It's been a decade, and I still don't think I've figured out John Beilein. Largely because of his success with under-the-radar recruits at West Virginia, I assumed the guy was one of those "system coaches," that runs a brand of offense that is uniquely well-suited for the college game and adaptable for the 2 and 3-star talents of this world. And a lot of times, that's been true. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was not a McDonald's All-American, and neither were the likes of Jordan Morgan, Spike Albrecht, or Zack Novak. But it's hard to see how Beilein could have squeezed anything more out of them.
But, the story of John Beilein could also be that he's an ace talent evaluator. The list of ho-hum recruits that have suddenly found their way onto NBA rosters is astounding—Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Caris LeVert, D.J. Wilson, and Darius Morris off the top of my head. There's no question Beilein has unearthed vastly underrated gems.
Then again, Beilein has also landed more than his fair share of elite talents, such as Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Zak Irvin, and Derrick Walton were all top-50 players, and Nik Stauskas and Xavier Simpson weren't too shabby, either.
John Beilein is, of course, all of those things. So how come, even after you subtract his first (and at 5-13, worst) Big Ten season, he's won "merely" 57 percent of his Big Ten games at Michigan?
Now, I'm not saying that's bad per se, but it's also the kind of record that got Mike Davis fired at Indiana. And sure, that's Indiana, but Michigan has a national championship trophy in the display case and several Final Fours to brag about as well. So there's no sense in pretending this is not a proud basketball program. So the question remains—shouldn't someone that gets top talent, finds underrated talent, and coaches up average talent, be able to do more?
Well, we know where the problem isn't. There are certainly shortcomings to his 4 out, 1 in offense, but at the end of the day this is a system that has been producing upper-tier points per possession numbers with some regularity. But the best defensive team Michigan has fielded in the past decade ranked 4th in the pre-Rutgers, post-Nebraska version of the Big Ten. Only one other time (2010) did the Wolverines rank in the upper half in the conference in defensive efficiency.
Normally, this is the part in the Michigan Basketball PreviewTM where I offer up this year's silver bullet solution for fixing the defense. Well, Billy Donlon came through that door already, and it didn't help. And to his credit, Beilein isn't sugarcoating things even in the puff piece haven that is preseason coverage.
Michigan's defense will be, at the very best, average. And the likely case is that it will be worse than that. As always, whether Michigan wins 10, 16, 21, or 25 or more games this year depends on whether the offense is bad, average, good, or great. With that, we can look to some history:
2013: Trey Burke returns for his sophomore season, alongside junior Tim Hardaway Jr. The pair are augmented by perhaps best-ever recruiting class, consisting of McGary, Stauskas, GR3, and Caris LeVert (all four make it to the NBA. Also, Spike Albrecht.)
2014: Burke and Hardaway have left for the NBA, but everyone else returns. Caris LeVert plays the entire season. Also, Beilein welcomes his second-best recruiting class headlined by Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin.
2017: Walton and Irvin are seniors, and Walton is the Big Ten's best guard. Also, DJ Wilson and Moritz Wagner have decided to be NBA talents.
2009: Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims both have simultaneously good seasons, and sophomore Stu Douglass is the third option.
2011: Darius Morris makes an incredible sophomore leap before heading off to the NBA, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. is a very pleasant surprise. Freshman Jordan Morgan flourishes in Beilein's offense, converting 63 percent of his 2s.
2012: Everyone's back except Morris, who is replaced by a kid named Trey.
2016: Caris LeHurt's final season in Ann Arbor is another injury-plagued one. It's a shame, because it's otherwise a pretty solid roster with Irvin and Walton leading the charge in LeVert's absence.
2010: Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims both have simultaneously good seasons, and freshman Stu Douglass is the third option.
2015: LeVert leads the offense when he's healthy, while Irvin and Walton muddle through underwhelming sophomore seasons. Aubrey Dawkins is a pleasant surprise, while Kameron Chatman is a disappointment.
2008: Beilien's first season at Michigan, in which Harris and Sims have simultaneouly mediocre seasons.
So what can we take from this exercise? I think we can establish that if you give Beilein a roster with a couple of NBA-level players, he will put a top-5 (nationally) offense on the floor. If you give him one NBA player, and/or lots of experience and/or instant-impact freshmen, it will be a top-40 offense. And if you give him anything else that's not a trainwreck, the offense will be at least average.
Where does that leave us for this season? Well, with Walton, Irvin, Wilson, and Mark Donnal leaving, there's not a ton of experience. But, there is at least one NBA-level player in Wagner. Simpson looks like the only other candidate, and it would take a Morris-level type of leap to get there. With Beilein, you never know if you have a diamond-in-the-rough recruit or not, but you're probably safe to assume that the solid but unspectacular class he's assembled does not contain a one-and-done.
Put all that together, and it looks like a "good" season to me. Which means a top-40 offense, and the over/under on wins set at 21. Hey, maybe I have figured out Beilein.