A month ago, the idea of John Beilein as the Big Ten Coach of the Year seemed asinine.
Why? Because, for awhile, Michigan was one of the nation's most underachieving teams.
Forget that Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, and Glenn Robinson III defected to the NBA, Jordan Morgan graduated, and Jon Horford transferred to Florida. With All-Big Ten second-team selection Caris LeVert and rising sophomore stars Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin returning, Michigan still was expected to be a top-25 team and Big Ten contender. Maybe this was putting too much faith in Beilein, but expectations were still high. And, for the first few weeks of the season, everything went according to script as the Wolverines opened with a 6-1 record that included quality wins against Oregon and Syracuse and one down-to-the-wire loss to a top-10 Villanova team on a neutral floor.
But then the darkness of December descended upon Michigan, and Beilein's Wolverines were not able to see the land mines planted along their path and hoping to blow them off course. Michigan struck its first and largest land mine when NJIT -- a fledgling program without a conference -- strolled into Ann Arbor and stunned Michigan in what may be the biggest college basketball upset in the past decade. Still dazed from the first blow, Michigan walked atop a second land mine three days later when Eastern Michigan's 2-3 zone suffocated Michigan's offense and served the Wolverines their second straight upset loss at home. Now wobbling and veering off course, the Wolverines stumbled upon two more land mines when Arizona blew Michigan out in Tucson and SMU used a 17-0 run in the final eight minutes to upend Michigan by double digits at the Crisler Center.
Just like that, it seemed Michigan's season had been blown to bits. The Wolverines were 6-5 and had plummeted from No. 20 to No. 75 on KenPom. This wasn't like the season before when they lost close games to upper-echelon teams during the non-conference season, aside from the loss to Charlotte in Puerto Rico, and maintained their KenPom rank. These were bad, bad losses, particularly with three of them coming at home against underdogs, and, suddenly, not only was Michigan clearly out of the NCAA Tournament picture, the path to reenter that picture had swiftly shifted into a steep, rocky incline. And, if the Wolverines couldn't win 11 Big Ten games, they would never make that climb.
In the first two weeks of January, it didn't seem like Michigan would make it to the top. Yes, the Wolverines were winning their Big Ten games, opening the conference season with a 4-2 record, but they were eking out wins at home against the worst teams in the conference, which is why their KenPom rank continued to dive to No. 103. Their performances were uninspiring, their offense was inconsistent, often enduring seven-minute field-goal droughts, and the outlook for the rest of the season remained bleak. Once the schedule began to toughen up in late January, the Wolverines would suffer a string of losses that would knock them off their path to the NCAA Tournament for good.
And this thought was never more prevalent than when it was announced after Michigan barely beat Northwestern at home that LeVert would miss the rest of the season with a fractured left foot. How would Michigan's already-struggling offense score points without its best offensive player? Especially when the only other Wolverine believed to be able to penetrate into the paint and create offense for others was Walton, who had been bothered by a sprained toe for weeks? There wasn't an answer, and, with the rest of the team dealing with an assortment of injuries and illnesses, it seemed like not even Beilein, who's been a miracle worker for the past decade, would find one.
But Beilein has found one and become a Big Ten Coach of the Year candidate as a result.
In the four games since LeVert's injury, two of which were without Walton as well, Michigan has played some of its best basketball of the season. Michigan used a late shooting spree to beat Rutgers on the road, steamrolled Nebraska in the second half en route to a double-digit win, and took Wisconsin and Michigan State (at the Breslin Center!) to overtime before running out of gas. Accordingly, Michigan's KenPom rank has shot back up to No. 79, and that rank would be even higher -- between No. 65 and No. 70 -- if U-M had lost by two to the Spartans in regulation rather than by 10 in overtime.
That is instant improvement.
And what's most impressive is the personnel Beilein has needed to use to achieve it. With LeVert and Walton out, Beilein's been forced to start Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins, both of whom are true freshmen that were unheralded prospects that didn't attract attention from high-major programs until Michigan picked them up in the 23rd hour of the recruiting cycle. They weren't supposed to play much this season, let alone start, and, yet, under Beilein's tutelage, they have been the catalysts for Michigan's recent spike in performance. Abdur-Rahkman has emerged as an offensive threat that can finish through contact at the rim and connect from the outside, while Dawkins has proven to be a spot-up shooter that also can finish gracefully in transition. Then, down low, there is Max Bielfeldt -- the undersized center Michigan isn't even planning to bring back for his fifth year next season. But Beilein may need to reconsider now that Bielfeldt has averaged 9.0 points and 7.8 rebounds and anchored down Michigan's 2-3 zone in his last four games. Add in that Beilein has had to give extended minutes to walk-ons Andrew Dakich and Sean Lonergan because Michigan has such little guard depth, and you realize quickly how remarkable Michigan's recent performance has been.
So how does Beilein fit into the Big Ten Coach of the Year race? Well, it depends.
If you believe that the Big Ten Coach of the Year award should be given to the Big Ten coach with the best team, particularly when that team is head and shoulders above the rest of the conference, Beilein has no shot because Wisconsin is going to run away with the Big Ten crown. At the moment, the Badgers are 8-1 in the Big Ten, which is 1.5 games better than every other team, and projected by KenPom to finish with a 15-3 record whereas no other Big Ten team is projected to win more than 12 conference games. Therefore, under this criteria, Bo Ryan would be the hands-down winner.
But, if you believe that the Big Ten Coach of the Year award should be given to the Big Ten coach whose team most overachieves, Beilein must be one of the front runners. Thanks to the work started by Twitter friend @DAngelo_Vickers, using KenPom's projected win percentages for each Big Ten game, I calculated the expected number of wins each Big Ten team should have. I then subtracted each team's expected win total from their actual number of Big Ten wins. If a team had a positive margin, it meant that Big Ten team has overachieved in conference play. If a team had a negative margin, it meant that Big Ten team has underachieved in conference play. Here are the results:
|Rank||Coach (Team)||Actual Big Ten Wins||Expected Big Ten Wins||Margin|
|1||Matt Painter (Purdue)||7||4.336||+2.664|
|2||John Beilein (Michigan)||6||4.150||+1.850|
|3||Tom Crean (Indiana)||6||4.444||+1.556|
|4||Tim Miles (Nebraska)||5||4.214||+0.786|
|5||Mark Turgeon (Maryland)||7||6.340||+0.660|
|6||Fran McCaffery (Iowa)||4||3.364||+0.636|
|7||Bo Ryan (Wisconsin)||8||7.913||+0.087|
|8||Tom Izzo (Michigan State)||6||6.284||-0.284|
|9||John Groce (Illinois)||5||5.417||-0.417|
|10||Thad Matta (Ohio State)||6||6.688||-0.688|
|11||Eddie Jordan (Rutgers)||2||2.834||-0.834|
|12||Chris Collins (Northwestern)||1||2.330||-1.330|
|13||Pat Chambers (Penn State)||2||3.819||-1.819|
|14||Richard Pitino (Minnesota)||3||5.867||-2.867|
The only coach whose team has overachieved more during the Big Ten season than Beilein is Matt Painter, who just recently surpassed Beilein with Purdue's recent wins at Northwestern and against Ohio State. And, at the moment, an excellent case can be made that Painter is the current Big Ten Coach of the Year favorite. His Boilermakers are tied for second in the Big Ten standings with a 7-3 record one season after they finished dead last with a 5-13 record, and he's motivated the enigma that is A.J. Hammons -- a talented seven-foot center that disappears for long stretches -- to play inspired ball recently.
However, Painter hasn't dealt with the obstacles and the adversity with which Beilein has dealt all season. Though Painter needed to keep the Boilermakers afloat after two similarly ugly non-conference losses (North Florida and Gardner-Webb), his roster hasn't been ravaged by injuries like Beilein's has, and he has one of the deepest benches in the Big Ten with which to work. On the other hand, Beilein has been forced to work on the fly with a MacGyver-like mindset to patch up this Michigan team as it continues to break down with injuries to its key components. Without his two best players in LeVert and Walton, Beilein is squeezing everything he can out of an impossible situation.
With LeVert out for the season and Walton for the foreseeable future, this is what Beilein will need to continue to do as his Wolverines are three games into a brutal nine-game stretch. Michigan's next six games include three home contests against Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State, and three road contests against Indiana, Illinois, and Maryland. KenPom projects that Michigan will be the favorite in only one of these six games -- tonight against Iowa -- but the Wolverines likely need to win at least three to keep their long odds for an NCAA Tournament bid alive. If Beilein can pull this off with this young, depleted roster and coach this Michigan team to 11 Big Ten wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance, it arguably would be the best coaching job of his career.
And the idea of Beilein not being the Big Ten Coach of the Year would seem asinine.