The Metamorphosis: The Changing Face of the "Beilein Offense"

Now that the dust has settled and any residual angst from Michigan's first-round exit has dissipated, we all look to next season and beyond with a combination of hope and concern. While the early exit sort of put a damper on the feeling that things were progressing almost ceaselessly up and the right, it's a disappointment that is misguided in the grand scheme of things. Although this year's Michigan team was better than the 08-09 or 10-11 teams, the season did not end on a proportionally successful note; in a single-elimination tournament, with a roster like Michigan's, that can happen. In the long run, this won't really mean anything.

However, since the season ended in Nashville, there have been a pair of developments that will in fact "mean something," those of course being the potential departure of Trey Burke and the mass exodus that already went down, which saw Evan Smotrycz, Carlton Brundidge, and Colton Christian leave the program for more playing time elsewhere (or perhaps other reasons, in Evan's case). Add in the graduation of philosopher-warrior-poets Zack Novak and Stu Douglass and that is quite a bit of turnover.

In light of the Trey Burke situation and Smotrycz's departure, I think the most interesting narrative of this offseason is perhaps going unnoticed, and that is the fact that Michigan's offense will look entirely different next year--whether Burke stays or not, and for the record I'm pretty sure he'll stay--and if people don't pay attention now then there'll be some serious cognitive dissonance floating in and around Ann Arbor. In fact, the transition has already begun. Referring to the "Beilein offense" from this point forward will become as precarious a situation for basketball analysts as "the spread offense" has become for college football personalities. Of course, there are many different forms of the spread. Likewise, I think we will find that that are many sides to what Beilein can and/or is willing to do on the offensive end.

For all those who lamented Rich Rodriguez's inflexibility re: the offense in 2008, those same people will find reasons to be optimistic about John Beilein's offensive tactics going forward.

As a high schooler, I went to a very small school that had very little basketball talent to speak of. Size, athleticism, and general basketball ability (dribbling, shooting, overall IQ) were lacking and we didn't win very many games, but, we competed. I learned essentially everything I know about basketball from my coach in about a two-year span, a man who was from the Bob Knight school of man-to-man defense, motion offense, 4 passes, etc. It was a wonder that we won any games at all, but we did in fact win a few and competed in some others because we played the game a certain way and we played it hard. For us, "doing what we do" meant getting into people on defense and setting the appropriate screens and executing the rights cuts to manufacture baskets; even though the ball didn't always go in or a mistake was made along the way, your typical high school team is poorly coached and not very disciplined on either end of the floor, and so these generally simple offensive and defensive systems (well, they were simple once you practiced them for a while) would often eat up your average team for extended stretches in a game, despite us being the less talented team about 99% of the time. We were well-schooled in the minutiae of the game, and when the system--and I hesitate to even call it a "system" because I've always thought that we were just playing basketball the way it was supposed to be played--worked it was a beautiful thing. It was fun, much like watching a Beilein team produce open looks from 3, thus opening up easy backdoor looks.

The downside to the aforementioned style of play is that we almost never changed it up in any way. We didn't have set plays, mostly because the wisdom of the motion offense dictated that, if executed properly, there would always be an obvious play to make. We all bought in and even when we lost, it was still fun to play that way. However, I will admit that there were times when I thought that the world wouldn't collapse in on itself if we used a ball screen or two to free up the ball-handler or allowed for a few occasional sets just to mix things up.

This was all just background information to let you know where I'm coming from, philosophically, as a watcher of basketball. While Beilein's approach is not exactly the same as what we played in high school, it's similar in a lot of ways, philosophically and personnel-wise. I'm fully supportive of what the Beilein model of play, but, at the same time, I realize that that model is changing in significant ways, and people should be ready to discard old stereotypes about a Beilein-coached basketball team. Additionally, I also understand that better talent means a different way of doing things. In a sense, having a greater combination of talent/athleticism allows one to not have to reinvent the wheel on every offensive possession.

In short, the Michigan offense has already begun to evolve in the Beilein era, and I think we've only seen the beginning; the incoming 2012 class will kick this transition into overdrive. Of course, folks like Digger Phelps will continue to think that Michigan is a primarily 1-3-1 team and that nothing has changed, so maybe this is all for naught. It will be interesting to see how basketball analysts reconcile stereotypes of Beilein-ball with what is actually happening on the floor in 2012-13 and beyond.

  • Ball screens--This has been the most obvious philosophical "concession" on Beilein's part. As you can imagine, my high school's offense featured zero ball screens, and so I've sort of been indoctrinated against it. However, I realize that it's a part of the game today, especially in the pros, and having a top-notch PG can make the pick and roll a sort of offense in and of itself. It's clear that Beilein feels the same way, as Michigan very rarely (if ever) ran any ball screens before Darius Morris became the guy in his sophomore season. Beilein ditching a certain percentage of his offensive sets for pick and roll possessions is, in my mind, the equivalent of a Hypothetical Rich Rod circa 2008 who decides to run a more traditional offense as opposed to the spread. In any case, this is Exhibit A with respect to Beilein's ability to fit basketball concepts into his strategy that don't necessarily fit within the context of his philosophy. In short...this is a good thing.
  • Offensive rebounding--You might look at the departures of three decent to sometimes pretty good shooters (Novak, Douglass, Smotrycz) and wonder how Michigan is going to replace that shooting next year. Luckily, points are points, and you don't necessarily need to replace three-point shooting with three-point shooting. I direct you to the offensive model that my Chicago Bulls (and college teams like MSU) employ. The Bulls haven't climbed to the top of the NBA standings with spectacular offensive play (especially with Rose, Deng, and Hamilton all missing significant stretches of the season), they've done it with hard work and offensive rebounding. For Michigan, this could become the new iteration of GRIT now that Zack Novak is gone. In any case, the Bulls and other teams like them get by with sometimes average shooting by rebounding their misses and putting them back in; that's certainly not to say that Michigan will resemble the Bulls (or even the Spartans) in this respect, but the Wolverines will basically be looking to improve in a facet of the game which has essentially been non-existent.
  • Offensive Rebounding Pt. 2--Obviously, Michigan will be better-equipped to attack the boards because of their personnel. Horford returns, Biefeldt is a guy that Beilein seems to like that you can envision being a shorter version of Graham Brown, and then there's obviously McGary who comes in at 6'10'' and Glenn Robinson III, who is 6'6'' and a quick twitch sort of guy. Michigan will almost have gone from having essentially no size to too much size in one season, which is truly remarkable. As such, I think the days of Beilein conceding the offensive boards in favor of getting back on D might be over. I haven't even mentioned THJ or JMo vis-a-vis offensive boards; I think unleashing THJ to the offensive glass is a net positive, even if his already somewhat lackadaisical D takes a hit as a result. In any case, anything that gets him to operate closer to the basket (and more aggressively) is a good thing.
  • Quick hitters--With the influx of size and overall athleticism, I would imagine that Michigan will use that to its advantage by installing a few easy "quick hitters." For example, a set play alley oop to a jumpy guy like GRIII. Of course, this sort of thing wouldn't be anything more than a very small slice of the offense, but it's comforting to know that it is in fact an option. Easy points are good points.
  • Tempo--Continuing with the athleticism theme, I wouldn't be surprised to see Michigan run a little bit more this upcoming season. Michigan was one of the slowest teams in the conference this year, which is saying something given the conference's notoriety for playing a tortoise-esque pace. With athletic bigs like McGary and Morgan, wings like THJ and GRIII, and a Lamborghini running the point in Trey Burke (assuming he's back, of course), there's really no reason not to push the issue a little more. Of course, guard depth is an issue, but Burke has proven himself capable of handling 35+ minutes every game; not everybody has an Aaron Craft.
  • Back to the Basket--Kind of the like the bullet on offensive rebounding, back-to-the-basket points is an aspect of the game that Michigan will go from having none of to have at the very least a small amount, mostly in the form of one Mitch McGary. While it is unclear how polished McGary's offensive game will be, the option to throw it down into the post and let a tall guy try and make something happen is, you know, an option. Think about the last two seasons while also thinking about how Michigan almost literally never threw the ball into the post. It's hard to have post-season success when that isn't even an option.
  • Pittsnogle Analogue...Adieu?: This last point is a bit of a reach and probably won't be confirmed as true or not for several years but...it seems to me that Beilein might be partially giving up on looking for the Holy Grail that is "tall guy that can shoot the three like a 2-guard." McLimans has clearly not worked out at all in this respect, and McGary is obviously not that type of big. Smotrycz was developing into that guy, but he's of course no longer a Wolverine. Add in not being able to bring the 6'10'' Robin Benzing into the fold back in 2008 and we may be seeing the beginning of a shift in how Beilein approaches recruiting bigs. As mentioned, McGary is decidedly not a typical Beilein big, and 2013 commit Mark Donnal seems like a polished player that has a decent mid-range but isn't going to stretch the defense out to the arc (of course, he's only a junior in high school at this point). This by no means indicates that Beilein has indefinitely "given up" on rekindling that Pittsnogle magic, but in the short-term, it appears that Michigan won't have one of these sorts on the roster.

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These are just a few, general examples, of which there are surely many more. I'm not trying to say that a 2012-13 Michigan team without Trey will be just fine, but, at the same time--assuming Michigan picks up a a generic 3-star sort to run the point--I don't think the situation is as dire as many believe. The team will once again be young but the roster won't be lacking talent or size. If Burke chooses to stay, I think Michigan will be just fine; the offense will be nearly unidentifiable vis-a-vis the standard Beilein offense, but change is not bad. More importantly, being able to change and tweak one's philosophy is the most important part in any of this. Beilein is a guy that is obviously capable of doing so. Not every coach out there can do this.

Michigan would attempt to shoot it away to the Promised Land more times than many would; the game at Northwestern, in which Michigan shot an outrageous 38 treys, was perhaps the apex (or the nadir?) of this fatalistic philosophy. It's a philosophy that is a little more than fans give it credit (no, it's not just "pass and around and chuck threes"), but i think most would like to see a shift toward a more traditional, low-variance style of play, especially given that the cold-blooded shooters that a typical Beilein offense needs just haven't really been there. Thus, we're seeing the beginning of a shift in offensive philosophy, one that is more front court and above-the-rim oriented.

There will be growing pains, but let's hope that, upon waking up right before the beginning of the upcoming season, that the Michigan offense does not find itself to be like Gregor Samsa, stuck between two species, two ways of life, and good at neither one. An awkward phase, if you will. It may be that at first, but I am confident that Beilein's coaching ability will be able to mitigate those growing pains while taking advantage the positive attributes that the 2012-12 roster will bring to the table. Either way, it will be interesting and fun to watch Beilein revamp the offense going forward.
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