There's an argument that John Beilein is the greatest head coach in Michigan basketball history. Bill Frieder has a claim (.703 winning percentage in the Big Ten over his final 6 seasons), Steve Fisher (.600 and a national championship) would be at the table if not for the Ed Martin scandal, and Johnny Orr and Dave Strack had nice runs in the middle of their tenures. But I'm not sure anyone was as good for as long as Beilein was, who won 66 percent of his Big Ten games over his last 8 seasons.
Beilein came to Ann Arbor as an offensive specialist, and that proved to be true over his first ten seasons or so. But over the last two, that offensive brilliance was paired with a stout defense. In fact, in each of the past two seasons the Wolverines have achieved a top-5 adjusted defensive efficiency. Much of the credit for that drastic improvement has gone to Luke Yaklich, an assistant coach that effectively functioned as a defensive coordinator for the past two seasons. Like Beilein, Yaklich is also moving on (to the University of Texas), and it's not beyond reproach to wonder if his loss isn't greater than Beilein's. After all, Beilein's spacing and ball-screen heavy offense has generated plenty of copycats. About five years ago, Jay Wright dove headfirst into the 3-point end of the pool and now has a couple of national championships to show for it. He's definitely not the lone follower of the Beilein playbook, either.
Defense, for whatever reason, seems harder for teams to replicate. Even when a defense is good, there's quite a bit of variability involved. A big part of this is that so much of whether a ball goes in the basket is in the offense's hands. Iowa annually has one of the worst defenses in the conference, but in 2016 this was the Big Ten's 5th-best defense in conference play. Sure, there were a couple more shotblockers than usual, but I'm guessing leading the conference in opponent 3-point percentage, and 2nd-best in opponent free throw percentage, had quite a bit to do with it as well. And sure enough, over the following 3 seasons it's been back to mediocrity on that end of the floor.
There are some coaches that do put great defenses on the floor on an annual basis, of course. Bill Self, Bruce Weber, Chris Beard, Tony Bennett, and John Calipari are names that come to mind. Some perennially-good defensive coaches likely recruit their way to that result (Calipari, for instance), for others it's probably more scheme and how they coach. But what's notable is that for most of these coaches, while the defense is good, the offense is inconsistent. Sure, Tony Bennett will have a year like last, where the offense shines. But three years ago, the Hoos went 31-3 with the 6th-best offense in the ACC.
There's probably more eloquent explanations out there, but my view is that building a great offense is hard, and so is building a great defense. A head coach is doing a great job if he can deliver one of those and at least keep the other end respectable. To have an assistant that can come in and upgrade a bad defense to excellent—that's a lot of value. And I'm guessing Texas is paying handsomely for it.
Which brings us to this year's Michigan basketball team. Along with its coaching staff, the Wolverines lost Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews, and Jordan Poole. That leaves Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske, and Isaiah Livers as the returning rotation players. While we do not yet have a sense of how they will be featured in Juwan Howard's offense, we do have an idea of the relative strengths and weaknesses of their games. Simpson will likely continue his transition from a role player to a high-usage centerpiece. This already started last year, where we saw his usage in conference play spike to over 20 percent of possessions.
One of Simpson's strengths is his strong right hand. He has the ball on a string and possesses the physical strength to create space for himself, even against bigger players.
Still, it's undeniable that one of the things that helped Simpson score last season was the fact that other teams had to respect Michigan's outside shooters.
Not only does Michigan potentially lose the 3-point approach it had under Beilein, but it loses its two outside threats in Brazdeikis and Poole. If defenses are free to collapse on Simpson when he drives the paint, things will become much tougher for him.
This is why there's a certain amount of pressure on Teske to do more than simply screen and look for scoring opportunities created off those screens. Against Penn State last year, the Nittany Lions actually sat their premier frontcourt player, Mike Watkins, for most of the game. Teske logged 31 minutes, and saw a defense that just switched on all the screens he set. The downside for an offense against a switching defense is that you do not get the defense out of position as it scrambles to help, show, or hedge. But the upside is that you have a mismatch somewhere, and generally on the block. Teske found himself being guarded by the likes of 6-1 Jamari Wheeler.
He should have feasted against this approach. Instead, he finished with 5 points on just two shot attempts. If teams can neuter Teske simply by removing the screen game, that's a problem.
Of course, Penn State was not the only team that switched on Michigan. Tom Izzo used to switch as a primary defense on ball screens, though not so much anymore. Still, against Michigan, he was happy to do it.
Put simply, Michigan didn't look for Teske to score last year unless it was directly off popping or rolling action. That cannot be the case this year, as there aren't enough points between Simpson and Livers. UM welcomes a couple of 4-star recruits, including Mo Wagner's brother. Still, it's unlikely they can replace the departees on their own. Teske and Simpson will have to expand their games, and even then, now all you're asking is that first-time coach Juwan Morgan can not only replace the best coach in school history, but match the defensive contributions of one of the best defensive coaches in the country.
So yeah, there might be a step back here.