Two years ago, Michigan basketball was in a difficult position. Sophomore point guard Darius Morris had declared for the draft. Morris had not quite reached superstar levels as a sophomore, but he was pretty darn close.
Morris had led the team in points per game (15.0), set a single-season record at Michigan for assists (235) and led Michigan in steals (36). He was as valuable to Michigan’s offense as just about any player in the country—he took one out of every four shots, and when he wasn’t scoring, he assisted on 44.2 percent of Michigan’s buckets when he was on the court.
The replacement for Morris was the 142nd-best prospect in the country, according to Rivals.com. He was an incoming freshman who had at one time committed to play basketball at Penn State.
That point guard was Trey Burke. I think you know the rest of the story.
The recruiting analysts obviously missed on Burke, but the lesson here is that you don’t count out John Beilein. No matter the players, Beilein has always found a way to fit the pieces in his two-guard offense.
What has changed since is that the Michigan brand is back to what it used to be and the pieces are a bit more prime.
Take for instance what his contingency plan could look like without Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Beilein’s offense the last two seasons has been geared mostly to get those two shots. Now the stars will be Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, two players who likely would have been first-round draft picks had they declared for the draft.
McGary is a bulldozer who spent most of the season simply filling the role of a hustle guy. Then in the NCAA tournament, he morphed into a skilled big man when Beilein decided to insert him into the starting lineup. According to CBSSports.com shot charts, he made nine of his 18 jumpers during the tournament.
Robinson is perfect for Beilein’s offense, which rewards players who can score off cuts to the basket or flare to the three-point line. He’ll find a way to get Robinson touches.
“We’re not always right, but we keep changing to find the answer,” Beilein told MichiganDaily.com last March, a must-read story to understand the complexity and flexibility of his offense. “We’re never satisfied. Never.”
How Beilein changed in recent years was running more ball screens for Morris and then Burke. He also trusted his guards to just go make plays when the situation called for it.
"One thing Tim and Trey could really do is if our offensive options weren't there they could get their own shot,'' Beilein told ESPN.com recently.
That is the primary task for Beilein’s staff going forward—to find the next Burke and Hardaway.
Into Hardaway’s spot will step either incoming freshman Zakarie Irvin or returning sophomore wing Caris LeVert, who played 10.8 minutes per game as a freshman. Irvin is the sixth-ranked shooting guard in his class according to Rivals.com.
At point guard, Beilein could go with Derrick Walton, whom Rivals.com ranks as the eighth-best point guard in the incoming freshman class, or he could start Spike Albrecht.
Albrecht might not look the part of an elite player, but he still managed to score 17 points in the first half of the NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME. This shocked the world, but Beilein’s former players could not have been shocked.
Beilein has made a career out of plugging in players that don’t look the part—such as 6’4” Zack Novak as his power forward—and putting that player in a spot where he could succeed.
Albrecht made the shots on that championship night, but it was the offense that got him great shots.
After Michigan beat Syracuse in the Final Four, Novak told a fan, as told by Jeff Goodman of CBSSports.com: “Now you're seeing what happens when that man has talent."
The numbers and the results said just that. Beilein’s teams had always scored the ball well, but with the most talented roster he had ever coached, Michigan had the most efficient offense in the country and nearly won the title.
On paper, Michigan has that talent again. McGary and Robinson are both All-American candidates. Nik Stauskas shot 44 percent from three as a freshman, and if you don’t believe he’s the best returning shooter in college basketball, watch this:
Replacing the national player of the year will not be easy. However, take a look at what Beilein said two years ago before the 2011-12 season (via Blue Ribbon Yearbook):
I don't think we'll take a step back at all. That said, when you lose your point guard you always have a transitional period. We've had a freshman or a walk-on starting at point guard in four of my five years here. And that will happen again if Trey or Carlton wins the job, and that's tough.
That transitional period was a Big Ten championship.
In my super-early top 25, I had Michigan 10th. The more I think about it, I see what Beilein has coming back as closer to a top-five team, plenty capable of getting back to the Final Four in their “transition” season.