It’s hard to believe, but John Beilein’s now in his ninth season at Michigan. About a week and a half ago, he coached his 300th game for the Maize and Blue. After a coach has been around for a certain amount of time, he essentially becomes a known quantity: his offensive philosophies, defensive strategies, substitution patterns, recruiting priorities, and player development trends are all well-known among Michigan fans, and at this point, there’s little mystery about John Beilein or his methods.
In the wake of two embarrassing blowout losses to hated rivals, there was predictable bellyaching about Beilein’s level of job security – some fans even went as far as to call for his firing (while evidently forgetting the Ellerbe-Amaker purgatory that Beilein pulled Michigan out of in the first place). To be sure, it’s easy for people to harp on Beilein’s perceived blind spots and, to be sure, some of those complaints are valid. The reluctance to play guys in foul trouble has surely cost Michigan games over the years. Empirically, we’ve discovered that he manages to develop average defenses at best, and usually they’re far more mediocre than average. Sometimes it seems as if he struggles to accommodate players who don’t have skill sets tailor-made for his system. Gripes about his recruiting strategy and/or the outcome of his recruiting classes have varying levels of credibility.
Still, it’s important to remember Beilein’s strengths. He was well ahead of his time with his insistence on spacing, shooting, and using a non-traditional four in his signature four-out motion offense. There are several notable examples of his players vastly overachieving relative to what their recruiting rankings would project. He adapted to the unprecedented level of talent on his teams by implementing more pick-and-roll action into his offense – and indeed, the trend of his guards developing their passing ability in those sets can surely be attributed to coaching. He coached the best offense in the country in two separate years. He’s won two Big Ten titles – including an outright title in a year in which #2 finished three games behind Michigan in college basketball’s toughest contest. He was once a few possessions from winning a national title. He was once a few possessions from reaching another Final Four.
All of that is to say: you’re crazy if you legitimately want Michigan to replace John Beilein. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, and it’s pretty green here already.
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More or less, this has been a pretty frustrating season (and I’m convinced that the hideous shorts play a not-insignificant part in that). With the notable exception of wins over Maryland and Purdue – more on those in a second – Michigan has won as the favorite and lost as the underdog, and more than a few of those losses have been complete annihilations. Spike Albrecht’s senior season died before it could even begin. Caris LeVert missed over half of Big Ten play with an injury (but he’s back! Woo!). The reality has probably been better than the discourse would indicate: Michigan’s sitting in fourth in the Big Ten, should be safely in the NCAA Tournament barring an epic meltdown, and, critically, still has plenty of room to improve – especially if LeVert makes it back to his phenomenal early-season form.
Anyways, back to those wins over Maryland and Purdue. Those two wins are the linchpin of Michigan’s NCAA Tournament resume: without them, Michigan would be in the unenviable position of talented low-major programs that put up a gaudy win-loss record before losing in their conference tournament – without wins over good opponents, those teams typically find themselves in the NIT.
What do Maryland and Purdue have in common? Per KenPom’s “effective height” metric (which adjusts each individual’s height based on how many minutes they play), they are the two tallest high-major teams in the country. A common criticism of John Beilein teams is that they are ill-equipped to deal with teams with size: juxtaposed against the construct of the big, burly, physical Big Ten, Beilein’s teams – which prize skill and shooting – often match up poorly, in theory.
[After the JUMP, small-ball defeats bully-ball]
Win With Offense
Maryland has enough talent to win the national championship. Sure, it would take some luck, but the Terrapins should be in position for a top seed, have a star point guard in Melo Trimble, and possess a lineup – Trimble/Rasheed Suliamon/Jake Layman/Robert Carter/Diamond Stone – that overwhelms most opponents on sheer talent alone. It feels like Maryland is slightly less than the sum of its parts, but at the same time, they play enough defense to fall into a large list of contenders in what’s been a pretty open year at the top in college basketball. The Terps were ranked third in the conference when they took an L in Ann Arbor.
Maryland’s four worst defensive performances of the season are the only four losses they’ve recorded thus far – the only teams to outperform the Wolverines against UMD were Michigan State and North Carolina, teams that also fall into that nebulous group of teams one could see winning the national title.
Michigan’s offense did what it’s done so many times under John Beilein: the Wolverines hit eight threes in the first half, forced the defense to extend out, and feasted inside the arc in the second half – altogether, the Wolverines put up an excellent effective field goal percentage of 58.5%. Zak Irvin played one of the best games of his career, totaling 22 points on 17 shot equivalents to lead the team in scoring and leveraging Maryland out of their preferred frontcourt of Layman, Carter, and Stone.
Carter, who may be one of the most pleasant surprises in the Big Ten this year, is more of a traditional power forward (6’9 capable of stepping out to hit threes, but far more comfortable posting-up, good rebounder and shot-blocker), and he was unable to keep up in the first half that helped provide the lead that gave Michigan enough cushion to win, despite being outplayed for much of the second half. Michigan forced Maryland to play smaller than they’d like and Jake Layman, a 3/4 tweener at 6’9, was still vulnerable to getting beaten off the bounce by the smaller Irvin.
Duncan Robinson had one of his better games – Maryland conceded nine three-point attempts to the sharpshooter and Robinson converted five, including some deep looks – while Derrick Walton played a complimentary role before hitting two huge jumpers with less than four minutes left. The Wolverines were able to conjure up enough complimentary scoring from role players, characteristically avoided turnovers, and put up 1.13 points per possession in the win.
With that sort of offensive performance, Michigan just needed to avoid getting completely overwhelmed by Maryland and they did: Trimble had the worst game of the season – and a lot of credit should go to Derrick Walton for that – Rasheed Suliamon and Jared Nickens (their two designated gunners) combined to go 2-10 from three, and Mark Turgeon was forced to play Varun Ram, a diminutive defensive specialist, for 14 scoreless minutes.
Predictably, the bigger Terrapins abused Michigan inside defensively, despite big minutes for Gyarados Mark Donnal, clearly the Wolverines’ best option defensively at the five. A 6’11 5-star and possible future lottery pick at center, Diamond Stone, put up an efficient 22 points and snagged 4 offensive rebounds (part of a pretty good but not spectacular offensive rebound rate of 35.5), Layman scored inside and out en route to 18 points, and Carter tallied 15 on 6-7 shooting from two (and just 1-4 shooting from three). Fortunately for Michigan, Turgeon decided that the defensive cost of playing the three together wasn’t worth the offensive upside for most of the second half.
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Win With Defense
Michigan’s first game against Purdue went extremely poorly: the Boilermakers lit the Wolverines up to the tune of 1.30 points per possession, their highest total on the season against a high-major opponent* and more than enough to run away with what eventually was a 17-point victory. It was one of those horrible games in which Michigan consistently bled wide open looks – out of the post, off the drive, and on the three-point line. Needless to say, there was little reason for optimism for the return leg of the home-and-home, even if Caris LeVert was available for the first time in well over a month.
*I guess Rutgers is technically a high-major program but, I mean, come on… really?
Astonishingly, the Michigan defense held fast against Purdue this past weekend and limited the Boilermakers to 0.92 points per possession on the day, their third-lowest output on the season. In the first contest, Purdue went 21-36 (58%) on twos, a dominant mark; in the second, they hit just 15-41 (37%). While some of that can surely be attributed to normal variance, the Michigan defense was far more stout inside than it had been against any team that preferred the old-school method of recruiting the biggest guys they can find, cramming the ball to them on the block, and seeing what happened.
In that game, Purdue hit a few threes, mostly avoided turnovers, and allocated most of their shots to their three-headed post monster: inconsistent senior center A.J. Hammons (7’0) went 4-11 from two-point range, his backup, the enormous Isaac Hass (7’2), went 5-10, and blue-chip freshman Caleb Swanigan – a 6’9 250 lbs center playing out of position at power forward – hit 4-7 twos (and miraculously drained two threes with the Michigan defense correctly daring him to shoot). The three didn’t get one offensive rebound, and Michigan somehow outrebounded the giant Boilermakers on the day.
Still, Michigan had to put together enough offense to beat Purdue, even with LeVert still clearly limited, Derrick Walton playing one of his worst games of the season, and Purdue’s stalwart defensive stopper, Rapheal Davis, smothering Duncan Robinson. In the first game in West Lafayette, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman bullied his way through the Boilermaker guards and was undeterred by their shot-blocking presence inside, and he finished with a game-high 25 points, dragging U-M to a respectable offensive performance almost singlehandedly against a defense that’s now ranked 7th nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive ratings.
In the win on Saturday it was Zak Irvin that led the charge for Michigan, scoring 22 points on 21 shot equivalents and knocking down four of the Wolverines five three-point makes on the day. His matchup against Swanigan was incredibly interesting: a few times, especially early on, Swanigan was able to back Irvin down to directly under the basket before an easy score, but Irvin was able to more than make up for it at the other end – Swanigan couldn’t keep up with him at the three-point line on a day when Michigan’s shooting was incredibly off, and Irvin was frequently able to beat Swanigan off the dribble to get to the basket. While others were able to chip in with a few points here and there, Irvin was the only Wolverine to finish with double-digits and was critical in hitting some big baskets during the late comeback, including a pull-up two over Swanigan that was eventually the winning bucket.
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Despite these wins over two enormous teams, Michigan can still struggle with size – look no further than the State game – but it’s fascinating that they were able to get their two biggest wins against Maryland and Purdue, teams that should theoretically punish Michigan inside for 40 minutes with ease. The wins came in different ways, but the MVP for Michigan was the same in both games: Zak Irvin.
And, really, it’s Irvin’s potential at the four that does so much for Michigan: against Maryland, he forced them to go away from their best lineup and avoid playing their three most effective players at the same time; against Purdue, Matt Painter decided to stick with Swanigan on Irvin and paid for it dearly as Irvin decisively won that matchup. As a guy who can play the two, run the pick-and-roll very patiently, and shoot well enough – over 40% in Big Ten play – Irvin is a matchup nightmare at the four; because of his improvements on the defensive end, he’s game enough to handle bigger players and make them work for their buckets.