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What John Beilein’s Exit Says About College Basketball

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Looking at the big picture, it’s not great for the sport

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Michigan vs Texas Tech Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan and College Basketball worlds have been buzzing today with the news that John Beilein is taking his talents south to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers. While most Michigan fans are primarily concerned about who’s next, what happens to the current batch of recruits, and where the future of Michigan’s program lies. But there’s a bigger story here, though it’s one we’re going to be careful to make a judgement on.

Dana O’Neil at The Athletic wrote a wonderful story on Beilein and the ramifications of his departure. She’s taking the same high-altitude view that we’re taking here. Her article leads off with an introduction that is impactful to say the least:

I made one call upon learning that John Beilein had taken the Cleveland Cavaliers’ job, phoning a coach I knew would cut out the BS and get straight to the heart of it. “When John Beilein goes to the NBA, it tells you how fucked up college basketball is,’’ he told me, after asking that I not share his identity.

No one is saying Beilein ran away from Michigan to escape the stench and debacle that is college basketball (unless Beilein says that)... But unless the rose-colored glasses are working overtime, it is impossible not to view this as anything less than seriously bad news for college hoops.

I’ve highlighted what I think are the two biggest things to think about as it comes to Beilein and the current college basketball landscape. The NCAA and college coaches have brought the game to a possible breaking point. An overinflated rule book designed to close loopholes before they can even be found has met a worth adversary in a group of coaches that have made the game behind the game more Machiavellian than ever before.

One needs only to look at the FBI investigations, the constant changing of draft rules, and whatever the hell is going on at Arizona. Making matters more complicated is one of the game’s most revered coaches getting automatic and mostly unfair access to recruits and resources as one of the top dogs within USA basketball. Without editorializing too much, college basketball is in difficult and uncharted territory.

Beilein was a rock. In 2017, CBS ran a poll where they asked college coaches who they believed ran the cleanest programs. For the question, “Who is the high-major coach you genuinely believe does everything by the book and operates completely within the NCAA’s rulebook”, Beilein was an overwhelming winner taking home 26.6% of the vote. Notre Dame’s Mike Brey was the only other coach to receive double digit percentages. He got 10.5%.

Here’s one of the quotes that sticks out:

“Personally, we’ve gone up against him [in recruiting] ... and there’s never been any issues. You go head-to-head with some of these guys, and you know what’s going on. ... But nothing has popped up that’s even been in the gray area [with Michigan].”

Tying things together as bluntly as possible, it appears that Michigan’s style of recruiting and “relationship building” may not jive in complete sync with where the game is and where it is going.

Could that have been the catalyst that got the 66-year-old coach to finally pack up and move on? Recent flirtations with the NBA indicate the pro game has sat in Beilein’s headspace for some time, but he’s never made the jump: even when that jump only required a 30-minute move and a chance to coach one of the league’s best front courts.

But things are different now than they were when Beilein interviewed with the Pistons. After a spectacular start to the season, Michigan struggled some down the stretch culminating in a collapsing loss to Sparty in the B1G Championship Game and a drubbing defeat at the hands of Texas Tech in the Sweet 16.

Slow finishes to the year led many to believe that Jordan Poole and Ignas Brazdeikis would likely return to school after testing the NBA waters. Due to new rules, the Michigan coach would have to wait longer than usual to know what his roster would look like, but the expectation was that at least one would return - neither did.

Michigan will enter the 2019-2020 season having to replace its three most reliable scorers. Like the NCAA, the Wolverines program is at a bit of a cross roads. Jon Beilein decided it was time to move on. Until he says why, we may not get the full picture. However while it may not be an indictment on the game, it’s hard to find a silver lining for college basketball.