For the Michigan men’s basketball team, good cannot be the enemy of great.
“We won’t be great,” said Michigan coach John Beilein of his team’s defense while addressing the media last week. That came mere seconds after saying this might be one of his best defensive teams in his Michigan tenure.
It’s a dynamic the veteran coach has had to deal with for much of his career — matching his offensive wizardry with defensive competence.
Nobody expects the Beilein-led Wolverines to turn into a defensively-anchored team. They won’t suddenly become Virginia, a team that allowed the fewest points per game in 2016 and does so annually in arguably the best conference in the country. But based on the early practices and offseason workouts, Beilein has expressed optimism about his team’s defense and the personnel they have to deploy on that end of the court.
When asked whether he thinks this defense could be one of his best, Beilein did not hesitate. “I do,” he said. “It comes down to the players.”
The most important piece to that puzzle? Redshirt junior guard Charles Matthews.
Matthews, a transfer from Kentucky who averaged just under two points per game in his lone season with the Wildcats, comes into the year looking to prove the talent that landed him in Lexington in the first place. But while Matthews may be eager to shine offensively, Beilein believes his best weapon may well be his defensive ability.
“Right now, I think his defense is the one (thing) that will be the biggest positive addition to the team,” Beilein said. “Whether it’s deflecting balls, blocking shots, running through passing lanes, seeing the defense — he’s very bright.
“I do think that his quickness and athleticism we’ve rarely seen here.”
To some extent, this is still a guessing game. Losing D.J. Wilson — and his team-high 57 blocks — will hurt in the frontcourt. Adding Matthews and freshman Isaiah Livers to the equation theoretically brings coveted defensive versatility.
But team defense in college basketball so rarely equals the sum of its parts. Instead, less tangible factors like cohesion and rotational ability ultimately dictate success. Especially given the stark roster turnover on this year’s team, it will be hard to decipher just how strong of a team this is defensively until well into the season. But Beilein feels strongly that the team-wide demeanor is there.
“This is the most competitive our practices have ever been since I’ve been here,” Beilein said. “Because there’s enough grit. We’ve had quickness, we’ve had talent, sometimes we’re missing some of that grit to compete. We’ve got some competition going on right now that’s really healthy for us.”
Last year’s struggles early on were often chalked up to a lack of that toughness, as has been the main criticism of many of Beilein’s teams in the past.
So if history is any indication, Beilein is right: They won’t be great. But he thinks they have the athletes and the demeanor to be good, or at least defensively adequate.
And as history also shows, that’s all a Beilein-led team needs.
Since he took over the program in 2007, Michigan has never had a scoring defense ranked higher than 33rd nationally. Yet there is an undeniable correlation between his teams that rank adequately defensively (55th or better) to a successful season, with one notable exception.
In his ten seasons at Michigan, Beilein has had five teams with scoring defenses better than 55th and five teams rank worse. In the five seasons better than 55th, Michigan has won nearly 65 percent of its games, won two regular season Big Ten championships and a Big Ten Tournament championship. In contrast, in the five seasons with a scoring defense worse than that benchmark, the Wolverines won just 58 percent of their games and failed to win either a Big Ten regular season or Tournament championship. The latter group also includes the aberrational 2012-13 national runner-up, which featured five future first-round picks — a luxury this team does not have.
Of course, everything smells like roses two weeks into practice. While attention stays on football, fond memories of last year’s magical tournament run linger. But there are still plenty of valid reasons for skepticism about Michigan’s defensive abilities.
Primarily, if the season started tomorrow, sophomore Moritz Wagner and fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson would likely be the starting frontcourt. Wagner, who pulled out of the NBA Draft at least in part due to questions about his defensive and rebounding ability, will need to improve upon those areas — in addition to rampant foul issues — not only for his own draft stock, but for his team’s defensive formidability in the low post. Robinson, for all his offensive merits, lacks the foot speed to deal with more athletic wings and, by Beilein’s own admission, “will probably never go to the backboard.”
In terms of cohesion, the starting unit will feature two transfers taking the floor as Wolverines for the first time.
But if Beilein’s optimism is founded, and the defensive unit turns out to be one of his best, that bodes well for this team.
It might not be the country’s best, but the Wolverines won’t need it to be.
For Beilein and Michigan, good might as well be great.