For the second year in a row, John Beilein has a new coaching staff.
by Craig Ross
From the December, 2017 issue
Last year, the U-M men's basketball coach had an experienced team but two new assistant coaches. This year, he's got an inexperienced team--and two more new assistants.
Last year, after LaVall Jordan and Bacari Alexander took head jobs, Beilein brought in young guys, Saddi Washington (from Oakland U) and Billy Donlon, recently fired as head coach at Wright State. Michigan had been a disappointing defensive team in 2015-16 and Beilein (only partially in jest) dubbed Donlon U-M's new "defensive coordinator."
With Donlon came a new defensive system: last season, Michigan worked hard to run shooters off the 3-point line.
Three-point shots tend to the random. The ball goes in. Or it doesn't. There is no evidence that defense plays much of a role in the equation. Defenders can limit the number of threes an opponent takes but the Wolverines weren't doing that. In 2015-16, Michigan was #218 in the country in allowing threes.
That changed dramatically with Donlon's arrival. Last year, the Wolverines were ninth in three-pointers allowed divided by all shots taken.
Midway through the season the strategy seemed jinxed. While Michigan was dramatically limiting the number of threes, they were nearly last in the country in three-point percentage allowed. After a mediocre Ohio State team beat U-M at home, the Wolverines stood at 14-9 (5-6 in the Big Ten) with talented Michigan State coming to Crisler and the most challenging part of their schedule looming.
But the Wolverines completely waxed MSU, leading by 30 at half and holding the margin to the end. With three-point randomness drifting back in their favor, the Wolverines ran out to win ten of their last twelve games, losing one in overtime and another at the buzzer. Then they won the Big Ten tournament, demolishing top-twenty Wisconsin in the final.
In the NCAAs Michigan edged a good Oklahoma State team and then number-two seed Louisville to face Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen. Michigan was up 68-65 against the Ducks with two minutes
left but twice failed to box out shooters in the waning moments. The Wolverines were down 69-68 with the ball in Derek Walton's hands on the last possession. Walton had made big shot after big shot since mid-season and, in a complete melt down, Oregon left Walton alone for an uncontested three. It barely missed, rolling off the rim as time expired. Oregon went on to beat Kansas and then lost by a point in the Final Four to national champion North Carolina.
There was a lot of speculation, postseason, that Donlon might be in Ann Arbor for a long time, that he might even be the heir apparent when Beilein hangs it up. Instead, Donlon made a sideways move to Northwestern, where his good friend Chris Collins is the head coach. Long-time Beilein assistant Jeff Meyer also left, to coach with LaVall Jordan at Butler.
This time Beilein turned to Illinois State for his new staff, hiring away Luke Yaklich and DeAndre Haynes from the Redbirds. Haynes will work with the guards. Yaklich will become Beilein's new de facto "defensive coordinator."
Under Yaklich, the Redbirds' defense dominated, but with a strategy very different from what worked for Michigan last year. While the Wolverines defended the three, ISU defended the interior like demons, and took their chances from distance. One big unknown for this season is how Beilein and Yaklich will mesh their defensive models.
The other is how a young team will come together. The Wolverines lost their top two scorers and three of their four primary offensive weapons from last year. Only three players with significant experience return from last year: forward Duncan Robinson, guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and center/power forward Mo Wagner. Mo's offensive skills are profound, but as talented as he is on offense, he struggles on defense. Fortunately, small forward Charles Matthews, who transferred from Kentucky, is finally eligible to play for Michigan. He's an off-the-charts athlete who should be a defensive stopper for the Wolverines.
"There were moments in practice when we could not stop Charles," Beilein says. "He hunts shots. He hunts defense. He is not just playing, he is hunting."
With his returning players taking on more profound roles, and nine new guys to integrate, the season is impossible to predict. A potential star is rising, but synergy in basketball is more important than individual talent. Fifth in the Big Ten seems about right. But it could be third, or ninth.
[Originally published in December, 2017.]
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