It had never even crossed my mind once—not when Brian Ellerbee was rippin’ it up with Avery Queen and Josh Moore or when Tommy Amaker was going 5-35 in Big Ten road games against teams not named Penn St. and Northwestern—that Michigan basketball would not eventually catch up to—if not surpass—Michigan St. basketball once again. Sparty had a quality basketball program well before Tom Izzo took things to a new level. When I was growing up, though, Michigan had a higher-profile program. It wasn’t until the Ed Martin-scandal hit—which allowed MSU to recruit the state unfettered from 1996-present—that Michigan St. managed to reach elite status. Michigan has been out of the recruiting picture for 12 years and as a result, Sparty has virtually replicated in basketball the same advantage that Michigan has in football. Why would a big-time basketball recruit choose the uncertainty of Michigan over the certainty of Michigan St.? Well, most wouldn’t and that’s why Michigan has had a brutal time working its way back even to respectability. I always thought that once Michigan paid its dues with the probation period and labored through the requisite number of “rebuilding” years, it would regain national prominence. I have to admit that I’m not quite so sure anymore. In fact, I would have to say the odds are considerably against it. Ironically, the possible realization of Michigan’s permanent marginalization only became clear after it hired the best “X’s and O’s” basketball coach that the school has ever had.
I like John Beilein. This post has nothing to do with Michigan's rough start. I have been patient for 10 years and I'm willing to give Beilein as much time as he needs to get things going in the right direction. He was a good choice and I'm confident he will be successful. The program will likely improve to the point of being a perennial upper-half Big Ten-team. Once he gets the right players to run his system, he should have no problem replicating his success at West Virginia. Honestly, that’s all I want at this point. However, I don’t think there is any question that his system is built for less-talented teams. Beilein admits as much. Hiring Beilein was somewhat of a concession by Bill Martin and Mary Sue Coleman that the Ed Martin-scandal had permanently reduced Michigan’s status in college basketball or—at the very least—they were going to act as if it did. I don’t believe that anyone was under the allusion that Beilein was going to come in and out-recruit Tom Izzo. I also don’t believe anyone thought that Beilein was going to come in with anything other than his trademark reliance on three-pointers and his 1-3-1 zone defense. Beilein was brought in to implement his system. With it came a program-shaping tradeoff. The school traded the compromising ways of a “win at all costs" coach and the resulting elite status said coach could bring in exchange for a "by the book" X’s and O’s-wiz who will likely rebuild the program with less-talented players.
A similar—but slightly different—parallel is the situation that Purdue faces in football. It, too, runs a system to mask talent disadvantages. The spread has allowed Purdue to climb into the upper-half of the Big Ten and become a perennial bowl team after a number of dreadful seasons. However, because of the talent disadvantage, Purdue won’t ever be better than what it is now which is a program that has lost at least four games for 10-straight seasons. The spread can be unstoppable at recruiting powerhouses such as Florida and Michigan. It can’t and won’t be that way at Purdue which is why the administration has begun to sour on Joe Tiller. If it pushes Tiller out—a la Minnesota pushing out Glen Mason last year—then Purdue will surely win next year’s “Who do you think you are?” Award. But, that’s for another time. Nonetheless, Purdue doesn’t get good enough athletes to beat elite teams with the spread and thus there is a permanent ceiling keeping the program from being elite. Michigan may now face the same “ceiling” in basketball. If Coach K wanted to run Beilein’s offense at Duke, he probably could without a drop-off in performance. Michigan doesn’t have the recruiting presence at this point to recruit the best players in the country so Purdue football is Michigan basketball’s ceiling. The only difference between the two situations is that Michigan basketball could have a higher ceiling dependent on its coach. Purdue football really has no other options.
In a perfect world—a world that doesn’t take into consideration the negative public image that a scandal casts on an elite academic institution—Michigan would’ve hired Tubby Smith or John Calipari who, in turn, would’ve owned the PSL. Michigan would’ve then resembled the program of the 80s and 90s in which it won because of talent. Michigan was very close to hiring Rick Pitino in 2001 which would’ve reshaped the course of modern Michigan basketball. Pitino chose Louisville and Michigan didn’t recapture the recruiting momentum it badly needed. The only way Michigan was ever going to catch up to Michigan St. was to take over in-state recruiting via Detroit. Unfortunately, Beilein’s offense is so specific that it only requires certain skill-sets. Recruits realize this which means that the majority of the better players in the PSL will likely continue to look elsewhere or Beilein won’t look at them at all. The average highly-touted Detroit recruit is not the type of player Beilein prefers (meaning they aren’t the greatest shooters). That means he’ll have to put together his team by recruiting lesser-tier players or players who don’t necessarily fit his system. That will magnify the “Purdue effect” even more.
Michigan St. plays tough, physical basketball. It also gets out on the break. It rebounds and plays aggressive defense. It also shoots the three-point shot effectively. The way Michigan St. plays basketball is ideal. It can have a bad shooting night and still win. It would be nearly impossible for Beilein’s offense to have a bad shooting night and still beat an elite team. Michigan St. is versatile enough that it can attack the post and get second-chance points when its shots aren’t falling. Beilein’s team is set up where the inside-game isn’t much of a factor and second-chance opportunities are few and far between. So even if Beilein is able to make Michigan a national recruiting-power on par with Michigan St., his system’s design makes it nearly impossible to beat Michigan St’s versatility on a regular basis. Not being as good as Michigan St. isn't the worst thing in the world. The adage, "shoot for the moon and if you miss, you'll still be among stars" comes to mind. Using Michigan St. as a measuring stick can only help things. That's just not what I had in mind for the last 10 years.
This is a disappointing revelation on my part. I had always felt that if I just remained patient (which hasn’t been easy by the way), the day would come when Michigan’s recruiting classes would once again resemble the eye-popping classes that were commonplace back in the day. The talent has been in Detroit to make it happen. That clearly isn’t the problem. The list of players who have escaped the city over the last few years is sad. I don’t think there is any doubt that Michigan could’ve owned Detroit again—and potentially overtaken Michigan St. again—if it had focused on recruiting with a Tubby Smith or Calipari-type coach. Since that is what got the program into trouble in the first place, that was deemed undesirable by Martin and Coleman and I can understand why they would think that way. To borrow a golf phrase, Michigan “laid up”. That isn’t such a bad idea when you’re ahead. The problem is that Michigan was trailing. In the end, that approach usually ends up being good enough for a good—not great—score. I certainly hope I'm wrong but my fear is that everything I just wrote is true.