John Beilein knows what it’s like to run a group of inexperienced freshmen through a gauntlet of training, drills and offensive sets in preseason practice, and he knows what it looks like when everything comes together.
This year might be different, though, as Beilein is dealing with six true freshmen, a redshirt freshman and a transfer. Installing Michigan’s offense with such a large contingent of newcomers is a process, and it’s not going as quickly as it has in years past.
“They’re sometimes perfect with what they do, and maybe they miss the shot or the ball slips out of their hands,” Beilein said. “There are other times they’re on tape delay.
“There’s that one or two seconds, that ‘what’s happening next,’ whether it’s a defensive rotation, a read-and-react, a look they have to recognize, so that’s been slowing them down.”
Though Beilein is confident the results will come, it’s apparent they haven’t yet. His true freshmen accounted for just nine points and three assists in the 24th-ranked Wolverines’ 77-53 win over Bucknell on Monday night.
In that game, the first-years let the scoring duties slide to sophomore forward Zak Irvin and senior forward Max Bielfeldt, the latter of whom finished with a career-high 18 points — half of which came on 3-point shots nobody in the building expected him to take.
But Bielfeldt’s night may have distracted from the fact that Michigan (2-0) has yet to see substantial offensive contributions from its freshman class, which Beilein says hasn’t yet mastered his complex offense.
However, Beilein isn’t worried that the freshmen will simply be content to sit back and watch the veterans shoulder the load.
He even cited freshman development as a reason he kept Bielfeldt on the sidelines for all of Saturday’s game against Hillsdale, in which redshirt freshman forward Mark Donnal played 26 minutes, and freshman forwards Ricky Doyle and D.J. Wilson played nine minutes each.
Sophomore guard Derrick Walton Jr., just a year removed from being in the same situation, is optimistic.
“Last year, around this time, I wasn’t really involved in the offense,” Walton said after Monday’s game. “You’re still kind of learning it. The only thing we can do is keep bringing them on, and keep teaching them as much as possible. As the season goes on, you’ll see a big improvement out of them.”
Walton added that it wasn’t until the end of non-conference play last season that the offense clicked for him. Michigan’s first Big Ten game is Dec. 30 against Illinois.
Complicating matters is the remarkable positional versatility of the freshman class. Instead of a crop of youngsters locked into specific spots on the court, the Wolverines’ blessing and curse is that the freshmen likely to contribute most — Wilson and fellow freshman forward Kameron Chatman, in particular — are capable of playing up to four positions.
Michigan’s already-crowded backcourt leaves little room for the freshmen to appear at guard or even small forward, making their roles more fluid. But wherever they play, the Wolverines need to understand their role within Beilein’s system. When they have multiple roles, understanding each one becomes all the more difficult.
“It’s not pretty when they get time, sometimes,” Beilein said. “But they’re getting better, believe it or not.”