Michigan fans wanted to fire John Beilein as recently as last year. Like, badly.
The Wolverines opened the 2016-17 Big Ten season losing four of their first six in-conference games. They were 12-7 overall in mid-January, well off where they had been at that point during the season before, which ultimately ended in a first-round NCAA tournament ousting. The year before that, they were also 12-7, before finishing 16-16 and missing the Big Dance altogether.
In context it made sense Michigan fans were lighting message boards saying things like “the team has lacked intensity and grit for far too long,” and predicting the end of NCAA tournament runs past the Sweet 16 unless a change was made. The team had been mired in injuries and bad defense for more than two years. Never mind that Michigan had gone to a national title game and chased it with an Elite Eight appearance under Beilein, too. Mediocrity had gotten to feel like the new normal in Ann Arbor.
So yeah, on one hand it’s easy to understand where the “Fire Beilein” folk were coming from. On the other hand — Ahahaha! Get a load of those goobers now. Michigan went on to win the 2017 Big Ten tournament after a getting in a plane crash, then they went to the Sweet 16 as a No. 7-seed after upsetting two-seed Louisville. This year, they won another Big Ten tournament title and they’re in the Final Four, with 11-seed Loyola-Chicago standing in the way of Beilein’s second title game appearance in six years.
Now Michigan fans are offering up mea culpas, though it’s not like Beilein has ever needed them. This year’s Michigan team has looked roughly like the vision of Beilein teams in the past. The Wolverines space the floor well with scorers, and they don’t turn the ball over. The bigs can shoot and the guards can penetrate and feel confident guarding anyone. When they’re at their offensive best, like they were against Texas A&M last weekend, they can seemingly take whatever they want from a defense. Michigan put up 99 points against Kenpom’s No. 13 efficiency defense on 61.9 percent shooting, making roughly 64 percent of theirs twos and 58 percent of their threes.
The fact Michigan can fill it up isn’t what makes it special, however. By Kenpom, they’re a solid 31st in offensive efficiency, but that’s actually the team’s second-worst mark since 2011 (only that 16-16 team was worse). Relative to past Michigan teams, this edition isn’t great from deep, and it has a very real Achilles heel in free throws, ranking 321st out of 351 teams at 66 percent from the stripe.
In fact, among Michigan’s four NCAA tournament games, that A&M game was a blip. In the three others, the Wolverines shot a combined 39 percent from the field, and 25 percent from three. Moe Wagner, Michigan’s season leading scorer and conference tournament star, has been erratic offensively. Against Florida State in the Elite Eight, he was 0-for-7 from three-point range, contributing to he a 4-for-22 team effort, and the Wolverines nearly blew its lead late by missing four of its last six free-throw attempts — two on the front of one-and-ones (which makes Florida State’s decision not to foul late all the more odd, but alas).
Here’s how Michigan has evolved under Beilein. The Wolverines have been impeccable defensively since late in the season, climbing up to No. 4 in Kenpom’s defensive efficency ratings. Their previous high under Beilein was 37th in 2011 and 2013, and normally they reside somewhere between 60th and 100th as a team that rarely presses and often lacks athleticism in the post. Yet for this tournament, opponents are shooting just 38 percent against Michigan with just 34 assists to 49 turnovers.
The reason for the uptick is multifaceted, but starts with Beilein admitting that, yes, something was wrong. After the 2016 season, he essentially delegated defensive coaching responsibility to assistant coach Billy Donlon, and then Luke Yaklich this season after Donlon was hired by Northwestern. After Selection Sunday, Beilein confessed to the Associated Press that his eye isn’t trained for defense.
“My eye draws to offense all the time,” he told the AP. “Even if we have our first team practicing against our second team, I look at offense both ways. I don’t see certain things.”
Beilein also said that, even at 65, “I have changed like the wind.” The best example of that may be the decision to make sophomore Zavier Simpson his primary point guard after playing him in a platoon early in the season. Simpson isn’t a typical Beilein point guard in one important facet: He can’t shoot. At just over 30 percent for the season from three and a moribund 51 percent from the free throw-line, you can understand why he wasn’t given the reins immediately. In all other ways, however, Simpson is the Beilein prototype — undersized but pugnacious, and fearless towards the rim much like last year’s super-senior Derrick Walton, and former National College Player of the Year Trey Burke before him.
Most importantly, Simpson is an unrelenting defender. For the last three weeks, he has been perhaps Michigan’s most important player for the way he has shut down opposing point guards and the point of attack. In the second round, he held Houston’s Rob Gray, who had 39 points in a round-one game against San Diego State, to 8-for-22 shooting. Texas A&M point guard T.J. Starks dubbed himself “unguardable” before Simpson held him to 2-for-11 and five points. And on Saturday night, Florida State’s dual point guards C.J. Walker and Trent Forrest went a combined 1-for-9 with five turnovers.
And, my God, there’s still so much more to say about this Michigan team here. We haven’t even gotten to Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the West region in large part thanks to a heroic 17-point performance against Florida State when every one of his teammates couldn’t find the net. Nor have we mentioned Jordan Poole, the bushy-haired, short-shorted freshman with an overdose of swag who hit a time-expiring three-pointer to beat Houston. There’s a lot to cover, as there ought to be for any team that has just earned its banner in the rafters and may soon be playing for its first national title in nearly 30 years.
For now, let’s think back to January 2017, to that time when so many fans were ready to say goodbye to the first coach to take Michigan back to a championship game since the Fab Five, and what we know about Beilein now — the way he held firm to some principles and the way he let go of others, the patience and humility that took, and the way that, this time as in the past, his players have been able to play up to their exact capabilities at the perfect time of year.
No, Beilein teams don’t just win in March, and this won’t last forever. We’re probably too quick to deify coaches based on this one silly month, and nor should the way we view a coach swing because of one bad season or tournament (i.e., if you want hate on Tom Izzo, pick something that matters). Overreaction to a bad season-and-a-half-ish of basketball almost cost Michigan one of the best coaches in the game.
And by the way, Michigan will almost certainly have an off year or two again, regardless of what happens in San Antonio. That’s just what tends to happen when your talent is annually of the three- and four-star variety, not four and five. We’ve seen Beilein at Michigan long enough to know a few things to be certain, however: 1) Beilein is absolutely one of college basketball’s dorkiest coach-dads, 2) Players will develop under him as well as they would at any school in the country, and 3) Michigan may or may not make another Final Four before he retires, but it’d be stupid to bet against him.
The lesson is never assume anything, like that if something isn’t working, that means it needs fixing. Patience is boring is hell, but as Beilein and Michigan could tell you it does wonders for healing. If you ever need a reminder, don’t worry — just wait, it’ll come to you.