Season Review: Context in the Beilein Era Comment Count

Alex Cook May 13th, 2016 at 1:04 PM



PREVIOUSLY: Zak Irvin, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson, Mark Donnal, The Departed, Derrick Walton

Last season, Michigan overcame the loss of a pretty-close-to-All-American level player (in addition to a good sixth man) and barely made it into the NCAA Tournament with a conference efficiency margin of about zero. Fortunately the Wolverines found themselves on the right side of the bubble, but it took a Big Ten Tournament upset over Indiana, the conference champ, in a de facto road environment to sneak into the dance. That win – that shot – was definitely the highlight of the season. Michigan acquitted themselves decently enough in the NCAA Tournament, but familiar defensive woes doomed them in the second half against Notre Dame – a team that made the Elite Eight without facing anything higher than a seven-seed.

On the whole, it was a largely disappointing season. Michigan finished ranked 58th nationally in Kenpom – and the preseason projection for them was 17th. While injuries doubtlessly played a big role in underachieving, the Wolverines didn’t play well, even early in the season at full strength. The season divides into two distinct periods: with Caris LeVert, and without him. Even with him, U-M only split two games in the Bahamas against tournament teams and were clobbered by Xavier (at home) and SMU. Caris looked bigger, stronger, quicker, and more aggressive, but even a herculean effort against Xavier couldn’t keep Michigan in the game. LeVert couldn’t mitigate the team’s glaring weakness inside, though he usually did have Michigan’s offense running pretty smoothly.

Without him, Michigan made it to 9-8 (so, in addition to the first win over Illinois, Michigan was 10-8) in the Big Ten without suffering any would-be devastating upsets at the hands of the lesser half of the conference. Routs at the hands of Indiana and Michigan State at home within the span of a week were two more no-shows against top-tier competition. Wins over two physically imposing squads in Maryland and Purdue were the bright spots in conference play. Outside of those, the best thing you could say is that the Wolverines avoided losing games they really shouldn’t have lost and while that’s a good thing to be able to say, it’s not that great when that’s one of your top bullet points on the positive side of the resume.

Still, Michigan made the tournament, if just barely. Extenuating circumstances – Spike’s hips and Caris’s foot, namely – thinned the backcourt rotation and limited the team’s true potential, but at least they were playing better ball in March. The Indiana upset (truly a joy to watch in person at the Big Ten Tournament) got U-M in: clinging to a spot on the bubble felt like a deserving outcome. It was good experience for a team that was still pretty young – and has plenty of room to grow together.

While it was certainly a better season than 2015 (though similarly star-crossed), it was the second rough campaign in a row after the Big Ten Title / Elite Eight year. Shaking up the program felt necessary, and Michigan will have two new assistants, four outgoing transfers, and four new freshmen, two of whom need to play early. We’ll see if John Beilein –  soon to be coaching his tenth(!) season in Ann Arbor – can make a jump after changing assistants like he did in 2011.

[some #tepid #Beilein #takes after the JUMP]

When you have the same guy running a program for a decade, you get to know that guy pretty well. Judging by how Beilein’s tenure has gone thus far, we can make some educated guesses about the future.

beilein era

It’s worth noting that conference efficiency margin isn’t the best stat to tell exactly how good a team is (for example, Michigan ranked 26th nationally in Kenpom in 2011 and 58th nationally in 2016, even though there was actually a worse efficiency margin in 2011) but it is the best way to break things down visually into offense and defense.

Anyways, this bulleted list got kind of long and sort of rambles, but here are some thoughts:

  • Michigan got into the tournament with a negative Big Ten efficiency margin twice under Beilein and made it in with a close-to-even EM this past year. For how luckless Tommy Amaker was on the bubble in Ann Arbor, this is a nice upgrade. In each of those three seasons – 2009, 2011, 2016 – Michigan won a game in the dance after getting in from the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.
  • After the mulligan year transitioning from Amaker with freshmen, Michigan has been average or slightly below in conference play five times. In 2012, Michigan was the worst of three Big Ten co-champs (and outperformed their efficiency in terms of W / L results), but 2013 and 2014 were a cut above. Built by high-powered offenses, those two teams were great in tough league competition and won eight tournament games between them.
  • The downward slope in defense from 2012 on would be no surprise to people who have paid close attention to Michigan basketball, but it’s kind of a surprise that the 2015 defense wasn’t statistically worse – I mean, it felt worse, right? Oh, and who would have guessed that 2016 would be the fourth-best Big Ten EM under Beilein? The league was down but it’s still a surprise.
  • Obviously there was going to be some sort of a drop-off after Stauskas, Robinson, and McGary made their way to the NBA, but the 2014 class – now pretty much just MAAR – didn’t really provide adequate reinforcements. Of course, injuries made the decline more precipitous than it should have been.
  • It’s worth remembering that Michigan was a top-tier program there for a hot second. Despite the failures of the last two seasons, Beilein had the Wolverines near the peak not long ago. Yes, it’s unlikely that he’ll be coaching in the national championship game again. Yes, it’s very possible that his best teams are behind him. Are those reasons to get rid of him? Of course not. Do programs – especially programs like Michigan, which hasn’t been #1 in its state for like two decades – get rid of coaches so soon after they built up some really great and extremely fun teams? No.
  • Fear of plateauing from here is valid. Though Michigan did recently sit among some of the best teams in the Big Ten, they still seem to be several rungs below the class of the conference on the ladder as of right now. Another year or two in the middle of the pack as a team that’s not a serious threat to make the Sweet 16 isn’t great, and further distances us from the heights of the Beilein era. If Michigan misses the tournament again, this time with ostensible veteran talent, the mutterings about job security will have gained validity.
  • After a disappointing year in 2010, Beilein fired his assistants and hired new ones: in their second year together, they won Michigan’s first Big Ten title in three decades. Maybe things had grown stale since, so LaVall Jordan and Bacari Alexander getting new jobs could be a blessing in disguise. Beilein seemed to understand that defense was a fundamental and comprehensive issue, so he hired Billy Donlon, a pack-line acolyte. If Donlon turns things around (a big if, but definitely possible) to go with what’s probably going to be a pretty dang good Beilein offense, we could be cooking with gas.
  • Expecting an improvement on offense is reasonable. In college basketball, teams grow together – and in most cases, the good ones have only a year or at most two to develop chemistry with one another. Often, you see huge strides from November to March as players develop into their roles and begin to play more cohesively. Michigan – unlike any other at-large NCAA Tournament team – returns all of its starters into a famously complex offense. Many of these guys have played together for a while. If Michigan can replicate the crispness and surgical effectiveness of the late West Virginia Beilein teams (which was something derived from their experience together) with the pick-and-roll smarts of LaVall Jordan’s products, they’ll be really dangerous on offense. With Xavier Simpson and Moritz Wagner as breakout candidates, there’s hope for reinforcement from the bench, which will feel relatively new.
  • At this point, we’re acutely aware of some of the drawbacks that come with Beilein: the auto-bench, poor defense, some debatable recruiting methods (though on the whole, his recruiting is pretty good and if Moritz winds up being what I think he can be, the whole “Beilein can’t recruit big men” thing will go away. But then again: Jordan Morgan. Mitch McGary.) It’s worth overlooking the weaknesses in favor of the strengths with Beilein – just because there are some fair criticisms of him and just because he’s not in that top tier of elite coaches doesn’t mean that his seat should be getting warm or that his job’s not secure.
  • Anyways, put me on the record as saying that the 2017 team will exceed expectations and talk of a coaching change will evaporate as quickly as it did in the latter half of the 2011 season.



May 13th, 2016 at 4:45 PM ^

Beilein is a fantastic coach, but in my opinion Pitino clearly out-coached him in the NCAA title game.  Which again, is no great sin, Pitino is one of the best out there.

But looking back at that game, I think Michigan had the better team in terms of talent (and the NBA draft agrees), and was really on a roll playing great basketball.  But Beilein did his auto-bench thing on Burke, and Pitino game planned well and made several key adjustments down the stetch to stop the bleeding in the first half and then seize the lead.

I can think of games that Beilein proved his mettle - like against VCU and Shaka Smart, or the Darius Morris game against Duke and Coach K, but on that one night, Pitino got the best of him.  So, in a 50/50 game, I gotta go with Slick Rick.


May 13th, 2016 at 5:12 PM ^

Let's agree that we were all lucky that Spike happened to play the game of his life that night.

The point remains: the dude benched the National POY, who was on fire at the time, in the national title game! Brutal.

Maybe if Trey played the 5. But as a PG? Naw.


May 13th, 2016 at 1:28 PM ^

A good season recap. I always felt this team was a bit overrated to start the year, but they also floundered badly at times. Still, next season should at least be more predictable, and for the foreseeable future I'm willing to give Beilein some leeway considering I'm not sure UM is ever going to be a consistent stop for elite talent under virtually any realistic coach.

Pepto Bismol

May 13th, 2016 at 1:52 PM ^

Why would Michigan not be a consistent stop for elite talent? 

Nothing personal, but this is precisely my problem with the Michigan basketball culture.  It's okay to be mediocre.  It's okay to settle for second-tier recruits.

Why?  Why is that okay?  Because Ed Martin paid Chris Webber?  Because of what happened in the 1990s, the "Leaders and Best" don't apply to basketball?

Such a loser mentality.  Drives me insane.


May 13th, 2016 at 2:42 PM ^

Because bronxblue and people like him (there are many) view the Ellerbe-Amaker-early Beilein era as the baseline for Michigan basketball rather than the floor.

Michigan is a top 20 program.  Period.

Michigan ranks as the 15th best performing program over the last 60+ years. 

Check out where they rank in Simple Rating System (#15) here:

The rank in the top 20 in AP poll finishes during the regular season too. See here:


May 13th, 2016 at 2:46 PM ^

Perceptions vary depending on when you started being a fan.  If you remember the '89 team and the Fab 5, you see Michigan as something more.  If you're newer to the program (Burke-Stauskas era) you see Michigan as something more.  But if your fandom began in the aughts, you have a lower opinion of the program.

Another way of looking at it:

If your quintessential Michigan basketball player is Zack Novak, Nik Stuaskas, or Spike Albrecht you look at things differently than if it's Glen Rice, Jalen Rose, or Trey Burke.


May 13th, 2016 at 10:55 PM ^

I don't think expectations for the program are necessarily the same thing as one's feelings about Beilein.

I think the old (pre-aughts) fans have perspective and patience, because we know how good (and bad) things can be.  The last 2 years are a blip.

I think the aughts fans are just glad to be here and think the program is just mediocre so we have to deal with this until we unearth the next Stauskas/Burke and pair them with Novak/Douglass/Morgan vets that fit the system.

The new fans (Burke-Stuaskas) have no patience for anything.  They demand Michigan be more. NOW. No excuses.


May 15th, 2016 at 2:02 PM ^

I started following Michigan basketball in 1982.  I got a quick dose of:

- 1984 NIT Championship

- 1985, 1986 Big Ten Championships

- 1989 National Championship

- 1992, 1993 National Finals

I will admit I got spoiled.  I did not even pay much attention to the NCAA tournament until the Sweet Sixteen because that was the expected baseline.

So I know what Michigan is capable of and I don't want to see an occasional Sweet Sixteen as being the ceiling.

I don't know if that is realistic or not though.  I'm no blind homer.  Michigan recruited much better in those days and it would be naive to believe that we were angels while doing it.

Given the standards of integrity that Beilein has set, he can't likely recruit like Michigan used to do.  He's a good coach, but college basketball is a game where pure athletic horsepower matters too much.

Oh well, you can't have it both ways.  Nuns don't make the cover of the SI swimsuit issue.  

Michigan has emperically shown that it can be an elite basketball power, but we are not going to pay that price.  We've made our choice.



May 13th, 2016 at 3:38 PM ^

Right on

As Lanknows mentions below, that mentality likely has to do with when one became a fan. If you were around pre-Ellerbe, you've seen what the program is capable of recruiting-wise, so you're far less apt to think that way.

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May 13th, 2016 at 2:07 PM ^

...elite talent and coach, I do get what you are saying.  The biggest question is: can we at least do better than this?  I'm not asking for elite (would be nice), just better.  

It seems most of the board has given up trying to get to MSU or OSU levels.  Which is a tough pill to swallow for me.  But is it too much to ask to be at least as good as Wisconsin?! They have something good going even after a coaching change.  They recruit at our levels and are clean about it like us.  They run a very effecient O and they do it without flash.  And they are probably the most consistently good team in the nation over the past 15 years (rough estimate).  I know we like to use our historical achivements as some sort of barometer of who we should be now. Look at Wisconsin though.  They have been punching above their weight for a long time now.  Why can't we then?


May 13th, 2016 at 2:26 PM ^

I'm looking at this over the course of the past 15 years or so.  But I can play along with you regarding this year.  While what you said was true, MSU won the big ten tournament and then mushroom stamped us in our own house.  MSU's first round lose was embarrassing no doubt, but I would trade seasons in a heartbeat.  As for OSU, they beat us pretty bad and finished higher than us in the B10.  


May 13th, 2016 at 1:40 PM ^

It will be interesting to see how Donlon and Beilein will mesh (or at least read about it in 5 years in J Bacon's new book) being on opposite ends of the skill-set spectrum.  A step-up on defense really alleviates any offensive woes.  It felt at times last year that we had to match our opponents shot for shot if we were going to have any chance.  A few more stops per game makes a lot of difference and can generate some easy buckets on the other end

matty blue

May 13th, 2016 at 2:23 PM ^

...if levert and spike hadn't been injured we would have challenged for the big ten title this season, and we wouldn't be having any of these "plateau" conversations.  

this was a good team, despite the fact that we were missing two major contributors.

matty blue

May 13th, 2016 at 3:09 PM ^

and i love andrew dakich.

but i agree, of course...i'm not saying he would've been all-big ten or anything, but there were at least half a dozen times this year where i couldn't help but think 'man, we could've used spike for the last four minutes."

there were a couple of times, too, where the difference between ice-cold 'freshman' duncan robinson and steady spike might have changed the game.  maybe make bryn forbes work at both ends changes the flow of that game?

i don't know, man, i know it's all done, but when i look back at this season all i can think is what might have been.



May 13th, 2016 at 3:41 PM ^

Think about the rotations.
The actual rotation had Donnal/Doyle at the 5, and Dawkins as the backup for the 1-2-3. Dakich, Chatman, Wilson and Wagner filled out the few remaining minutes.

With a healthy Levert, you have MAAR (and Spike if healthy) competing for the third guard in the rotation, or you have MAAR competing with Dawkins for the 3 position.

With Spike but no Levert, you have Walton-MAAR-Spike at the 1 & 2 (and Dakich gets to redshirt) and Dawkins competes for minutes at 3 and 4.



May 13th, 2016 at 3:48 PM ^

Michigan had no bench.  Beilein only trusted Dawkins to play 7 minutes and then it was Dakich playing 2.

Michigan dominated the first half and fell apart in the 2nd. Pretty good chance that fatigue played a part on this and would have been significantly mitigated if Spike could have played even 15 minutes.

In basketball, where games often come down to one shot, it doesn't take a lot of 'move the needle' - especially on a team with clear deficiencies and functionally no guard/wing depth.

Imagine that game with Walton, Rahkman, and Robinson playing 33 minutes instead of 38, Dakich red-shirting, and Spike getting  23 minutes (7 minutes replacing the 3 wing starters + 2 for Dakich), and Dawkins' role being limited to 4 minutes spelling Irvin.  Imagine Spike creating shots instead of Irvin forcing things on a night he shot 1-9 from 3.  Then it's on to Stephen F Austin and likely the sweet 16.  That's a perception shifting result, just from getting a healthy version of Spike back for 1 game.



May 13th, 2016 at 3:57 PM ^

How many games did we play last year...

...where it came down to one shot? I think of one...and we were on the right side of things.

Spike is good person to alleviate some of the minutes burden at the 1 or 2. This no doubt would have helped. But the main issues that made this team often unbearable to watch was our inside/big man abilities and overall team defense. Spike is not good at any of those things.

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May 13th, 2016 at 2:50 PM ^

I think you have a point. Caris is really dang good and people seem to forget that it takes time to mature as a team and define leadership roles. Nobody remembers the times that Stauskas couldn't score on Duke and Trey was getting dominated by OSU because those guys had time to get better.

That said, MSU and Indiana were really good regular season teams with a lot of talent and veteran experience.  Our Center position is still a huge weakness.

That said, it's not hard to see this team beating a Notre Dame team and making a run into the S16 or E8 on the backs of Spike/Caris-charged offenses.


May 13th, 2016 at 2:28 PM ^

So did inexperience at the Center position. We were in line to lose Morgan already, but should have had McGary or Horford to smooth the transition over.  That would have made a world of difference in '14-15, as Doyle and Bielfeldt could have been deployed more effectively as backups.


May 13th, 2016 at 2:46 PM ^

This is unfortunately exacerbated by MSU having a legitimately great coach who has elevated their program and their expectations while we've been clawing back from our low point.

I have no problem with people wanting us to be better than this; that's what it means to be a fan. But expecting us to be better because we're Michigan and/or have money ignores our history and willingness to deploy that money cannon.

The evolution of that position is "We can be better; is Beilien the coach to make us better?". That is a much better question, but leads inevitably to "Are we willing to take the risk of getting worse?" That's the real issue. Some people will look and say that being a bubble team is not really better than missing the tourney and so getting worse is not an issue. Others will say that making the tourney seven out of ten is actually better than we've historically done and require someone we really believe will be better than that before contemplating a change.

If we want to change coaches, it's important to sell your answers to these and other questions to the fan base and decision makers otherwise expectations won't match and the bar for success goes way up.


May 13th, 2016 at 4:57 PM ^

We have flirted with the top-tier programs (the Russells, the Fab Five, Burke) but have never had a real sustained run. In fact if you discount the Fab Five because of payola, that 1989 team looks like the Lonely Mountain in a forty-year wasteland between Orr and Beilein.

Saying we should be an elite program ignores the fact that we have never been able to sustain that kind of performance. Heck, MSU under Izzo might be better than us under Orr, although I'd say not, and that's our touchstone for sustained excellence.


May 13th, 2016 at 5:25 PM ^

This is where opinions differ.  I was born in 1970 and since then the only programs that have more appearances in the title game are UCLA, Kentucky, Duke and UNC (Kansas is tied with UM at 5).

I wouldn't call UM a blue blood or put them at the same tier as those programs because they go through roller coaster periods of being really good and then taper off to being average but I wouldn't call it a 40 yr wasteland between Orr and Beilein. 

The mid 70's saw 2 big ten titles, 3 Elite 8s and an NCAA runner up with UM being the #1 ranked team in the country when the '77 NCAA tourney began.

The mid 80's lacked the ncaa tournament success but the Grant, Joubert, Tarpley and Relford teams set the stage for the late 80s.  Heading into the 85 NCAA tourney UM was Big Ten champs and ranked #2 in the country.  Head into the '86 tourney they were Big Ten champs and ranked #5 in the country.  Heading into the '88 tourney they were runn ups in the Big Ten and ranked 10th in the country.  


May 14th, 2016 at 3:22 AM ^


Orr had the Russell and Hubbard teams, but the bridge between them failed, so he ends up with 3-4 year stretches of elite-ish teams and valleys in between those peaks.

The problem with the 80s teams is that, despite the high rankings, we didn't have much tourny success and were generally considered behind the Indiana/Illinois teams of the time in the B1G alone.  (That's not a knock, btw, as we're talking about the Isiah Thomas and Steve Alford Indiana teams under Bob Knight, and the Quinn Richardson/Derek Harper and Kenny Battle/Kendall Gill teams under Lou Henson.)

Beilein has managed a nice 3-year peak, but historically that's par for the course.  Sustained greatness has historically been beyond us.

Whether that puts in the second or third tier of hoops bluebloods is a matter of opinion, as you note.

Turning to the present, I would say that Beilein has gotten the talent he's recruited to play better than we'd think overall.  Unfortunately, he's not recruiting at an elite level, and a big share of the bad luck/bad judgment was in the 2014 class, which is hurting us now.

Therefore, you replace him if you think you can get an elite recruiter (who can recruit with very little shenanigans) who can coach to the talent he recruits.  I'm not sure who fits that bill that we could get (and that we'd want; it's not like Jim Boeheim is welcome here, after all).



May 15th, 2016 at 2:18 PM ^

Michigan's history is absolutely elite.  

We played for the National Championship in five different decades - the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '10s.  

We did not do it with just one program-defining coach or team like a Georgetown or a UNLV. 

We have a better basketball record over the last 50 years than such "basketball" schools as Purdue or Syracuse.

Michigan being down is the historical abberation, not the other way around.


May 16th, 2016 at 6:11 PM ^

And I disagree that makes us a elite program. To my mind an elite programs will make the tourney 9/10, and 2-3/10 will be a one or two seed - in other words, we will always be a top-50 ish team, and when we get a special player or two we'll be a top-five team for a few years.

We have the peaks (although not like Duke or Kentucky even then) but our valleys are way lower than an elite school's should be.

Oh, and we didn't actually play for the title in the 90s due to The Incident.


May 13th, 2016 at 3:22 PM ^

I think some of the comments above hit it right on the head.

It really does depend on when you became a fan of Michigan basketball.

For me, my childhood and high school days were the late 90's-early 2000's. 

I was beyond ecstatic to make the NIT, to upset a rival, to finish .500 in the Big Ten. Those were the best days of Michigan basketball for me growing up. 

All the while, any classmates that were MSU fans obviously had a much better experience with college basketball than Michigan fans. They were constantly going to Final Fours and winning the Big Ten. 

So for me, my high bar, dream of what I see Michigan basketball being, is a Top 20 team every season, Top 4 B1G team, and at least an Elite 8 every two years. Also to not get run out of the gym by anyone anymore. No more getting embarrassed on our home court to the Xaviers, SMU's, MSU's, etc. 

Are those too high of expectations? Too low? Is Beilein the right guy to get us there? 

I have 100% faith that Beilein can and will (and almost already has) keep Michigan in the periphery of elite in college basketball. 

Also, let's consider how we define "elite". Are any B1G teams elite? The B1G hasn't had a National Champion since MSU in 2000. Are the only elite teams in college basketball Duke, North Carolina, UCONN, and Kentucky? 


May 13th, 2016 at 3:38 PM ^

Getting into the "elite" conversation is dangerous, but I think that the "blue blood" programs are more clear cut in college bball than most sports.  Duke, Kentucky, UNC, UCLA and Kansas are historically the best.  But this kind of thing is not set in stone. In Football we've seen programs like Oregon surge into the elite territory ahead of more traditional powers.  Arizona, Florida, UConn, MSU, Ohio State can all make an argument for being 'elite' depending on the window of time.

There is nothing about the school or program that prohibit Michigan from entering that 2nd-tier.  That's historically where they belong and until the last 2 seasons that's where it looked like Beilein was taking the program.


May 13th, 2016 at 5:04 PM ^

I think the discussion of whether a player is elite or not is more difficult than using it towards a team. Flacco isn't elite just because he won a Superbowl. Personal elite status is Randy Moss, Tom Brady, Barry Sanders, etc. There aren't that many (many less than 10) elite players currently in the NFL. Elite as in go down in history as one of the best ever at that position.

Alabama football is elite right now. So is Ohio State.

Duke basketball is elite right now. So is North Carolina, Kentucky, and UCONN. 

Elite is different than "blue blood" or "traditional power", like you mention above.

UCLA is a blue blood, but have struggled (compared to their historical performances) the last decade or so. Same with IU. Blue blood but nothing to show for it lately.

Michigan is a traditional power in football. So is Nebraska, Miami, Texas, and USC. But none of these teams are elite right now. 

I believe Michigan basketball is firmly in the "second tier"; a step below the elites. We're right there with OSU, IU, Syracuse, UCLA, and Florida. 

We're not quite to the level of Kansas or Wisconsin, who aren't quite to the level of Duke, UNC, Kentucky, or UCONN. 

I believe Beilein can, and will get us to the level of Kansas, Wisconsin, MSU, Arizona, etc.

It all starts this year with an Elite 8 and a B1G Regular Season Champs and/or a B1G Tourney Champs.