Michigan: Masters of Narrative

Published: Jan 28, 2014 20:43pm EST
By mds2929, Sports Writer for Konsume Sports

Please Note: This article was updated Jan 28, 2014 @ 09:20pm EST


Over the course of the college basketball season, a myriad of teams rise to the top of the national consciousness, whether it be due to massive hype (any team featuring a member of 2013-14's loaded freshman class), surprising excellence (Iowa State/Oregon), stunning upsets (Belmont), disappointing play (half of the Big East 2.0), or a myriad of other factors. However, in less than three months of play, the current #10 team in the land, Michigan, has already seen its season divided into three easily divided acts. Following Saturday's 80-75 victory in East Lansing over in-state rival and then #3 Michigan State, the Wolverines stand alone atop the Big Ten at 7-0 and have recorded three consecutive wins over Top Ten opponents. As UM is feted for their run, the two most important questions are "How did they get here?" and "Is this level of performance sustainable?"

ACT I  - Post-NCAA Tournament Adoration

The thing about retrospect is that while it's easy to be right about results, it's nearly as easy to fall prey to neglecting context. Such is the case when it came to the Wolverines' surprise run to the National Title Game in 2013, which was indeed a surprise and not fait accompli as it may appear to have been.

Despite at one point holding the #1 ranking in the polls and sitting #4 entering the Big Ten conference tournament, Michigan was merely granted a 4-seed in a loaded region headed by Kansas and Florida. Thanks to this brutal road, which included Final Four dates with Syracuse and Louisville following meetings with the aforementioned Jayhawks and Gators, the Wolverines were only favored in one of their final four tourney contests before ultimately falling just short against the Cardinals.

While one could argue that Michigan had been underseeded and that its core of young players would only continue to improve under the tutelage of John Beilein, the squad's #7 rank in the preseason AP poll appeared to ignore the fact that the Wolverines had lost their two most prominent offensive threats to the NBA. To say that Wooden Award winner Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. did yeoman's work for UM would be a massive understatement, as the duo combined to attempt 45% of the team's, FGA 51.1% of its three-pointers, and serve as the two primary ballhandlers.

Burke's early entry should have served as a warning sign for potential after the sophomore earned his national recognition through high-efficiency play (46.3% FG, 38.4% treys, 80.1% FT, 18.6 ppg, 6.7 apg, 1.6 spg, 2.2 TO) coupled with a bevy of shots in huge spots to save the Wolverines' hide, none bigger than the game-tying three-pointer to force Kansas into overtime in the regional semifinal to highlight a huge personal rally back from an abysmal first half en route to a 23-point night.

Even with no clear heir to Burke's throne, voters seemed unbothered as the overload of youth, perhaps none more promising than late-season freshman revelation Mitch McGary, would seem to indicate that Michigan was too big to fail. Out-of-conference play seemed to offer a different opinion.

ACT II - The Storm Before the Calm

After opening the season by rolling over a pair of creampuff opponents (Michigan went 6-0 against its six OOC mid/low-major foes, winning by an average of 33.8 ppg), the Wolverines were dealt their first defeat as the club fell in Ames to a then-underrated Iowa State club. The contest marked the return of McGary from a back injury, with the power forward playing a big roll in the squad's come-from-behind victory over Florida State in the semifinals of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

The championship game, however, was a different story, as UM was stunned by a Charlotte squad that has since freefallen out of at-large contention despite playing in a weakened version of Conference USA.

A loss to Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and a heartbreaker at home vs. Arizona were tough enough to take, but losing McGary in the defeat against the Wildcats looked as though it might be the deathblow. Rather than merely try to rest and rehabilitate, the power forward opted instead for back surgery, taking away the squad's lone true post presence. On a personal note, this sequence of ailments made McGary's surprising, if understandable, choice to return to Ann Arbor look worse in retrospect.

Despite still needing to refine his game after not scoring more than 14 points in a single game until pouring in a total of 46 in consecutive NCAA Tournament over VCU/Kansas, the then-freshman was almost a lock to be a lottery pick in last year's weak NBA Draft. Given that his game strongly resembles that of former Boston College star Bill Curley (which was picked apart in the NBA) and that back woes tend to plague athletes throughout their careers, there exists the chance that McGary's value peaked in March.

Despite three of the team's four losses coming against very strong opponents and the fact that the Wolverines followed up taking Arizona to the wire after McGary's in-game departure by beating Stanford one week later at MSG, the voters were unimpressed. In the span of four weeks, Michigan went from being ranked 7th to 15th to 22th and ultimately falling out poll altogether in early December, a truly precipitous fall for a team that had such high expectations.

Suddenly faced with heading into conference play shorthanded and counted out, the Wolverines' outlook was less about a return to the Final Four and more centered around merely finding a way into the Big Dance. Fortunately for UM, Beilein is on their side.

ACT III - A New Michigan Is Born

It is not unreasonable to hold the opinion that John Beilein may very well be the most underappreciated coaching mind in college basketball. While the majority of press goes to the likes of John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitno, Roy Williams, et al for winning titles at blue blood institutions, Beilein has been a master of reclamation projects.

Two years after taking over an 8-22 Canisius team, the school went 22-7 as MAAC regular season champions and made the NCAA Tournament two years later. Richmond was 13-15 in 1996-97, yet immediately turned things around in posting a 23-8 mark and reaching the Big Dance in Beilein's first year at the school. As for West Virginia, they were little more than the sisters of the poor in the Big East before Beilein's arrival, yet reached the Elite Eight in 2004 and the Sweet Sixteen in 2005 - this despite playing in a power conference without a single future NBA player logging major minutes.

In taking over an oft-dysfunctional program in Ann Arbor in 2007, after Tommy Amaker's ignominious tenure, Beilein needed only two seasons to lead Amaker's players to the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998. With Michigan's national profile rising, so too did the level of its recruits. As a result, Beilein wisely adjusted his offense to the stengths of the team's elite level of personnel, running more pro-style sets to allow Burke to be the primary ballhandler and feeding McGary for back to the basket moves once the freshman emerged.

With McGary out and the Wolverines' other big men more accustomed to playing away from the basket, Beilein did what the great coaches do - adapt. With a club that lacks a true point guard (Spike Albrecht and Derrick Walton, Jr. are high-energy players, but can be exposed over longer stretches of play), but overflowing with solid ballhandling swingmen, Beilein has leaned heavily on the two-guard spread offense that served his similar-sized clubs in Morgantown. Frequently playing lineups with at least four players between 6'5" and 6'8", Michigan's offense has become a slashing, cutting, and three-point launching machine that has taken the Big Ten by storm.

After making a statement by opening conference play by eking out a win at, then-fringy foe, Minnesota, the Wolverines took advantage of a soft trio of games against the bottom of the league before heading into what looked like a gauntlet. What happened next was arguably the best three-game stretch we'll see from any team in the country before the start of the NCAA Tournament, as UM sealed a road stunner over then #3 and 16-1 Wisconsin on Nik Stauskas' step-back three-pointer, built a big lead en route to topping #10 Iowa, and then surging behind a flurry of three-pointers to rally in the aforementioned tilt with Michigan State.

Most of the credit to the team's run has been Stauskas, and for good reason. An off guard by nature, the 6'6" sophomore has taken on the responsibility of being the squad's primary creator in conference play (4.7 apg, 1.4 TO), while raising his scoring efficiency (51.9% FG, 44.4% treys, 19.0 ppg) and heading an improved defense. Stauskas was truly the star during the Wolverines' three wins over said top ten foes, averaging 22.7 ppg, shooting 10-19 from downtown, and committing just 5 turnovers despite sitting for a grand total of eight minutes.

Stauskas hasn't been a one-man band, however, as fellow sophomores Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III have stepped up to become reliable second options. A virtual non-factor as a freshman, LeVert, an athletic wing, has shown remarkable improvement and confidence in his offensive game, tallying a total of 37 pts in the victories over Wisconsin and MSU.

The expectations for Robinson III, son of former Wooden Award winner and NBA All-Star Glenn Robinson, have always been sky high, with the potential future lottery pick often getting slammed last year for lapses in intensity during what, for most, would've been deemed an outstanding freshman season (57.2% FG, 11.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg). However, negative comparisons to UNC's James Michael McAdoo have stopped in 2014, as Robinson III's motor has run consistently, although the forward would be better served if he didn't attempt nearly half of his FGA from downtown (27.9%).

So, where does this leave Michigan going forward?

Are they the squad that struggled to record even one win over a potential NCAA Tournament team OOC or the high-flying juggernaut that has ripped off a 7-0 start in Big Ten? The answer, unsurprisingly, lies in the middle. After riding Burke and Hardaway, Jr. to the nation's #1 adjusted offense in 2012-13, the Wolverines currently sit at #3 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings as of 1/28.

This is particularly remarkable given that UM is averaging more than two more three-point attempts than it did a year ago, good for 44th in the country (21.9) - a fashion more befitting Beilein's 2004/2005 West Virginia teams (50th with 21.2, 4th with 25.3) than last season's national runners-up (96th with 19.8).

While the slash and cut game with a lineup of versatile swingmen is hard to defend, the Wolverines can be susceptible to big opponents who can effectively negate the interior offense and force Michigan to rely on the three-point shot. The other end of floor might be the bigger concern, as UM's 52nd rated adjusted defense is not abysmal, but it does have holes.

Both Wisconsin and Michigan State sans Dawson/Payne were prime matchups for Michigan given those club's reliance on the perimeter game. When the Spartans are at full strength, though, their forwards are capable of attacking the Wolverines' lean frontcourt. Similarly, the homogeny in size in the UM lineup leaves the team vulnerable to point guards who can create off the dribble.

However, Beilein has faced these issues before and with less talented groups than the one he is currently helming. Surrounding Gauntlet Part II in mid-February (at Iowa, at Ohio State, vs. Wisconsin, and vs. Michigan State in a span of fifteen days) are a plethora of opportunities for Michigan to bolster both their hold on the conference and the club's ever-rising NCAA Tournament seed. Come March, it might be wise to heed the lessons learned over the last two decades and not count out a team led by John Beilein, no matter how scary the draw might look.


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