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

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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.

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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

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.