I don’t usually put a whole lot of stock in the decisions of a couple of high school basketball recruits. The University of Michigan is a big enough player athletically that rarely is it the case that one or two recruits will have a significant impact on any of its programs. Michigan’s 2007 basketball recruiting class is an exception to this line of thinking. Securing re-commitments from Manny Harris, Alex Legion, and Kelvin Grady will directly impact the legacy that John Beilein will have at Michigan. Harris and Grady are already on board. Legion seems to be leaning towards the same decision. For this post, I’ll be assuming that Legion eventually re-commits (If he doesn't, feel free to print out a paper copy of this post and set it on fire).
Much has been made of Beilein’s ability as an X’s and O’s wizard. Likewise, much has been made of his supposed shortcomings in the recruiting “game” (more on “the game” later). For those of you that can remember back into the 80’s and beyond, Michigan has seemingly always had a coach that was proficient in either recruiting or coaching (or neither) but not both. The best example of this was Steve Fisher. I’m not going to say that Fisher was the worst X’s and O’s coach ever but his ability to recruit far outweighed his ability to game-plan. Indiana outclassed Michigan with less “talent” on a regular basis during his tenure. A good portion of the local media has characterized Beilein as being cut from a similar one-dimensional mold.
Whether Beilein is actually a one-dimensional coach is still up in the air. His recruiting success, or lack thereof, at previously dormant West Virginia is hardly a reason to label him a poor recruiter. Nonetheless, that image is what Beilein is bringing to Ann Arbor. Even worse than simply having an image as a poor recruiter is that Beilein has also been portrayed as not having interest in recruiting the PSL. You can bet that every AAU coach and every rising high school star in the area have taken notice to those accusations. That reputation could prove to be crippling to Beilein’s success at Michigan if it sticks.
Enter Harris, Legion and Grady. There is no doubt that they are highly talented prospects. Any school in America would gladly take those players. So saying that they are important to Michigan basketball probably sounds obvious. However, there importance to the program in terms of fixing Beilein’s image is even more important that whatever it is they bring to Michigan on the basketball court. Beilein’s ability to keep those three from asking out of their LOI(s) sends a clear message to the Michigan high school basketball community that Beilein can relate to Detroit players and that he is very much interested in the Detroit basketball scene.
Magnifying the impact of keeping the trio is Beilein’s refusal to play “the recruiting game.” “The game” refers to doing whatever it takes to secure a commitment from a high-profile recruit. I don’t have statistics on this since “the game” is an unofficial existence, but I would guess that 75% of top 25 programs play “the game”. Think Blue Chips. Tubby Smith didn’t like “the game” which is why he is now at Minnesota. Beilein doesn’t like it either which is why he was chosen by Michigan. Beilein is on the “up and up” on the recruiting scene. His goal is to sell his style of play and the university. Had Beilein not been able to secure the trio of re-commitments, he would have seen his credibility on the local recruiting scene drop to nil. A coach that plays “the game” can turn things around without much of a rapport with the area coaches. A “straight arrow” like Beilein doesn’t have that easy out. Just think how much easier it will be for Beilein to sell the program with Harris, Legion and Grady in the fold. That alone gives Beilein credibility. Amazingly, “street cred” in the college basketball world is really all that matters in terms of recruiting. Most coaches get “street cred” by playing “the game” but Beilein might have attained it just by keeping three players that were otherwise planning on getting as far away from Ann Arbor as possible when Tommy Amaker was fired.
Michigan could have all but guaranteed success had it been willing to bring in a coach that entices recruits beyond normal means. John Calipari would have—and probably already has—played “the game” in Detroit. He would’ve galvanized the PSL behind the Michigan basketball program. Calipari knows how to get things done on the recruiting trails. That’s why Memphis (yes, Memphis) is a basketball powerhouse. Unfortunately, the Michigan Athletic Department—at the behest of the Michigan Board of Regents—can’t afford to risk another ugly scandal. Calipari may do things the same way that 75% of the other major programs do it but Michigan operates under a zero tolerance platform. That is something that Calipari cannot guarantee. That is why Bill Martin considered Calipari for all of zero seconds; and that is also why Beilein was his frontrunner possibly even before Amaker was let go. This will be important to remember three years down the road when Beilein inevitably gets criticized for missing out on some in-state players. Doing things the right way only appeals to so many recruits and AAU coaches.
I don’t want to understate the impact that Harris, Legion, and Grady will have on the basketball court. It’s just that their on-court contributions won’t be nearly as far reaching or as immediate as their contributions in terms of legitimizing the Michigan program under Beilein. Michigan will probably surprise a few people next year but it will be a difficult endeavor for the program to overcome a lack of veteran leadership and a bevy of players that don’t necessarily fit into Beilein’s preferred system. Michigan’s five best players (Sims, Udoh, Harris, Legion, and Grady) will likely be freshmen or sophomores.
I don’t want to cloud the “big picture” with all of the recruiting talk. The big picture is that for the first time in many years, Michigan has a basketball coach that has a chance to be proficient in both recruiting and X’s and O’s. It’s accepted that Beilein is skilled in the latter; Harris, Legion, and Grady will go a long, long way in proving his worth in the former. There is no question that the Michigan basketball program can be a force nationally when it's running at full capacity. I sense that we're about to see that happen.