All We Need is a Sling and a Stone

Submitted by Alex Cook on February 16th, 2016 at 3:00 PM

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Bryan Fuller

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.

* * *

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]

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Bryan Fuller

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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Eric Upchurch

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.

* * *

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.

Comments

Steves_Wolverines

February 16th, 2016 at 3:11 PM ^

Can't wait to see this team next year. 

Seniors Irvin, Walton, and Donnal. 

Seems like Michigan never gets the benefits of a healthy (or existent) senior class. Let's hope these three continue to shine in 2017. 

hunterjoe

February 16th, 2016 at 3:18 PM ^

I will admit, I was a bit upset with Irvin early in the Purdue game, but man, did he have a run to close.  People (me including) may rip on him a bit, but he's effort.  He plays hard...  Plays good D against bigger guys mostly.  And usually wins his matchup.  And he's the only guy who likes to show some emotion after a big play on a regular basis.  

AC1997

February 16th, 2016 at 3:27 PM ^

Alex - Isn't Texas pretty high in the effective height rankings as well?  They are our third marquee win on the season that we'll cling to on selection Sunday.  (We also need to root for NC State to stay in the RPI top 100 and for Northwestern to sneak in there.)

 

Alex Cook

February 16th, 2016 at 4:47 PM ^

Texas rates pretty highly in effective height, though they're weighed down some by their tiny guards. The reason I didn't include them was that they were still finding their footing under Shaka when we played them. It might be a good resume win when it's all said and done, but at the time, it was a pretty normal win.

AC1997

February 16th, 2016 at 3:33 PM ^

Thank you for pointing out that the grass is rarely greener.  My arrival at Michigan aligned with the arrival of the "Fresh Five" class born in the aftermath of the Fab Five.  Ward, Baston, Taylor, Conlan, and Mitchell arrived after a great run by their predecessors and everyone was looking forward to the golden era of Steve Fisher.  

What we learned is that entitled guys with high rankings who are likely taking pocket money from boosters aren't the answer, at least not when combined with mediocre coaching and lacking any real outside shooters.  That continued with guys like Albert White, Robert Traylor, and Louis Bullock.  

Then we cleaned house and got a used car salesman to coach the team in Brian Ellerbe.  He recruited thugs who more often left campus for reasons besides basketball and were frequently terrible while on the court.  

Finally we brought in squeaky clean Tommy Amaker, who did run a respectable program and brought in a few decent recruits.  Yet no one ever improved as a player under Tommy and he never took the team to the big dance.  He's a great lower-tier coach, but couldn't compete at the elite level.  

John Beilein erased all of those years of futility and embarassment first with his tournament appearance using no real center and walk-on pointguards.  Then Darius Morris told MSU to get off his *($&*% court.  And then Trey Burke took us within minutes of a national title.  

I see the cracks in the foundation of recruiting with Beilein, but I never expected or wanted to sign top-five classes.  I wanted to mimic the long standing success of programs like Wisconsin.  Considering he lost his two seniors and captains, had a recruiting hiccup, and plays in a tough conference.....I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt.  

Alumnus93

February 16th, 2016 at 7:48 PM ^

the joint that mcgary smoked, was seen across the world. the one that got him disqualified, that killed us...barring that, had he stayed one more year, i think recruiting would have been VERY different. guys like Doyle and maar wouldn't be on team, and elite recruits would be.

AC1997

February 16th, 2016 at 3:46 PM ^

What are you trying to say, winning %?  

If so, I think those are apples & oranges.  Beilein's first season essentially is tossed out because it was like RichRod's first year of cutting over the system.  Hoke's first year, meanwhile, was his best with a collection of seniors.  

Additionally, I think winning % is always lower in basketball than football.  

If I told you that you could have a coach with 2 conference titles, 1 final four, and 1 elite 8 appearance in 9 years along with only 3 seasons not in the tournament....would you take it?  

Let's see how this season plays out before we hire one of the most successful coaches in program history.  

Stringer Bell

February 16th, 2016 at 4:59 PM ^

Not to mention there's plenty of talent to be had in the midwest, if not actually in Michigan.  Plus with the success of the football program recruiting New Jersey, basketball should be able to dip into the east coast talent well to get some good players.

AC1997

February 16th, 2016 at 4:59 PM ^

I remember the cries from the masses that Lloyd needed to go because we should replace good with great.  How did that work out for us?  

My point was that Beilein has earned our patience.  I did not say he's got a lifetime contract.  

mwolverine1

February 16th, 2016 at 4:04 PM ^

The difference is that Indiana and MSU can match our guards. Maryland got absolutely dreadful play from Melo and Sulaimon, and Purdue's guards just aren't that great in general. Michigan's guard play will give them a chance most nights, but when we run up against talented and balanced teams, it's gonna be tough sledding.

M-Dog

February 16th, 2016 at 4:23 PM ^

I thought we did a good job of doubling the post in the Purdue game.  And by "doubling the post", I don't mean the way Fisher's teams did it where two guys would absolutely smother the post as soon as the post player touched the ball.

Instead, we got a hand in there in front swatting at the ball as the Purdue player backed his way into the post.  The Purdue players were very slow and deliberate backing their way into the post and it threw them off not being able to dribble cleanly as they tried to back in.

I would have liked to see us stay with it a little bit longer on each play though.  In some cases we took a swat or two and then backed off.  The Purdue player then merrily continued on backing into the post at his leisure.  Once he was backed in low, we were done.  There were more opportunities for us to interfere with the process that we did not take advantage of, and we paid the price.

 

NYC Blue

February 16th, 2016 at 5:05 PM ^

Roy Willimas

John Calipari

Mike Krzyzewski

Rick Pitino

Jim Boeheim

Bob Huggins

These are the only active D-1 basketball coaches with a higher winning percentage than John Beilein.

 

So who were you going to hire in Beileins place?

 

Spouting a single statistic without any context is absurd.  Please stop.

AC1997

February 16th, 2016 at 5:08 PM ^

Those people who are fed up with Beilein will point to a variety of metrics, but the one they are most frustrated with is recruiting - particularly at the front-court positions.  They will cite the issues at the 4 and 5 positions the last two years as the smoking gun that murdered our post-final four hype.  
 
So what happened?  I think it is worth looking at what the likely "plan" was from the coaches:
 
2013-2014:  
Michigan finishes a low-probability long three pointer away from a repeat final four.
 
2014-2015:  
Michigan had to scramble to fill spots vacated by early departures.  But those spots were filled by Rahk and Dawkins on the wing.  They had already recruited Chatman, Wilson, and Doyle.   

The plan was likely for McGary to start at center, backed up by senior Horford and r-Fr Donnal.  Doyle would redshirt.  At PF we'd start our highly ranked freshman Chatman to step into the shoes vacated by GR3, playing about 30 min per game and living with his ups and downs while backed up by Wilson or a collection of wings.  
 
2015-2016:
At center Donnal steps into the starter role and is backed up by r-Fr Doyle and Wilson/Wagner if fouls pile up.  At PF we now have Chatman maturing into a regular contributor and backed up by Wilson or the Dawkins/Robinson options. 
 
What happened?
Instead we lost McGary and Horford unexpectedly, which forced Donnal and Doyle into bigger roles earlier than planned.  Meanwhile both Chatman and Wilson have been total non-factors at the PF spot and that forced the use of more wings like Dawkins, Rahk, and Robinson.  
 
On top of that, there's the rash of injuries to Walton, Levert, Irvin, and Albrecht.  It also ignores the snafu with the two 5-star recruits who we had a line on this past off-season which is either a screw-up by the coaches or total dumb luck in recruiting.

Stringer Bell

February 16th, 2016 at 5:57 PM ^

Michigan shouldn't have expected GR3 and McGary to stay after their sophomore years.  Both seriously contemplated leaving after their freshman seasons and the coaches should have prepared for their departure in 2014, and I think they were for the most part as they were able to get Chatman and Wilson to replace them.  I think the biggest issue is that the 2014 class is looking like a bust.  We took 5 scholarship players I beileve, only 2 of them have really panned out, and those were our 2 lowest rated recruits who have now become valuable role players.  But Chatman and Wilson were both top 100 recruits (top 30 and borderline 5 star in Chatman's case) and the fact that these 2 can barely get on the court at this point in their careers is really hurting us.

WindyCityBlue

February 16th, 2016 at 5:41 PM ^

Ugh! The whole fire JB thing is overplayed

It's like 2% of the fanbase want that. Who cares.

With that said, the grass isn't always greener, but our grass isn't particularly green right now. I'm not too optimistic about our future under JB going forward.

Sent from MGoBlog HD for iPhone & iPad

blueak

February 16th, 2016 at 6:22 PM ^

that any Michigan fan in his/her right mind would want Beilein fired. The man has brought us that close (tiny space between thumb and forefinger) to a national championship. And just think of the tire fire Michigan basketball was before him. Fair weather Michigan fans, don't let that swinging door hit you in the ass as you leave.

brianntb

February 16th, 2016 at 9:12 PM ^

And I guarantee you I've been true blue longer than you. 

But we should at least be able to vent and to question. 

9 years in, with all michigan has to offer, dont you think we should expect more than...we'll probably make the NCAA tourney? 

And next year we'll probably make the round of 32? 

Beilein is a good coach. He's proven that. But we can be great at basketball and that's what's so frustrating.