Michigan Faces A Tough Task In Replacing Coach John Beilein

The outlook for Michigan basketball could not have been much sunnier than in March 2018, as athletic director Warde Manuel watched John Beilein and his Wolverines squad cut down the nets at the Staples Center. 

“He’s a great coach, a great person,” Manuel said in the postgame celebration of Michigan’s 2018 NCAA Tournament West Regional victory in Los Angeles. Manuel continued, saying his son became a Michigan team manager in hopes of getting into either coaching or management, and Manuel couldn’t ask for a better role model than Beilein.

Less than 14 months later, Michigan’s forecast is decidedly less clear. After 12 seasons, nine NCAA Tournaments—including three straight trips to at least the Sweet 16 and a pair of appearances in the national championship game in the last six years—Beilein accepted the coaching vacancy with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Where might Manuel and the rest of the Michigan brass turn? No matter the hire made to replace Beilein, the coach casts a long shadow in Ann Arbor—perhaps longer than any in Wolverines basketball history. 

Michigan isn’t without its hardwood lore. Cazzie Russell is one of the greatest players in college basketball history, and Crisler Arena remains the house that he built. 

But when the Beilein-coached 2012-13 Wolverines reached the national championship game, it ended a 20-year drought between Final Four runs, Michigan’s longest such spell since first advancing to the national semifinals behind Russell in 1964. 

Blue didn’t have to wait long for the next Final Four and national title game, with the 2017-18 team parlaying its West Regional championship into a semifinal defeat of Loyola Chicago. 

The 2018 tournament continued the magic of an improbable 2017, when—after an airplane scare—Beilein’s team won four memorable contests to claim the Big Ten Tournament championship. From there, Michigan avenged its 2013 title-game loss to Louisville in the second round, and only missed an Elite Eight appearance by virtue of an unfavorable bounce on a rebound versus Oregon.     

Each Michigan team from 2013 through Beilein’s final, 2019 squad speak to the difficulty in replacing a coach of his caliber. Manuel and Co. need a coach who, as Charles Matthews put it last March at the NCAA Tournament West Regional, is “an offensive guru.” 

“He has offensive schemes and concepts that we can continue to grow on,” Matthews said. 

With outstanding stretch-four Moritz Wagner on the 2017-18 roster, as well as sharp-shooting guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Michigan advanced to the Final Four in part on the strength of its 3-point shooting. 

The Sweet 16 team of 2018-19 had its share of shooters, like Zavier Simpsons and Jordan Poole, but the Wolverines relied less on 3-pointers. Beilein instead focused on ball control, and Michigan responded with the nation’s fifth-lowest turnover percentage, per KenPom.com. 

Beilein’s successful teams employed offensive styles not adherent to the coach’s blueprint, but rather molded to the complexion of the roster. This approach wasn’t exclusive to his Michigan tenure, either, as evidenced in West Virginia improving its offensive efficiency ranking by 95 in Beilein’s first three seasons.

West Virginia’s unlikely Elite Eight team in 2004-05 was a volume 3-point shooting squad before it was a widespread trend. Kevin Pittsnogle, Tyrone Salley, Patrick Beilein (John Beilein’s son and the new head coach at Niagara), and Mike Gansey (who helped make the Cavaliers deal possible) all attempted 127 or more from outside, and the Mountaineers ranked seventh nationally in the percent of its offense dedicated to the long ball. 

Juxtapose that with the 2012-13 national runner-up team, which was a modest No. 144 in the nation in its distribution of 3-point offense. An offense effective with dribble-drive penetration instead powered the Wolverines deep into the dance, and to No. 1 in the nation for adjusted offensive efficiency.  

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Beilein said at the 2018 West Regional. “When I was a Division II coach [at Le Moyne University] some 35, 30 years ago, the 3-point shot came in. We weren't blessed with great athletes, but we had to find another way to win. I had four children to feed and had to find other ways to win.”

The offensive innovation is certainly one career-long facet of Beilein’s approach his successor will be hard-pressed to replicate. Another that took shape in the latter half of his tenure at Michigan was the ability to pinpoint recruits with NBA potential and help them develop it. 

Nine Wolverines from the Beilein era graced NBA rosters in 2018-19, and all but one were drafted in 2013 and on. Some were apparent future pros as prep recruits, like four-star prospects Wagner and Trey Burke. But Michigan’s next head coach takes over for a staff that succeeded, too, in preparing hidden gems for the next level. 

Caris Levert, a key role player in the Brooklyn Nets surprise run to the NBA Playoffs, was a three-star prospect; as was Dallas Mavericks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. Duncan Robinson played 15 games with the Miami Heat this season, a remarkable milestone in a career that saw him walk-on at Michigan after one season with Division III Williams College. 

Cultivating NBA potential from unlikely places likely played a part in landing Beilein a pro coaching job. It also helped establish Michigan as an attractive destination for future pros who both wanted to reach the NBA and win in college. 

While the production of NBA talent picked up gear in the later stages of his college coaching career, one trait of Beilein-coached teams that followed everywhere he went was the defensive intensity his successor will be expected to maintain. 

This past season’s Michigan team ranked No. 2 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency; only national runner-up Texas Tech was better. 

Times change, and offenses change almost as frequently, as evidenced by Beilein’s own team. No matter the trends or the program, his squads answered the challenge on the defensive side. 

At the University of Richmond, Beilein won the 1997-98 Colonial Athletic Association championship en route to the second NCAA Tournament of his career. The Spiders held opponents to 61.8 points per game, 12th-best in college basketball that season. 

Two decades later, Michigan reached the national championship game with the nation’s No. 3 adjusted efficiency defense. The Wolverines next coach inherits an expectation that’s become one of the program’s defining qualities for recruits. 

“I knew the defense was going to be intense once I got here, and [assistant] coach [Luke Yaklich] let me know that if you are not ready to play defense you're not going to play,” 2018-19 freshman Ignas Brazdeikis said. “I was ready for that environment and toughness on the defensive end.”

Ann Arbor hasn’t had an impression left like Beilein’s since Bo Schembechler ended his legendary football coaching career in 1989. Thirty years later, Schembechler still casts a shadow. The hope in finding a Beilein successor is for a sunnier forecast in his wake.

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