How John Beilein Must Adjust to Keep Michigan at Elite Level

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How John Beilein Must Adjust to Keep Michigan at Elite Level
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The 2013-14 Michigan Wolverines are expected to return all but two players from a team that finished 20 minutes short of a national title. At least two of those returning players—Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III—are projected as potential first-round picks in this year's NBA draft.

You could argue, based on those facts alone, that no program in the country will carry more talent from this season to next than John Beilein's Wolverines, and that's without factoring in the nation's 13th-ranked recruiting class (per ESPN).

Indeed, there is ample reason to anticipate continued success in Ann Arbor, both next year and long term.

 

But while Michigan's 2013-14 roster may look similar to the one it had last year—especially by modern, high-major standards—its style of play will undergo a major transformation.

The departure of starting guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.—the team's first and second leading scorers—forces Beilein to shift from a guard-heavy offense that emphasized floor-spacing to one that will likely feature three starting forwards and a shooting guard, Nik Stauskas, listed at 6'6".

Therein lies the concern with next season's Wolverines, a team with talented, proven players who will have to be deployed in noticeably different ways.

Replacing Burke, the consensus national player of the year, is Beilein's most obvious challenge.

Last season, when Burke was on the floor, 29 percent of Michigan's possessions resulted in the star point guard either making a shot, missing a shot that wasn't rebounded by his team or turning the ball over. Only Penn State's D.J. Newbill had a higher usage percentage among Big Ten players.

And that stat doesn't account for all the times Burke handled the ball for the majority of an offensive set before kicking it to an open teammate.

Typically, teams aren't able to recreate or mimic the role of such high-usage players after they depart and instead have to democratize.

Here's a list of the Big Ten players over the last five years who, like Burke, used at least 29 percent of their teams' possessions and averaged more than 32 minutes per game during their final season with the program (Burke averaged 35.3 a contest).

Year Player Team Possession Percentage
2008 Eric Gordon Indiana 29.9
2010 Evan Turner Ohio State 34.7
2010 Manny Harris Michigan 30.3
2011 Darius Morris Michigan 29.3
2011 Jon Leuer Wisconsin 29.3
2012 Bo Spencer Nebraska 29.0

Pretty select group, huh?

Now let's look at how those teams distributed their possessions the year after those players left.

Year Team Highest Usage Percentage Change From Year Prior
2009 Indiana 26.7 -3.2
2011 Ohio State 27.0 -7.7
2011 Michigan 29.3 -1.0
2012 Michigan 26.8 -2.5
2013 Wisconsin 26.5 -2.8
2013 Nebraska 26.2 -2.8

What we have here is a classic illustration of regression to the mean. Ball-dominant, heavy-usage talents like Trey Burke are rare. In order to adjust for the loss of such players, teams generally become more equitable with the distribution of touches and shots.

Why? Because there usually isn't an equivalent talent waiting in the wings.

Michigan faces an even greater challenge since Tim Hardaway Jr., the team's second-highest usage player, is also headed to the NBA draft.

Beilein will probably use some combination of rising sophomore Spike Albrecht and incoming freshman Derrick Walton to man the point guard spot. Sophomores Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert are both capable of playing shooting guard in Hardaway's absence. So too is star recruit Zak Irvin.

But we know, both from logic and precedent, that none of those players will replicate the production of the stars they've been asked to replace. Instead, Michigan will shift the focus of its offense to two returning starters:  Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. And both will have to change their respective games to accommodate the shift.

Let's start with Robinson III.

As a freshman, the bouncy 6'6" wing played a sort of modified power forward position in Beilein's spread-out attack. He thrived in that role, using his athleticism to make rim runs and attack the open space created by Burke's penetration. Robinson III finished the season with a team-high 128.4 offensive efficiency rating, a mark that reflected both his talent and the relative simplicity of his role.

Robinson III won't have the luxury of playing off Burke next season, and he'll be asked to create more individual offense as he takes on greater scoring duties. It'll be a difficult transition, but he has the talent to make it work.

The big-picture idea is to have Robinson III play a more traditional small forward position. Player and coach have both publicly acknowledged the impending shift, and Robinson III recently told the Detroit News that he began prepping for his position change during the end of the just-finished 2012-13 season.

We've been doing skill development and I've been working with coach Jordan with guard stuff — handling the ball, shooting and coming off ball screens. I need to improve in all those areas, becoming more of an overall player along with keeping the things I did this year like rebounding and hustle plays.

(The forwards) are both guards in coach Beilein's offense. The (small forward) has more ball screen and more action involved in it. Hopefully, my skill development will allow me to play that position.

During his debut campaign, Robinson III showed promise as a perimeter shooter, connecting on 32.4 percent of his 71 three-point attempts. As the above quote suggests, Robinson III will likely shoot more as a sophomore, and he'll be asked to do it within the movement of the offense rather than as a spot-up specialist.

The Detroit News article also references McGary's changing role in the offense, one that will require him to move more, facilitate more and score a lot more.

Last season, McGary was often the only true big on the court, and as such, his tasks were fairly basic: hunker down on the block, work the offensive glass, convert high-percentage looks, repeat.

In 2013-14 he'll play alongside either Jordan Morgan or Jon Horford in the frontcourt and shift to his true position, power forward. Traditionally, John Beilein has asked much more of his power forwards than the usual, low-post body-banging.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

When he was at West Virginia, Beilein relied on "stretch four" types like Kevin Pittsnogle, Tyrone Sally and Jamie Smalligan to help him space the floor. During his Michigan tenure, Beilein has used forwards like DeShawn Sims and Evan Smotrycz in a similar capacity.

McGary will never become a three-point marksman like Pittsnogle or Smotrycz, but he will be asked to shoot more in the 10-to-15 foot range and develop a more reliable pick-and-pop game.

McGary flashed that kind of offensive versatility during his breakout NCAA tournament performance, most notably in the semifinal win against Syracuse. When he's in shape, the Indiana native is mobile enough to play in the high post, both as a shooter and distributor. The question is whether he can maintain it over a full year while adjusting to a higher-volume scoring role.

And that's really the question for this entire Michigan team. With Burke and Hardaway gone, everyone can expect more shots—and players that flourished in the ensemble will have to re-calibrate for stardom.

The psychological elements of that transition are impossible to translate.

We do know, however, what the tactical adjustment looks like. The 2013-14 Michigan Wolverines will be bigger and more balanced than their predecessors, with an offense that runs through the post instead of one that scuttles about the perimeter.

Fans of the team will see a host of familiar faces performing a host of unfamiliar tasks.

How they handle those revised assignments will dictate the overall success of this ballyhooed bunch.

 

Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of KenPom.com.

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