New assistant Billy Donlon tasked with recalibrating Michigan's defense
Meet Billy Donlon, Michigan’s new defensive coordinator.
And before you start to fret, don’t worry, Don Brown still has his job. Instead, Donlon is one of the latest additions to John Beilein’s staff — filling the void left by LaVall Jordan and Bacari Alexander’s departure last April.
Donlon comes to the Michigan carrying ample coaching experience, most recently as the head coach at Wright State.
At the Wolverines’ team media day Monday, Beilein put trust in that experience, explaining that his new assistant will essentially be taking the reigns on the defensive end of the floor.
“I’m giving him a lot of responsibility for the defense,” Beilein said. “He’s got my eye and the detail we do in offense, I think he’s got a similar eye for defense. … I’ve tried to really sit back. When (you allow teams to) score 47 percent like we did last year, we had to have a different mindset in practice and our players needed to have a different mindset.”
Donlon’s path to Michigan started long before April, and perhaps long before he considered the possibility. In fact, it started 20 years ago as a point guard at North Carolina-Wilmington, where he competed “mostly unsuccessfully” against Richmond when Beilein was a coach there.
Beilein recalled how difficult it was to score against the Seahawks, and his respect for Donlon’s coaching ability stemmed from the way Donlon was coached himself. They stayed in touch ever since UNC-Wilmington faced the Spiders in the 1998 Colonial Athletic Conference Tournament championship game.
Fast-forward to last March, and Donlon had been fired by Wright State despite leading his team to the Horizon League championship game for the third time in four years. And then he got a phone call from Beilein.
There weren’t any job opportunities at Crisler Center yet. Beilein called as a friend, but when Jordan and Alexander accepted coaching offers at Milwaukee and Detroit, respectively, the stars aligned.
“To be honest with you, it just shows you the kind of person Coach (Beilein) is because I didn’t play for Coach,” Donlon said. “At that time he didn’t have any openings yet. …I called him when an opening happened and we just started talking.
“All those phone conversations from there were very little about the job. His passion for the game is off the charts. You can be on the phone with him for a great amount of time just talking basketball. That’s really what we did.”
Now coaching alongside the man he played against, Donlon’s respect for Beilein is evident. He was quick to say being the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator is an overstatement — and that Beilein is still calling the shots for this team, which he undoubtedly is. But Donlon’s comments may have had a bit too much humility.
Beilein estimated that Wright State was ranked around 100th nationally in transition defense, while Michigan was roughly 100 spots lower. And last season, Donlon’s Raiders were ranked 37th nationally in team defense, allowing 65.8 points per game. The Wolverines didn’t crack the top 50 in the same category.
Without a doubt, there is a discrepancy in the level of competition between the two programs. It didn’t help that the Wolverines were without one of their best perimeter defenders in Caris LeVert, either. But that doesn’t mean Donlon’s approach can’t be effective in Ann Arbor.
While the Wolverines won’t be going through a complete overhaul, Donlon’s experience running the “pack line” variation of the man-to-man scheme at Wright State will certainly add a new wrinkle to Beilein’s defensive playbook.
“We’re a gap team, and the gap really is very similar to the pack line,” Donlon said. “The pack line is a little lower. In the gap, you’re a little closer, in terms of you’re up the line a little bit more. So you’re one step off the line of the ball and your man versus maybe two steps in the pack line.
“…The great thing about both of those, you can easily go from the gap to the pack line and then back because they’re so similar. That’s been how I’ve grown up playing it and also coaching it. And it’s similar to what they’ve done here to be honest.”
The emphasis is on more than just defensive sets, though. Beilein hopes he and Donlon can find a middle ground when it comes to fouling on defense. Last season, Michigan averaged 15.6 fouls per game, while Wright State averaged 22.1.
It’s not every day you hear a coach say he wants to foul more, but for a team that has been occasionally dubbed as soft, a touch of physicality in the right situations could go a long way. If the coaching duo can strike that balance, the Wolverines could change that reputation, and quickly.
Though Donlon has been tasked with recalibrating Michigan’s defense, he will also serve as a coach for the Wolverine backcourt. With senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. leading the charge, freshman Xavier Simpson and junior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, he certainly has plenty of ammunition to work with.
But more than anything, Donlon is caught in a game of catch up, trying to bring the Wolverines’ defense up to par with its perennially potent offense. It’s no easy task.
But if someone is going to achieve it, it seems the guy who shut down John Beilein’s team in 1998 is the man for the job.