Rob Carr/Getty Images

No. 23 Michigan Wolverines: Reigning runners-up need every bit of Beilein’s brilliance

Leave a comment

Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 23 Michigan.


For the second time in six years, John Beilein will enter a season as college basketball’s reigning national runner-up.

And for the second time in six years, he’ll do so after seeing his best offensive weapons head to the NBA ranks. In 2013, Beilein lost National Player of the Year Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway to the league, and his program didn’t miss a beat. Michigan won 28 games in 2013-14, winning the outright Big Ten regular season title before coming within one Aaron Harrison jumper of getting back to the Final Four.

This year, Beilein will be looking to find a way to replace the production he got from Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson from a team that was, frankly, unlike anything we have seen from Beilein in his career. Beilein’s reputation as an offensive mastermind precedes him. In three of the previous five season, his Michigan team had finished as one of the nation’s top four offenses, according to KenPom.com. But prior to last season, Beilein also had a reputation for being a coach that prioritized small-ball lineups and the offensive side of the ball over defensive stability.

He had never had a team that finished higher than 37th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. Last season, Michigan finished 3rd.

This season, the Wolverines lose their three best offensive weapons from a team that already had question marks on that end of the floor.

Beilein is one of the masterminds of the small-ball movement and the three-point revolution, and he is going to have his work cut out for him this year.

MOREPreseason Top 25 | NBC Sports All-Americans | Preview Schedule

MICHIGAN WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

Defensively, this team should be just as good as they were last season, if not better.

Zavier Simpson is the head of the snake. A pitbull at the point, Simpson is somewhere between Aaron Craft and T.J. McConnell when it comes to setting the tone for his team defensively. He has his flaws as a player — and, trust me, we’ll get into that — but when it comes to leadership, Simpson is at a level that very few players in the country can reach. His communication, his ability to hold teammates accountable, the example that he sets on a day-in, day-out basis, those are things that cannot be taught. Simpson has them, and when combined with his ability to get in the head of opposing point guards, it’s hard to quantify his value to this team.

But believe me, he matters.

Likewise, Charles Matthews also profiles as a talented wing defender. Combine him with Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers and Brandon Johns Jr., and the Wolverines will once again have a roster with more perimeter athleticism than we’re used to seeing out of a John Beilein team. Put another way, Michigan has an elite defender at the point and a wing that should be able to slow down any perimeter player they face. Throw in a couple of athletic, versatile pieces alongside them, and you get a team that is going to be a nightmare to run offense against.

RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games
Charles Matthews (Harry How/Getty Images)

The reason Mo Wagner needed to return to school for his junior season was because of his issues on the defensive end of the floor, and while no one is ever going to confuse him with Anthony Davis, Wagner eventually developed into one of the nation’s best defensive rebounders. Jon Teske and Austin Davis should, in theory, be able to cover that loss — both posted good defensive rebounding numbers in limited minutes — which is important for a Michigan defense that doesn’t force a ton of turnovers or block all that many shots. Their forte is making you take tough shots and ending possessions after one shot.

But the biggest reason I think the Wolverines will once again be an elite defensive unit is that Luke Yaklich is back on staff for his second season. For my money, his addition was the story of Michigan’s 2017-18 season. Yaklich, who spent four years at Illinois State after a long high school coaching career, is Michigan’s defensive coordinator. I detailed how that works and why it was necessary last spring, and that story still holds.

With Yaklich coaching up this personnel, I fully expect the Wolverines to be one of the nation’s top five defenses.

Zavier Simpson (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

BUT MICHIGAN IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

I am just not sold on this team being all that good offensively.

For starters, Michigan was just OK offensively last season. They finished the year ranked 35th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, and they will enter this season having lost their best shooter (Robinson), their best playmaker (Abdur-Rahkman) and the centerpiece of their offense, a 6-foot-11 center that shot 39.2 percent from three and was drafted in the first round (Wagner).

In total, Michigan made 361 threes last season. Those three players made 214 of them, or 59 percent. Michigan’s returning players shot a combined 32.4 percent from beyond the arc last season, a number that would have ranked outside the top 300 in college basketball last season.

We saw what happened when Michigan struggled from beyond the arc during their run to the national title game. Outside of their blowout win over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, when Michigan shot 14-for-24 from beyond the arc, they were 27-for-119 (22.7%) from distance in five NCAA tournament games and finished those five games averaging 0.95 points-per-possession. If it wasn’t for Jordan Poole (ironically) hitting a 30-foot three at the buzzer, they would not have made it out of the first weekend of the tournament, and I think it is fair to point out that they did not play a team seeded higher than No. 6 before losing to Villanova by 17 points in the final.

Should I mention that nine of the 14 threes they made against Texas A&M were made by Wagner, Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson?

When Michigan isn’t shooting the ball well, they aren’t all that good offensively. In three games during a tour of Spain in August, Michigan, as a team, shot just 7-for-40 (17.5%) from three, and only three players made at least one three-pointer.

Their issues, however, go beyond simply being able to make shots from beyond the arc.

Matthews did not take the leap forward that many expected of him. Beilein has thrived with wing players that can operate in ball-screen actions — think Nik Stauskas, or Caris LeVert, or Tim Hardaway Jr. — and it stood to reason that, after spending a year as a redshirt under Beilein’s tutelage, Matthews would find a way to work into a similar role. He was good last season, averaging 13.0 points and 2.4 assists, but he didn’t look anything like a guy that was capable of carrying the water for a Beilein offense.

Neither did Simpson, to be frank. He just was not a guy that could be relied upon to be much of an offensive spark last season. The continued development of those two will be critical for the Wolverines, as will the emergence of Poole and Livers into bigger roles this year. Poole looks like he could be in line for a breakout sophomore season after averaging 6.0 points as a freshman, while Livers is precisely the kind of athletic four-man with three-point range that Beilein has had so much success with in the past.

Ignas Brazdeikis (Cameron Browne, USA Basketball)

THE X-FACTOR

The one guy that I have not yet mentioned is Ignas Brazdeikis, a 6-foot-7 Lithuanian (by way of Canada) freshman that led the Wolverines in scoring and rebounding on their trip to Spain. He’s older than a typical freshman (he’ll turn 20 during the season) and has a build that has, according to The Athletic, forced Michigan’s strength coach to ban him from hitting the bench press. He’s ambidextrous around the rim, he’s a versatile offensive weapon that can play on the wing or at the four, and he has the explosion to finish above the rim.

Freshmen haven’t played a major role for Beilein in recent years, but it should be noted that he won a Big Ten title in 2012 when Burke started at the point as a freshman, and he reached the national title game with Stauskas, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson Jr. all starting as freshman. When a player is good enough to step in and contribute immediately, Beilein has not shied away from letting him, and Brazdeikis may end up being the guy that can do that.

He is likely not going to help this group be a better three-point shooting team — he did not even attempt a three in Spain — but don’t be surprised when he ends up working his way into the starting lineup; I think that leading this team in scoring is in his range of outcomes.

And if Brazdeikis does end up being that good, then Michigan might have the go-to guy they need.

Jordan Poole #2,Isaiah Livers #4 and Zavier Simpson #3 (Elsa/Getty Images)

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The Wolverines are team that I think has both a high floor and a high ceiling heading into the new season.

There is no doubt in my mind that they are going to be one of the best defenses in college basketball. Last year, 17 of the top 18 teams in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric made the NCAA tournament; UCF, who lost their three best players to injury, was the only team that didn’t. Of the team that ranked in the top ten, the only team that didn’t win at least one game in the NCAA tournament was Virginia.

In the 17 seasons that KenPom has data for, no more than two of the top ten teams in his adjusted defensive efficiency metric have missed the NCAA tournament, and only five times in that span has less than 90 percent of the top ten gone dancing.

Odds are pretty good Michigan is headed back to the NCAA tournament.

And, frankly, I think there’s a chance they can get there as Big Ten regular season champions. A lot has to happen — Matthews needs to embrace being a go-to guy; Poole and Livers have to take significant steps forward; Brazdeikis needs to adjust to life in the Big Ten immediately; Simpson needs to lead the charge of improved three-point shooting — but all of those things are, individually, fairly likely to occur.

That’s before you add in the Beilein factor.

Having him as an offensive tactician immediately makes a team better offensively.

I’d put my money on this group likely ending up as a No. 6 or 7 seed with a chance to get to the second weekend because of the way that they can defend, but I wouldn’t put it past Beilein finding a way to get this group to end the year as a top three seed once again.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Duke lands Steward, third commitment in the Class of 2020

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
1 Comment

Duke landed their third commitment in the Class of 2020 on Wednesday, as Chicago shooting guard D.J. Steward pledged to play his college ball for Coach K.

A high-volume scorer and potent shot-maker, the 6-foot-2 Steward visited Duke over the weekend before committing.

“Me and my family were amazed on our official visit, we loved the principals of Duke, and how united Duke is as a basketball program,” Steward told Rivals.com. “At Duke I will be able to get the best of both worlds; education wise and on the court playing on the biggest stage possible night in and night out.

“I will get to chase my goals and be one step closer to achieving my dream of playing in the NBA. Also I will be able to develop as a person off the court and as a ball player while playing under the most winningest coach in history, Coach K.”

Steward joins five-star forward Jalen Johnson and five-star point guard Jeremy Roach in Duke’s 2020 recruiting class. Johnson is the quintessential small-ball four that we have seen arrive in Durham in recent classes, while Roach appears to be the heir apparent to Tre Jones at the point guard spot. Steward should fit in nicely playing off the ball for the Blue Devils, who can always use some excess shot-making.

Duke is far from done here, as they are in the mix for the likes of Walker Kessler, Ziaire Williams and Henry Coleman.

New York senator the latest to propose bill to abolish amateurism

Johnny Nunez/WireImage
2 Comments

A second state now has legislation in the works that would make it legal for college athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness.

Kevin Parker, a New York state senator from Brooklyn, has proposed a bill similar to California’s Fair Pay To Play act, not only giving college athletes the ability to sell their NIL rights but also requiring athletic departments to give a 15 percent share of their annual revenue to the student-athletes. California’s bill, which will go into effect in 2023 if it is signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, would make removing a student-athlete from their scholarship for accepting endorsement money illegal.

“It’s about equity,” Parker told ESPN. “These young people are adding their skill, talent and labor to these universities.

“You don’t need the shortcuts and the end-arounds because now we’re providing some real support for these student-athletes.”

New York joins the growing list of organizations that are pushing back against the NCAA’s rules on amateurism. South Carolina, Maryland, Colorado and Washington have had legislators discuss whether or not to make similar changes to the law, while Congressmen from North Carolina and Connecticut have made pushes at the federal level. Democratic Presidential candidate Anrew Yang has blasted the NCAA over their amateurism rules, while just last week, NBA agents made public the fact that they will be refusing to register for the NCAA’s proposed certification process.

Rick Pitino, Louisville settle lawsuit

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 19: Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals looks on in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 19, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
2 Comments

The University of Louisville and former head coach Rick Pitino have reached a joint agreement to drop their lawsuits against each other.

The two sides “have mutually agreed to dismiss their legal claims against each other, designate his departure as a resignation and move forward,” according to a joint statement that was released by the University and Pitino. Pitino will not be paid any money as a result of this settlement, but he departure will now be classified as a resignation, effective Oct. 3rd, 2017.

Pitino had sued Louisville for somewhere around $40 million.

“For 17 years, Coach Pitino ran a program that combined excellence on the court with a commitment to the program’s student-athletes, their academic achievement, and their futures in and out of basketball,” the state said. “Nevertheless, there were NCAA infractions during his term which led to serious consequences for the university. Although these infractions may not have occurred at Pitino’s direction or with his knowledge, the problems leading to NCAA infractions happened under his leadership. We thank Coach Pitino for his years of service to the University of Louisville basketball program and wish him well.”

“Today I move on to a new chapter in my life,” a statement from Pitino reads. “Against my lawyer’s advice, I’m dropping my lawsuit with ULAA. I am very proud of the many accomplishments my teams achieved at Louisville. I’m so thankful and honored to coach such dedicated athletes. I’m also disappointed in how it ended. But as head coach I am held responsible for the actions of all team members. I still have so much passion for the game and so many goals I want to achieve. From this day forward I start my climb.”

Kentucky lands commitments from two more elite prospects

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

John Calipari is getting his work done early in the 2020 recruiting class, as he added two more commitments over the weekend.

On Thursday, it was Lance Ware, a 6-foot-10 post player from Camden, New Jersey, that announced his commitment. Ware is a top 50 recruit that held offers from the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Miami. The bigger news, however, came on Saturday afternoon, when Terrance Clarke announced that he will be enrolling at Kentucky whenever he ends his high school tenure. Clarke is currently a member of the Class of 2021, but the plan is for him to reclassify and graduate high school this year.

Clarke is a consensus top three player in 2021 – and he may be the No. 1 player in that class, depending on who you ask – and should immediately vault into the top five of the 2020 recruiting class. An athletic, versatile wing that stands 6-foot-6, Clarke is a potential lottery pick given his physical tools and the way that he projects as multi-positional defender with the ability to create off of the dribble. Ware, like Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery before him, projects as the kind of player that will spend 2-3 years in Lexington.

Clarke and Ware join top ten prospect B.J. Boston and another top 50 recruit, Cam’Ron Fletcher, in Kentucky’s 2020 class. That’s three wings in the class with Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Dontaie Allen and Keion Brooks currently on campus. Throw Montgomery into the mix, and that’s eight players that fit somewhere into a lineup as a wing or a face-up big man, and it seems rather unlikely that all five of the guys currently at Kentucky will leave the school this offseason. Put another way, this looks like the end of Kentucky’s pursuit of the likes of Jalen Green and Josh Christopher.

Calipari is still recruiting Cade Cunningham despite the fact that many expect Cunningham to end up at Oklahoma State, where Mike Boynton hired his brother Cannen, but Cade has skyrocketed up the recruiting rankings as he has transitioned to playing the point. Kentucky is still in the mix for a handful of other forwards, including Scottie Barnes, Isaiah Todd and Greg Brown.

Tony Bennett turns down raise, signs contract extension

Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images
6 Comments

Virginia announced that they have signed head coach Tony Bennett to a contract extension, keeping him under contract through the 2025-26 season.

This is not unexpected. He just won the national title. I think he earned a new deal.

What is unique here, however, is that Bennett turned down a raise. He asked for more money for his assistants and for some cash to be put towards improvements in both his program and the other Virginia sports teams, but he passed on getting more money put into his own bank account.

“[My wife] Laurel and I are in a great spot, and in the past I’ve had increases in my contract,” Bennett said in the news release. “We just feel a great peace about where we’re at, all that’s taken place, and how we feel about this athletic department and this community and this school. I love being at UVA.

“… I have more than enough, and if there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire.”

That’s the dream scenario right there, being rich enough to turn down more money.