1. John Beilein is a miracle worker.
John Beilein should never ever be doubted.
Since his time at West Virginia, Beilein has been a coach that can transform a team that appears to be in dire straits into a team no one wants to mess with. In 2005, the Mountaineers were 11-6 and 1-5 in the Big East, but they reeled off 13 wins in their next 17 games before falling short in overtime against Louisville in the Elite Eight. In 2006, West Virginia entered the NCAA Tournament in a free fall, having lost six of its last nine games, but it still advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. In 2009, in his second season at Michigan, Beilein took a program that was 10-22 the previous season to its first NCAA Tournament in over a decade. In 2011, the Wolverines were 11-9 and 1-6 in the Big Ten, but, after Stu Douglass' three-pointer at Michigan State injected them with life, they won nine of the next 13 games and earned an invite to the NCAA Tournament, where they took No. 1 seed Duke to the wire in the Round of 32. In 2012, Beilein led a lineup stocked with starters that had been overlooked by most high-major basketball programs to Michigan's first Big Ten championship in 26 years. In 2013, many predicted Michigan would flame out of the NCAA Tournament early after the Wolverines went 6-6 in their previous 12 games, but they put the puzzle back together and were seven points away from winning a national championship. And, in 2014, many counted Michigan out when it was announced in December that Mitch McGary would miss the rest of the season with a back injury, but the Wolverines won the Big Ten title by three games and were on the verge of making consecutive trips to the Final Four. That's one heck of a track record.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Since LeVert injured his foot, Michigan has resembled a team that maybe, just maybe, could salvage its season, even with a roster as depleted and hobbled as it is. Michigan eked out a road win at Rutgers when half of the team seemed to be under the weather, took the class of the Big Ten, Wisconsin, to overtime, and just rolled over a feisty Nebraska team without LeVert or Derrick Walton, who re-aggravated his sprained toe.
This isn't what was supposed to happen. What was supposed to happen was that Michigan, who had been so inconsistent for weeks before LeVert fractured his foot, would collapse now that the injury bug had bit them, forcing Beilein to give extended minutes to unheralded freshmen Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and undersized and underappreciated big man Max Bielfeldt and some time to walk-ons Andrew Dakich and Sean Lonergan. It was supposed to be a disaster.
And it still could be a disaster. Michigan has benefited from a weak strength of schedule in the Big Ten thus far, beating each of the bottom six teams in the standings, and has a rocky road ahead of them, beginning on Sunday when the Wolverines drive northwest to East Lansing to face the rival Spartans of Michigan State. It could get really ugly quick.
But I won't make the same mistake. I've learned my lesson: don't ever doubt Beilein.
2. Re: not doubting John Beilein, look at Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman!
When it comes to recruiting, John Beilein has been given the benefit of the doubt.
Just look at some of his recent recruits. Since 2010, Beilein recruited Tim Hardaway, Jr., Trey Burke, Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, and Caris LeVert, and, when each of them committed to Michigan, they were ranked outside the top 100 in their respective recruiting class and barely a blip on the radar. So what became of these players? Burke and Stauskas were Big Ten Players of the Year as sophomores and drafted in the lottery. Oh, Burke was also the consenus National Player of the Year. Hardaway, Jr. was a member of the All-Big Ten first team as a junior and became a first-round draft pick. Robinson III was named an All-Big Ten honorable mention as a freshman and sophomore before jumping to the NBA. And LeVert was on the All-Big Ten second team last season and projected to be a first-rounder either this summer or the summer of 2016.
So, when Beilein needed to add a few wings late in the recruiting cycle last spring after both Stauskas and Robinson III opted for the NBA, he scooped up Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, neither of which had received any previous high-major interest. It was a risk, but no one questioned Beilein's ability to unearth gems.
We weren't supposed to know for a couple of seasons whether either Dawkins or Abdur-Rahkman would become Big Ten-caliber players, but, because Michigan's been saddled with so many injuries, both Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman have not only been thrust into the rotation but into the starting lineup. And, so far, it seems Beilein has done it again.
Though it's still far too early to tell if either will have a development arc similar to LeVert's, there's evidence both will be quality Big Ten players this season and in the future. Not only has Dawkins flashed a natural athleticism that allows him to flourish around the rim in transition, he's also a very capable spot-up shooter. He's drained 41.7 percent of his threes and shown he can knock down jumpers from the elbow off curl cuts. If it weren't for Dawkins' 13 first-half points last night, Michigan's offense would have had a difficult time staying afloat. And then there's Abdur-Rahkman, who's scored nine points in three of his last four games, including last night. His style is much different than Dawkins'. Where Dawkins is more graceful and finesse, Abdur-Rahkman is more power. There were times last night when Abdur-Rahkman saw a crease in the perimeter defense and hit it fast, barging down the lane, jumping through contact, and still converting at the rim, which is something no other Wolverine does as effectively as him.
The rapid development of Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman has been a pleasant sight, and, as both earn more minutes in these final weeks, their continued growth, or lack thereof, will impact whether Michigan makes a serious run at an NCAA Tournament bid. But, nonetheless, Beilein has discovered two players others may wish they took a look at.
3. Zak Irvin was more than just a shooter last night.
Zak Irvin hasn't had the season many presumed he would. After coming off the bench last season as a freshman and supplying a nice dose of offense with his outside shooting, many expected Irvin would would take the next step as a starter and become more of an all-around player this season. However, this hasn't been the case. Instead, Irvin hasn't broadened his game much at all, still hanging around the three-point line on offense while not contributing much in other important areas of the game. And what's made this worse is that Irvin's shooting has regressed this season, decreasing his value on the floor.
But, last night, we saw a different Irvin. Though most of his shots were still taken from afar, of which he made enough to pour in a team-high 14 points, he found other ways to chip in. Most notably, Irvin shattered his previous career high by hauling in 12 rebounds, which gave him not only the first double-double of his career but also Michigan's first double-double of the season. This was important because, with Michigan playing four guards or wings and Derrick Walton, who's an exceptional rebounder for his size, missing last night's game, the Wolverines needed someone to step up and grab those rebounds to prevent a poor Nebraska offense from generating second-chance points. Irvin was that someone. And that doesn't even account for the fact that Irvin tallied three assists, matching his personal best. This wasn't the same Irvin that we usually see.
But, if Michigan wants to continue playing well, this is the Irvin we must keep seeing.
4. Michigan has somehow become a defensive team.
John Beilein is known for being an offensive tactician, and that's been obvious the past two seasons, in each of which Michigan led the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. However, in that same time frame, Michigan's defense was sorely lacking, even ranking as low as 109th in adjusted defensive efficiency last season. Accordingly, Michigan was a team focused more on out-shooting its opponents with an offense that made art on the hardwood rather than hunkering down and getting stops. This was Michigan's formula.
The script has flipped this season. Unsurprisingly, after uber-efficient players like Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, and Jordan Morgan departed, Michigan's offense has fallen off a cliff. Michigan went from being the pinnacle of offense in college basketball to ranking 144th in adjusted offensive efficiency. That's quite a dive. However, this steep decline has been somewhat offset by an improvement in the Wolverines' defense, which ranks 53rd in adjusted defensive efficiency this season. While this does not mean Michigan's defense has been astounding or even great, it's been defense that's carried Michigan through its first nine games of the Big Ten season, not offense:
|Rank||Best Offenses (Off. PPP)||Best Defenses (Def. PPP)|
|1||Wisconsin (1.264)||Michigan (0.980)|
|2||Ohio State (1.115)||Maryland (0.981)|
|3||Indiana (1.103)||Nebraska (0.987)|
|4||Iowa (1.100)||Michigan State (1.008)|
|5||Michigan State (1.069)||Purdue (1.017)|
|6||Penn State (1.033)||Rutgers (1.028)|
|7||Minnesota (1.033)||Wisconsin (1.033)|
|8||Purdue (1.021)||Illinois (1.047)|
|9||Maryland (1.021)||Ohio State (1.053)|
|10||Northwestern (1.009)||Minnesota (1.055)|
|11||Illinois (0.998)||Penn State (1.071)|
|12||Michigan (0.991)||Northwestern (1.089)|
|13||Nebraska (0.954)||Indiana (1.098)|
|14||Rutgers (0.911)||Iowa (1.162)|
Yes, Michigan became the Big Ten's best defensive team in conference play last night after it held Nebraska to just 44 points, 0.769 points per possession, and 30.6-percent shooting. No matter whether Michigan went with its man-to-man defense or switched to a 2-3 or 1-3-1 zone, Nebraska could not find any sort of offensive rhythm, particularly because its best player, Terran Petteway, who averages 19 points per game and has the highest usage rate in the Big Ten, made only 1-of-11 shots for a measly seven points.
The question now is whether Michigan's defense is legitimate or benefited from facing the Big Ten's less potent offenses in the first half of the Big Ten slate. Given that Michigan's defense is still ranked outside the top 50 despite its production in conference play, it seems to be more the latter than the former. However, if Michigan's defense remains steady in the coming weeks, Michigan could be in business in the Big Ten.
5. It's officially State Week.
About one year ago, Nik Stauskas did this after Michigan's 80-75 win at Breslin:
Though Stauskas is no longer at Michigan, Michigan State will want vengeance at the Breslin Center on Sunday. But, if the Wolverines can deny the Spartans that pleasure, Michigan will win back-to-back games in East Lansing for the first time since the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons. That wouldn't be a bad way to start off Super Bowl Sunday.
Unless you're Tom Izzo, who would need to find something new to complain about.