Michigan basketball coach John Beilein said it best: "This was a very unique year."
This was the first time in eight seasons at Michigan that Beilein fell victim to his own success. This past season, Trey Burke was supposed to be a senior. Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III were supposed to be juniors. None of them were top-100 recruits when they committed to Michigan, and none were supposed to leave early for the NBA. The only prospect that Beilein expected to head to the NBA before his senior season was Mitch McGary, who was a blue-chip recruit from the get-go. But, as you know, that's not what happened. Under Beilein's tutelage, Burke, Stauskas, and Robinson III developed into exceptional players, and, in two years, all three plus McGary were off to the NBA.
This is not a problem when you are an NBA factory like Kentucky, Duke, or Kansas that brings in a boatload of five-star recruits year in and year out. But, when you're a program like Michigan that builds its foundation on low-level four-stars and three-stars, you can't expect to reload each year under these circumstances. Unless Michigan enjoys an uptick in recruiting in the future, their best chance to remain consistent is to land quality kids that develop into proficient college basketball players during their four years on campus. Just look at Michigan State and Wisconsin -- the Big Ten's two steadiest programs for the past decade. Tom Izzo has had only six Spartans declare for the NBA early in 20 years at Michigan State, and Bo Ryan has had only one Badger do it in 14 years at Wisconsin. Further, since the start of 2007-08 when Beilein went to Michigan, Ryan and Izzo have put 28 and 25 seniors on the floor, respectively -- the two highest totals in the Big Ten. Beilein? He's had seven underclassmen leave for the NBA and sent only 15 seniors on the court in that time -- the latter of which is a Big Ten low. And, given the exodus Michigan experienced in 2013 and 2014, a decline in performance was bound to catch up to them.
Nonetheless, with the return of Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton, and Zak Irvin, Michigan had the assets to avoid such a decline as long the team remained healthy. But that wasn't the case. Injuries took their toll from the start. Walton injured his toe in the fifth game against Villanova, which rendered him less than 100 percent until he was forced to miss the final 12 games of the season. D.J. Wilson sprained his knee and didn't play after the Villanova game, taking a redshirt. Irvin was undercut on a dunk against Syracuse two games later that left him in pain, which may explain the dive in his production for a good chunk of the season afterwards. Spike Albrecht suffered a hip injury that caused him to receive a cortisone injection during winter break to alleviate the pain yet it still bothered him for the rest of the season. This all happened in the two weeks leading up to the four-game stretch against NJIT, Eastern Michigan, Arizona, and SMU that ended with four losses and robbed the team of their confidence. And, to add a cherry on top, LeVert broke his foot on the final play against Northwestern just as Michigan rediscovered their mojo.
Just like that, the spotlight was on Beilein. Entering the final 10 games of the regular season, Michigan was 12-8, needing to string together wins against the most difficult portion of the schedule just to make the postseason, without two of their three best players and with the third in a funk that may have been injury-related. And the injuries forced him to designate two players that were preseason redshirt candidates -- Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman -- as starters and bring two walk-ons -- Andrew Dakich and Sean Lonergan -- off the bench. Though expectations dissipated due to these circumstances, Beilein's margin for error to succeed was razor thin at best.
Unfortunately, Beilein exceeded that margin in too many close games -- ones that would have put Michigan in the NIT and could have been enough to earn Michigan an NCAA Tournament bid if they all had been wins. His biggest flaw as an in-game tactician is his propensity to bench his guards and wings that have two first-half fouls until halftime although those players have low foul rates. These players aren't likely to foul out even if they remain in the game, but, when Beilein sits them for the rest of the half, particularly when it's for an extended stretch, it has the same effect as if the player had fouled out. He's just doing it in the first half rather than the second. This auto-bench strategy is not an issue when a team has a deep bench and can replace a starter with two first-half fouls without suffering a dip in production. But, when you're Beilein, your roster is depleted, and benching a starter means that a walk-on that looks uncomfortable each time he steps on the court must play key minutes, that's not giving your team the best chance to win.
Beilein never had more trouble with this than when Abdur-Rahkman picked up two first-half fouls against Michigan State twice and in the road game at Maryland. Rather than keep Abdur-Rahkman in the game, Beilein inserted either Dakich or Lonergan for an extended stretch of minutes. The results were disastrous each time. Look at this chart:
|Score When MAAR Sat with Two Fouls
|MAAR's Time on the Bench
|Score When MAAR Returned
|Fouls MAAR Committed
|Michigan's +/- in Reg. with MAAR
|Michigan's +/- in Reg. without MAAR
And, before you point out that Abdur-Rahkman fouled out in the second meeting against Michigan State, know that all three of his second-half fouls were in the final five minutes when Michigan fouled the Spartans on purpose to try to muster a miracle comeback. He sat all of that time in three games just to commit one foul on accident in the second half.
Can I guarantee that Michigan would have won all these games if Beilein had not auto-benched Abdur-Rahkman? No, though good luck convincing me that Michigan would not have beaten Michigan State in East Lansing had Beilein not sat Abdur-Rahkman for the final 10:31 of the first half. But I can state with confidence that Beilein didn't optimize Michigan's odds to win these games when he could not afford to make many mistakes.
The other Beilein mistake that cost Michigan a win, albeit one that's more excusable than auto-benching, was his decision not to foul Northwestern with a three-point lead in the final seconds of regulation and the first overtime session. There's been a rampant debate in college basketball about whether it's better to foul your opponent and not give them a chance to force overtime with a three or to defend and play it out. Though the success of each strategy is about equal, I'm an ardent supporter of fouling in that situation. I would much rather force a team to make the first free throw, miss the second free throw on purpose, rebound the missed second free throw, and then score again before time expires rather than give them one look at a three. However, Beilein prefers to defend, and it led to Tre Demps burying game-tying threes at the end of regulation and the first overtime period, which permitted the Wildcats to escape with the miracle win in double overtime. I understand not fouling at the end of regulation because there was a concern that seven-foot center Alex Olah, who had been killing Michigan inside, would have little trouble to corral the missed second free throw. But, after Demps made the first three at the end of regulation, I wanted to see that Beilein could be flexible and adapt in overtime. He was not able to do so, and it led to a brutal loss -- a loss that kept Michigan out of the NIT.
However, Michigan was in all of these close games to end the season only because of Beilein. When LeVert went down with his fractured foot and Walton joined him on the bench soon after, I declared that the season was over. While I was right that Michigan did not have the horses to work their way back into the postseason picture, I was wrong to think that Michigan would not be able to remain competitive. A starting lineup of Albrecht, Abdur-Rahkman, Irvin, Dawkins, and Ricky Doyle or Max Bielfeldt should not be able to take upper-tier Big Ten teams down to the wire on a consistent basis. That is a starting lineup that should be getting smacked around and losing by a wide margin.
But not with Beilein as the head coach. Year after year after year, Beilein continues to impress with his ability to find unheralded recruits -- diamonds in the rough -- and transform them into quality Big Ten players. Albrecht was a last-minute pickup in the 2012 class and expected to be only a four-year backup. Yet, in the final month or so of the season, Albrecht performed like an above-average Big Ten starting point guard, draining threes and dropping dazzling dimes like this Steve Nash-like behind-the-head pass to Dawkins for a slam in transition. Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman were not recruited by Michigan until last summer after Stauskas and Robinson III decided to bolt for the NBA, and they were not expected to play this season, let alone start. But, by the end of the season, Dawkins was a sharpshooter from the outside and excellent finisher in transition, while Abdur-Rahkman exhibited an ability to attack the rim in the half court and play lockdown defense. Then there is Bielfeldt. He was supposed to be an afterthought on this team as an undersized center, but he exceeded expectations and produced in the end.
And, thanks to a resounding resurgence by Irvin to finish the season, looking like the all-around player that Michigan fans had expected from him all year, the Wolverines seemed like a team that had put it all back together in the Big Ten Tournament. They were hitting on all cylinders, routing Illinois in the second round before falling just short against top seed Wisconsin in the quarterfinals, and I firmly believe that Michigan could have made a run to the Big Ten Tournament championship game if Wisconsin had been on the other side of their bracket. Michigan had become a very dangerous team.
It was because of Beilein that this Michigan team became a threat at the end of the season, but it also was because of him that we weren't able to see what this team could have done with a few more games. While some of that was because of his success in previous seasons that led to players leaving for the NBA, some of it also was because he made the wrong decision in games that resulted in disappointing losses for Michigan. And I cannot give Beilein a high grade in a season when Michigan was ranked in the preseason polls but failed to finish with a winning record or a postseason appearance.
It was a season that highlighted what makes Beilein so great as well as his key flaws.
Like Beilein said, it was very unique. But, with the foundation that he has built with the development we saw at the end of year, it's not a season that should repeat itself soon.
Final Grade: B-