Five years ago, the University of Michigan basketball program was going through some changes after a dark period in which the Wolverines failed to make an NCAA Tournament field for more than 10 years. Tommy Amaker did his best in six seasons leading the team, but he never seemed to get the program over the hump, only finding his team nationally-ranked twice, and never in the top 20. Michigan was simply irrelevant nationally and hardly competitive in their own conference.
As the 2006-07 season ended in yet another missed Tournament, Bill Martin had a big decision to make at the top. He could either retain Amaker and give him one last shot, considering the heralded recruiting class he had signed that season, or he could cut ties once and for all and start over with a new head coach.
Many, including I, wanted to see Amaker get that final audition; a class of Alex Legion, Manny Harris, and Kelvin Grady was one of the best Michigan had seen in years and figured to at least get Michigan out of the Big Dance funk, away from the NIT for good. Martin, however, in one of his final significant acts as the Athletic Director at Michigan, decided to move in another direction, hiring John Beilein away from West Virginia.
Like most major decisions having to do with sports, Beilein’s hiring was questioned by many, accepted by some, and heralded by few. He was seen as a coach that made the most of lesser talent, a guy that couldn’t recruit at the level necessary to compete on the national stage. The common wisdom was that his three-point-heavy offense was less intricate than it was fluky – sure, it would win some games when the team was hot, but it would never be consistent enough to win a conference title or to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, Beilein’s Elite Eight run at West Virginia was seemingly shadowed by the fact that he failed to guide his Mountaineer team to the NCAA Tournament in his final season in Morgantown.
For the first year, Beilein’s critics were out in full force as Michigan stumbled its way to a 10-22 overall record, including an abysmal 5-13 mark in Big Ten games. The season included a more-than fair share of blowout losses, an embarrassing six-game losing streak in the middle of the conference season, and defeats at the hands of Central Michigan, Western Kentucky, and, worst of all, Harvard, who had just hired Amaker after he packed his bags and headed out of Ann Arbor. Beilein was able to convince Harris and Grady to stick with their commitments and don the Maize and Blue, but he was unable to retain Legion, the once five-star talent. The future did not look bright.
The following season, Beilein brought in his first recruiting class at Michigan, a class that may have been the lowest-ranked in the history of Michigan basketball. It featured 7’0” big man Ben Cronin, who ended up flaming out because of injuries, along with Stuart Douglass and Zack Novak, both no-names out of Indiana that were far from recruiting coups for Beilein. Douglass was reportedly considering Harvard before Michigan came calling, while Novak’s well-publicized story saw his Valparaiso offer pulled. His decision was likely to come down to walking onto the baseball team at Indiana and pleading to get a shot on the basketball court or suiting up at the Division II level somewhere, until once again Beilein saw something in him that no one else did.
Needless to say, there was not a lot of hype for the Wolverines going into Beilein’s second season. Manny Harris would return after leading the team in scoring his freshman season alongside fellow Detroiter DeShawn Sims, who was starting to emerge as another scorer on the team, but it was quite evident that Beilein still did not have the personnel that he needed to operate his system most effectively.
Then something funny happened. In a game that was hardly talked about at all beforehand, Michigan upset No. 4 UCLA at Madison Square Garden before losing to Duke the following night in the finals of the 2K Sports Classic. Perhaps Beilein truly did have something that no one else new about quite yet.
Just two weeks later, Michigan welcomed the Blue Devils to Crisler Arena and shocked them to the tune of an 81-73 upset, the second win for Beilein over the No. 4 team in the country in fewer than three weeks. The Wolverines experienced their fair share of bumps in the road the rest of the season, but when it was all said and done, Beilein had brought Michigan back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 seasons, and much sooner than anyone had predicted. A first-round win over Clemson was just icing on the cake.
Finally, after being out of the spotlight for years and years, Michigan was back, ranked 15th in the country entering John Beilein’s third year. Recruiting had started to pick up slowly as well, with Beilein securing a commitment from four-star Californian point guard Darius Morris and a trio of three stars in Jordan Morgan, Blake McLimans, and Matt Vogrich. At least this time around about half the class had options besides Michigan.
There was only one problem – leadership. Michigan got off to a terrible start, losing five games before Big Ten season even began, and simply looked lost. They had the talent to compete, but the players didn’t play together, and at times, they didn’t seem to care. By the middle of Big Ten season Michigan was all but out of it, and a halfcourt dagger from Evan Turner in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament ended any shot the Wolverines once had of playing in any postseason tournament. The No. 15 team in the country going into the season ended the year with only 15 wins and a losing record. Beilein’s job was far from safe just a year after people were praising him for a quick turnaround.
Something had to change in the next offseason or the Michigan basketball program was in serious danger of reverting to the dark ages. That something was leadership. Sims graduated and Harris followed him out the door, meaning Beilein’s team would probably have to rely on his system to out-perform expectations yet again.
There is no doubt that Sims and Harris laid the foundation for the turnaround, but perhaps their departure came at the right time, as Novak took the team into his hands and led the way as Darius Morris bloomed into an All-Big Ten talent at point guard, leading the team in scoring and assists. Meanwhile, Tim Hardaway, Jr., though not highly-recruited, was another Beilein player making an impact, scoring double digits his freshman year. Jon Horford and Evan Smotrycz, a four-star, 6’9” shooter joined Hardaway as late bloomers that Beilein banked on turning into serviceable players on the biggest stage. The trend was starting to become clear: Beilein still couldn’t recruit with the big boys, but by getting guys that flew under the radar and fit his system, success was within reach.
The 2010-11 season was a success indeed, as the Wolverines got back on track after a scare at the beginning of Big Ten season in which Michigan lost six straight and was in danger of reeling out of control. The game that could have been the seventh loss in a row instead turned out to be the signature win of the Beilein era to date, as his struggling squad went into East Lansing and shocked Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans. The win got the team in the groove, and only a two-point, last-second loss to Duke in the third round of the NCAA Tournament kept Michigan from reaching the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in well over a decade.
The following offseason there was further concern, as Morris bolted for the NBA, but as everyone knows by now, a relatively unknown freshman point guard by the name of Trey Burke did his best to make everyone forget about that last season. Another successful season last year ended in a disappointing second-round loss to Ohio in the NCAA Tournament, but at this point it is clear that Beilein finally has a team full of his players, a team that he and most others feel can compete and win at the highest level. The Wolverines shared the Big Ten title for the first time in more than 20 years, a huge accomplishment for everyone involved, but perhaps even more is expected now.
Novak and Douglass were the heart of the Michigan team last season, and while their numbers didn’t jump off the page, one only needs to think back to that dubious 2009-10 season to realize that leadership will be one of the focal points early on in this season. Josh Bartelstein will be asked to lead as captain of the team off the court, but Beilein welcomes a bevy of talent in the form of both veterans and newbies, enough to see experts pegging the Wolverines in the top five teams in the country.
Without a doubt, this is unchartered territory for John Beilein, and while Ann Arbor has seen basketball teams that were thought of this highly in the past, it’s been at least 15 long years of suffering since that was the case. Looking over the past five seasons, this team has been on a roller coaster ride, but things have been looking up for three years straight. Beilein has silenced many of his doubters by continuing to eye top-level talent that goes under the radar (Glenn Robinson III), and more surprisingly, he has now shown that he is able to compete with the big boys on the recruiting trail now, grabbing the likes of Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas away from Kansas, Kentucky, Florida, and Kentucky.
The time for Beilein to show that he can bring a highly-regarded team to the promised land has come. If the Wolverines are to compete for Final Fours and National Championships into the future, they need to show this season that they can live up to lofty expectations. The talent is here, and Beilein has depth, size, and versatility in amounts he could have never imagined only two seasons ago. An All-American will run the team on the court, a seasoned junior will shoulder much of the scoring load, and two star freshmen should be ready to make an immediate impact. Will this team realize its potential and reach Atlanta in March, or will it all come crumbling down as it did three long years ago? No one knows for sure yet, and there will certainly be bumps in the road again. But for Michigan basketball, the time is now.
Big Ten Finish:
Newcomer of the Year: