Jacob Shames: An evolution and a new breed of Wolverine
Does the name Maverick Morgan ring a bell?
In case it doesn’t, Morgan was a center for Illinois from 2013 to 2017 and had a perfectly fine career, averaging 5.6 points per game in 135 total appearances. But if you primarily follow the Michigan men’s basketball team, that’s not what you remember him for.
“They are more of a white-collar team traditionally and at Illinois, we’re about toughness and together,” Morgan said of the Wolverines after his Fighting Illini thumped them, 85-69, in January of 2017.
Michigan, of course, returned the favor later that year, ending Illinois’ season on the way to an unexpected Big Ten Tournament title and Sweet 16 appearance. But everyone makes statements they might regret making later on. I’m not bringing this up to make fun of Morgan.
Maybe you remember him, and maybe you don’t. What you do remember is his perception.
And, well, if “white-collar” maybe wasn’t the most refined wording, it’s not like it was unfair.
When you remember the Wolverine teams of the mid-2010s, you don’t think of physical freaks crashing the boards, swatting shots into the second row or driving hard to the rim. Instead, you think of precise ball movement, constant motion and Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas and Moritz Wagner draining triples from all over the court.
You won’t find much of that on this year’s roster. Where Burke, the 2013 Naismith Award-winner, once manned the point, there’s junior Zavier Simpson, a pitbull of a defender with a limited offensive game, but the heart of the team regardless. On the wing, visions of Stauskas and his silky-smooth 3-point stroke have given way to redshirt junior Charles Matthews — one of the best athletes Beilein’s coached at Michigan, but a mere 56 percent foul shooter. The holes created by the departures of Wagner and Duncan Robinson this offseason are being filled by sophomore Isaiah Livers — a versatile defender and strong rebounding presence — and junior Jon Teske — a hulking, 7-foot-1 rim-protecting colossus.
As a team, Michigan shot above 35 percent from 3-point range every year since 2011. Only one player on the roster — sophomore guard Jordan Poole — did so last season.
The first glimpse of the 2018-2019 Wolverines came last Friday against Division II Northwood. Michigan took just 11 3-pointers, scoring 56 of 90 points in the paint and 24 on the fast break. It didn’t make its first three until 19 minutes into the game. It forced 10 steals, which led to 22 points. Simpson and Poole jumped passing lanes, led the break and got to the rim. Livers and freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis ran the wheels off the Timberwolves and threw down transition slams.
It was an exhibition, sure, but it told this much: These aren’t your parents’ Wolverines.
“We’re definitely going to be another really good defending team,” Poole said. “We’re going to want to get up and down the floor extremely fast and get it out and go. Lot of high-flyers, lot of attack-the-rim guys, back cuts and being able to throw lobs. This is an extremely athletic team, and we’re able to attack more and get to the basket more.”
Michigan coach John Beilein has spoken of the need to adapt his complex offensive system to his team’s personnel. He’s also aware that his team will rely first and foremost on an elite defense.
But it’s one thing for a coach to tailor his gameplan to the strengths of his roster, or to preach attacking, downhill offense and tough, hard-nosed defending. Mostly, that’s just good coaching.
It’s another thing entirely for a team to take scrappy defense and aggressive offense to heart and make it its identity — especially a team whose identity, until recently, has been the complete opposite.
That identity was apparent when the Wolverines finished with the third-most efficient defense in the country last season. It’s apparent when Beilein states that Simpson and Matthews — the upperclass leaders of the team — will “not let you not play defense.” It’s apparent when players and coaches mention the defensive improvement of players such as Poole, whose inconsistent effort often kept him off the court last year.
Under Beilein, Michigan has had five top-30 seasons in offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy’s advanced ratings system. Until last season, though, it had never had a defense rank above 37th.
But last season, that all began to change. A misfit group of role players, unheralded veterans and promising freshmen clicked with a defensive mastermind in first-year assistant coach Luke Yaklich, with Simpson’s tenacious leadership spurring them on. An offense that was, for Michigan’s standards, inconsistent, did just enough to win, and occasionally much more. It all culminated in one of the more unexpected Final Four runs in recent memory.
This year, the evolution is just about complete. The Wolverines have taken a formula that worked last season and doubled down on it this year.
“We built a name last year that we could be a pretty good defensive team,” Simpson said at Michigan’s media day in October. “This year, it’s a different breed on this team, and that breed is more aggressive.”
In a sport with as much season-to-season change and personnel turnover as college basketball, however, flexibility is key. Maybe in a year, another evolution will take place. Maybe Poole, Livers and freshmen such as Adrien Nunez, David DeJulius and Colin Castleton start bombing away in a fashion resembling the Wolverines of yesteryear.
But it’s unlikely that anyone will be calling Michigan “white-collar” anytime soon.
Shames can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.