At times it’s been disgusting.
The Michigan men’s basketball team has had its share of eight-minute field goal droughts. On one occasion, it missed 23 3-pointers in a game. In another game, puny guard Matt Vogrich out-rebounded all of Michigan’s post players.
But come on, give the Wolverines (9-9 Big Ten, 19-12 overall) a break, those are things that happen to every basketball team. Right? Well, not exactly.
Those are the things that happen to a squad that starts one big man who is undersized compared to the likes of other Big Ten centers like Ohio State’s Dallas Lauderdale. Those are the things that a team that sometimes plays five guards in a conference like the Big Ten — known for the most physical and aggressive ball in the country — endures. Essentially, those are the things that teams coached by Michigan coach John Beilein go through.
The Wolverines have suffered at many times solely because of Beilein’s offensive scheme. And as difficult as it has been to watch this team — one that kept up with then-No. 3 Kansas and then-No. 2 Ohio State, but three days later was blown out by Big Ten basement dweller Indiana — at times, things are becoming clearer to me.
It’s those pain staking, rip-your-eyes-out-of-the-sockets-and-then-step-on-them moments, which make the Wolverines that much more beautiful to watch now.
Yes, and I do mean beautiful (even more beautiful than Evan Smotrycz’s gelled hair on Saturday). Beilein’s offense has taken a year, a six-game losing streak, and a few buzzer beaters to morph into the beautiful butterfly it has become (Tim Doyle would love that analogy). But the wait is so worth it for any Michigan fan. It all came in the Wolverines 70-63 win over Michigan State on Saturday.
It was Michigan’s first sweep of the Spartans in more than a decade. The Wolverines did it in their last regular season game of the year. They did it at home and they did it in a game which featured two teams both fighting to stay alive in the NCAA Tournament hunt.
Beilein’s offense finally looked crisp. The Wolverines outsmarted the Spartans, used their intelligence to top a team that is arguably more athletic and forced a program that has too many times dominated Michigan to beat itself.
Indiana coach Tom Crean said at the beginning of the season that there’s nothing more difficult than preparing for a Beilein-coached team. Well, Crean’s assumption looked pretty silly when his Hoosiers obliterated the Wolverines, 80-61 on Jan. 15 and Michigan cruised to a 1-6 start to its Big Ten schedule.
But things started to change. Jordan Morgan finally figured out that after he sets his back screens for Darius Morris he has to roll, Morris learned that when he drives there are three open guards on the perimeter and everyone watched as Matt Vogrich started getting open backdoor looks because teams play the perimeter too aggressively in the zone, attempting to stop Michigan’s shooters.
The Wolverines, and everyone who watches them, finally witnessed Beilein’s clever offensive tricks pay off.
Against Michigan State on Saturday, Michigan was fouled three times from 3-point range.
That’s because when players like Morris or Hardaway Jr. drive off Morgan’s screen, two players are left open in 3-point land. So Michigan State players like forward Draymond Green have to lunge over to the arc just to get a hand in Zack Novak’s face. Then Green can’t control his momentum and he finds himself fouling out of the game with two minutes remaining.
Michigan is a team that prides itself on its 3-point shooting. Teams are completely aware of that. What they aren’t aware of is how to stop a team that is shooting wide open 3-pointers — a product of the way Beilein runs his offense.
Even at times when the Wolverines’ shots are just off, Michigan’s offense can get it done. The roster essentially puts the Wolverines’ opponents in complete mismatches on all five guards. You’ve got Morris who is the tallest point guard in the league, Novak who is being defended by players like Green, who are bigger and slower than he is, and Morgan who’s being covered by guys who may statistically be larger, but can’t keep up with his elusiveness and quickness.
When the players don’t fully know and understand Beilein’s blueprint, a pass to an open Novak at the wing will instead bounce off Blake McLiman’s forehead and roll out of bounds (as it did on Saturday).
But when the players do understand Beilein’s system, a freshman like Hardaway Jr. will notch all 20 of his points in a second half against a rival in front of a sell-out crowd.
That’s not disgusting. That’s beautiful.
—Pyzik can be reached at email@example.com