor shooters. The constant search for a Stretch-5 is not producing results, and it makes our defense atrocious.


March 21st, 2016 at 4:05 PM ^

I think we're going to be really good next year...

PG - A senior Walton will come back and have his minutes reduced a little.  Dakich and some of Walton's minutes will go to Simpson which will be a big upgrade.  Walton could also play off the ball a bit with Simpson on the floor as he is very good as a spot up shooter and much less effective when he's the player running the pick and roll. 

Conclusion - Moderate improvement


SG - Caris gone, so you return Rahk who should see his usage go up a bit.  He had a really good sophomore year, and will know his role heading into this year.  Will not be forced to play any PG.  Ibi Watson will battle for the backup minutes at SG.  Robinson and Dawkins are simply not quick enough to stop dribble penetration from gaurds. 

Conclusion - Slight improvement

SF - Dawkins had a tough year that was worse than his frosh year, Robinson started out great and slumped after Caris got hurt.  Both are basically spot up shooters who need their teammates to get them open.  Both are bad defensively but should improve at least marginally with another offseason.  Dawkins still has tons of potential, but there are plenty of reasons to question if he will ever get there.  This position improves dramatically on offense if the offense around them improves.  We are still going to groan about the defense from these two throughout next year.

Conclusion - Slight improvement


PF -  Irvin is the guy here.  Wilson and Chatman (barring transfer) will battle for the backup minutes.  An ideal world would see one of those two make some sort of titanic shift to push Irvin down to SF.  Irvin struggled this year, and that could be due to his back, the team around him, or just scouting and the player he is.  

Conclusion - Slight improvement


Center - Moritz is the key, but Davis should push Doyle for the 3rd center minutes.  Donnal will be pushed significantly for playing time, and we'll see if he's up to the challenge of continuing to improve or if he will allow younger players to take those mintues away.  Center will be the biggest question mark on the team as it could either be slightly better or the biggest change from this year.  My prediction is that we will be much happier with our centers next year, but still often frustrated. 

Conclusion - Significant improvement

Overall the team will be improved from top to bottom, both offensively and defensively.