Ethan Sears: A disappointing season, and a plan fulfilled

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 - 8:24pm

In the past six years, John Beilein has led the men's basketball team to four NCAA Tournaments and two title games.

In the past six years, John Beilein has led the men's basketball team to four NCAA Tournaments and two title games. Buy this photo
Max Kuang/Daily

Zavier Simpson started with a cliché.

“It was tremendous,” the junior guard said. “I’m blessed to be a part of the season. A winning season. Definitely extremely glad I was able to be in the position to help my team. Next year, hopefully we can make more noise. Get more success for the University, get more success for next year, winning some championships.”

A little more than two weeks removed from a season-ending 63-44 loss to Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen, that’s the answer Simpson is supposed to give. The season, of course, was great. The Wolverines won over 30 games, set a program record with a 17-0 start and made it to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend. Simpson, though, isn’t one to settle.

Do you feel like you guys hit your expectation for what you should’ve done?

He nearly cut off the question.

“No.”

What is that expectation?

“To win championships.”

There are few things that paint the picture of the program John Beilein has constructed better than the scene on Wednesday afternoon. Ignas Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole sat at round tables, dodging questions about their NBA fates to which, if internet rumors (and in the case of Brazdeikis, his own words to ESPN) are to be believed, they already know the answers. Across the room, Charles Matthews laughed with his teammates, having avoided this ritual by announcing earlier in the day that he would keep his name in the draft.

Michigan didn’t meet expectations this year, and it will likely see a good amount of attrition during the offseason. But when 30 wins and the Sweet Sixteen is considered a disappointment, when attrition comes with players leaving for the NBA, when the NCAA Tournament is still an expectation in a rebuilding year — that means the program is exactly where it wants to be.

Beilein remembers the first time he made a Sweet Sixteen here, back in 2013. One of the Detroit papers, he’s not sure which, ran a big, celebratory headline. It had been 19 years since the Wolverines made it that far.

In the six years since, they’ve done so four times. And made the national title game twice. During his tenure, Beilein has gotten nine guys drafted. It’s now a reason people come to Michigan.

“Growing up, you want to play in the NBA. That’s your entire goal,” Poole said. “Being able to see guys coming through Michigan, make it into the NBA and the record that they have, it’s just — it’s a record that’s just like, it’s crazy. I don’t know how you wouldn’t be able to look at it.”

Poole, age 19, does not remember watching Michigan basketball before it was anything but this. He remembers Trey Burke’s shot, when he was in eighth grade. He doesn’t remember Tommy Amaker. He doesn’t remember NCAA sanctions or tournament droughts.

When Beilein got here, the kindest thing you could say about Michigan’s basketball reputation was that it didn’t have one, and really, you could say a lot worse than that.

“Growing up in Indiana, I knew the Fab Five and, obviously, knew like (Robert) Tractor Traylor and those guys,” Zack Novak, a Michigan guard from 2008-12, said in a phone interview last week. “And then there was kind of a big gap for a while.”

Novak was part of Beilein’s second recruiting class in Ann Arbor. He came in after a 10-22 season in which the Wolverines finished ninth in the Big Ten, and Beilein recruited him to play in a two-guard offense and a 1-3-1 defense.

“You bring in me, Stu (Douglass) and Ben Cronin,” Novak said. “So expectations — I do not believe that anybody realistically expected us to get to the NCAA Tournament that year.”

Michigan did break its tournament drought that year, and a decade later, outside a locker room in Anaheim with disappointment cascading, Novak was standing there in maize and blue gear, talking of just how much things have changed, a walking beacon of perspective.

Back then, nobody on the Wolverines’ roster had been to the Tournament. Now, freshmen come in with the expectation of not just playing in March, but getting far. And in more than a few cases, getting to the NBA after that.

Beilein got Michigan back there with a two-guard offense and a zone defense. Now, under a coach caricatured as stubborn and unyielding, Michigan competes for titles with a ball-screen offense and a man-to-man defense that KenPom ranked second in the country last season.

“There’s a whole bunch of stuff that we’re not gonna change, and that’s probably the hardest thing,” Beilein said. “But it’s the things that are basic to winning basketball games. Having high character kids. Having kids that fit Michigan. Trying to get skilled players who all can shoot as much as you can. And kids that just would fit right in and want to be here. Right?

“That’s never gonna change. But style of play and things like that is always changing.”

When Beilein recruited a decade ago, he talked of getting back to the Tournament. But there was another layer on top.

“He was very firm that Michigan should be a premier program,” Novak said, “and we needed to build the foundation to get back to where it should be.”

When a season like this one can be considered disappointing, that’s exactly where Michigan is.

Sears can be reached at searseth@umich.edu, or on Twitter at @ethan_sears.