staff, October 30, 2013

Last year Michigan started and finished the season on a red-hot streak, going 18-1 against teams from other conferences.

This year, the team will be without its star point guard, but there's still plenty of talent in Ann Arbor.

2013 Record: 31-8 (12-6)
Conference Offensive Efficiency: 1.12 (2nd)
Conference Defensive Efficiency: 1.02 (6th)
Percentage of Conference Minutes Returning: 64
Percentage of Conference Minutes Played by Returning Freshmen: 53

Why is John Beilein still the coach at Michigan? I know that seems like a silly question, but consider that over his first four seasons, Beilein went 67-67, and amassed a conference record of 30-42. Over his last four seasons, Beilein?s predecessor, Tommy Amaker, went 80-53 (28-36). And although Beilein?s now making a habit of landing top-50 players, this wasn?t happening in 2010. To that point, the only consensus top-100 recruit that Beilein had landed was Evan Smotrycz (RSCI #80). And to make matters worse, the supposed offensive guru had yet to put together an offense that ranked better than 6th in conference play.

To anyone looking at the on-paper results, Beilein Ball was a failure through those seasons. Three years later, the team is playing for the National Championship. That?s certainly a heck of a turnaround. But is the bigger miracle that Beilein not only kept his job, but signed a contract extension in 2010?

Before you say ?four years isn?t long enough,? consider some other coaching changes in recent years.

  • Trent Johnson, LSU, fired abruptly resigned (leaving a not-so-heartbroken athletic director) after four seasons (67-62, 25-39)
  • Kevin O?Neil, USC, fired after three and a half seasons (45-61, 19-35)
  • John Pelphrey, Arkansas, fired after four seasons (69-59, 25-39)
  • Dino Gaudio, Wake Forest, fired after three seasons (61-31, 27-21)

These guys were all purportedly let go because of lackluster on-court results. You can make the argument that Beilein?s results might have been a bit better than a couple of them (certainly not Gaudio, however), but not by an appreciable amount. Also not included on this list are coaches that got even less time than that, such as Keno Davis and Todd Lickliter. Sure, their performances were a standard deviation or so lower, but the point is that the maxim that a coach must receive more than four years to prove his worth is simply not true.

Of course, Beilein has since rewarded Athletic Director David Brandon?s faith in him, and earned himself another extension after last year?s highly successful campaign. And there?s no reason to believe that Beilein won?t make good on that, even this season. Sure, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. are gone. But there?s still a lot of reasons to be optimistic.

First, no one in the Big Ten returns more freshman minutes than Michigan does. Glenn Robinson, III and Mitch McGary eschewed the NBA?s siren call, and both figure to be prominently featured this season, along with classmate Nik Stauskas. If there is a downside to having so many talented sophomores back, it?s that we?ve already seen this group perform at a very high level, and that there might not be much more they can deliver. But I don?t really believe that. For all their impressive efficiency, the trio mostly functioned as complimentary players. Expect usages to go up this season, with sophomore leap potential revealing itself in the form of retained efficiency. And while I expect that group to lead the team, they won?t be carrying the load alone. Beilein welcomes another outstanding freshman class this season, and it might be the pièce de résistance of Beilein classes. It features two top-50 players (Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton), both of whom torpedoed up the rankings well after Beilein had locked them up.

The concerns about this group are familiar. As great as last year?s Michigan team was, it was merely an average defensive unit (6th in the Big Ten on a per possession basis). Arguably, the losses of Burke and Hardaway constitute addition by subtraction in that particular facet, although the freshmen stepping into their minutes are not likely to be plus defenders because that?s not something one typically sees from freshmen guards (even those ranked in the top 50). Really, the only plus defenders on the roster are the trio of McGary, Jordan Morgan, and Jon Horford. But only one of those is likely to be on the floor at any given time (I don?t really buy the talk that McGary is going to play the four this season), so the impact will be limited.

The bottom line is that Michigan should again expect to be among the Big Ten title contenders this season, though this is one of the more unstable predictions we?ll make. That?s largely because of Michigan?s youth. While the team is talented, the quantities are less known. The floor is lower than, say, Michigan State, but the ceiling is probably higher as well.