Michigan coach John Beilein isn’t one to harp on his team’s resume.
“You know that,” he chided a reporter Sunday.
But the calender is veering precipitously towards the magical month of March, and John Beilein’s NCAA Tournament-bound squad is rounding into form just in the nick of time.
A year ago, Derrick Walton Jr. went supernova, suddenly transforming into the best player in the Big Ten. Walton led a previously forgettable Michigan team to a Big Ten Tournament title and within inches of an Elite Eight berth.
Four years ago (nearly to the day), the Wolverines lost at home to Wisconsin by 13 and subsequently went on a seven-game winning streak, eventually culminating in an Elite Eight run.
Five years ago, Michigan was putting the final touches on a team that would storm to the national title game. In the following month, Trey Burke went from star to full-fledged legend.
There’s a common denominator here. Like clockwork, John Beilein is melding this mish-mash of talent into a legitimate contender. His career — like that of any premier college basketball coach — has been defined by February growth into March (and April) reward.
And don’t look now, but the Wolverines are showing signs of a once-unimaginable potential March run.
Of course, it’s a team with some clear differences with the previous teams. For one, it’s anchored by an elite defense, merely hoping its offense tags along. During Beilein’s tenure this is the first team with such an identity. The Wolverines have never finished better than 37th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They currently rank 20th in that category, according to KenPom.com.
But senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman thinks Beilein’s complex offensive scheme becomes advantageous on its own come March.
“Our offense is pretty hard to guard when we’re going against new opponents,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “The Big Ten knows the ins and outs of our offense a little bit. But once you get into postseason play and NCAA Tournament, it’s fairly new to everybody.”
Sunday, Michigan dispatched No. 8 Ohio State with relative leisure, earning a 12-point victory with widespread contributions.
Freshman guard Jordan Poole showed another promising sign of growing into the system, sparking the Wolverines with 15 points. Fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson added a major contribution — not from beyond the arc, as one might expect — but defensively, limiting Big Ten Player of the Year favorite Keita Bates-Diop to a 5-for-17 shooting day. Sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson shined brightly in his pestering defensive presence and increasingly sure-handed command of the offense.
And, oh yeah, that Moritz Wagner guy is still pretty good.
It’s a team starting to come together — each player finally thriving in his assigned, defined roles. And yet every team needs an alpha. Last year’s team had Walton. The national runner-up had Burke. The 2013-14 group had Nik Stauskas.
Sunday, Abdur-Rahkman paced the team with a team-high 17 points. He has now scored in double figures in seven consecutive games, averaging a team-high 16.4 points per game over that span. In a fittingly unassuming way, Abdur-Rahkman is emerging into the alpha nobody — not even his coach — saw coming.
“In his first two years, I could count on one hand the plays I had for him,” Beilein said. “You had Caris (LeVert), you had (Walton), you had Zak (Irvin). Then all of a sudden, we’ve got Moe (Wagner) and we’ve got Charles (Matthews) and we’ve got these guys that are scorers. And about a month ago, I looked and, ‘You know, we don’t have enough stuff for Muhammad.’ He’s got the ability to get places that other people can’t get to on this team, and we’ve started just doing more with him and giving him much more latitude.
Above it all, conducting the crowded symphony into a harmony is Beilein, the maestro who makes it all go. When asked after the game Sunday about where his team stands, of course, he prudently listed the ways his team can still improve.
Free-throw shooting. Pick and roll angles. Defense. Physicality.
“We’re playing the right way at the right time,” he said.
He would know.
Marcovitch can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @max_marcovitch