Sunday, January 06, 2008

My Michigan basketball fear

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.


Anonymous said...

I have not watched a UM baskteball game since in a few years. I still follow the program through the news, but I agree with everything you said more or less. I think Martin is satisfied with the team being OK in the Big Ten and maybe making a tournament every few years. Indeed, the facilities reflect the commitment the school has to fielding a top tier basketball team. It is too bad, because I still remember when UM had some excellent college players. Since I live in Columbus I have had to endure the success of the OSU program and it would be nice to be back on that stage again. I wish Bo would have shut his mouth when we wanted to hire Pitino. I think things would have been somewhat different. Maybe different for him as well as he hasn't had the success at Lousiville that I thought he would. Tubby would have been nice as well.

b said...

I was at Arizona-Oregon this weekend and Malik Hairston put up (I think) 25 in the Ducks’ victory and was unstoppable. Hairston and Tajuan Porter, who has Earl Boykins’ game without the patience, discipline or shot selection, both are from Detroit. Hairston has been a good, but not great, four-year player for Oregon, and I cannot believe how he escaped Michigan. I think he’s a perfect player for Izzo, mind you, but he’d have fit in well at Michigan. If I can remember correctly, he was a pretty highly-touted recruit for Oregon, reminding me of the days Detroit kids like Antonie Joubert, Michael Tally and Jalen Rose went to Michigan because, well, PSL kids went to Michigan. No more.

Another Arizona connection: a freshman guard, Flint’s Laval Lucas-Perry, left after eight games and is transferring to U-M. He’s not a star, but he is a decent player who should have stayed out here (he’d be getting big minutes with Jerryd Bayless hurt) but ran home. He had an okay senior year and was a pretty good football player, which scared off some schools. However, if he becomes a good player at U-M, it says more about the quality of U-M basketball at the moment - that it’d be getting the #9 guy and fourth guard off the bench from a consistent national power.

The lack of Detroit connection, in both basketball and football, has really baffled me in regards to U-M. In my opinion, MSU has taken over the state, even if U-M is better in football, because they have better roots in place. If I was a high school senior and Izzo showed up at my doorstep, I wouldn’t even think for a second. I hate MSU but I love Tom Izzo’s teams, and playing there is a no-brainer. Hopefully kids like Cissoko turn out to be good because there’s been a considerable lag in talent in both sports coming from the PSL (I don’t live in MI, so I can only tell on the face of things - is it a weather/speed/desire thing?), and Michigan has always used Ohio and PA as its most fertile recruiting areas. Just so much as the University itself would love all its students to come from abroad or out of state and enhance its reputation, it seems like U-M has turned its back on the state in almost every facet. It’s already bit them in basketball and, god forbid, if it happens in football, it could be a tough hole to climb out of.

Jake said...


I watched the Indiana game tonight and the defense was brutal. I suggest you continue your streak of not watching games for at least a year.


It’s interesting that Michigan football can recruit Michigan but it’s not a huge priority outside of the top few players and Michigan basketball can’t recruit Michigan despite making it its top priority. This is total conjecture but I think the relative mediocrity of the PSL at least for football probably has to do with money and priorities. Kids growing up in Detroit don’t have it easy. It takes a certain amount of dedication to become good enough at football to get to D-1 talent. I’m guessing that poverty probably makes it more difficult for kids to put their priorities in order. Also, I doubt there is enough money in the PSL for adequate facilities for weight lifting etc. That’s just my guess. One very interesting thing about the PSL is that despite Michigan’s inability to land the premier players, MSU hasn’t either. I’m not sure if that’s due to a lack of interest on Izzo’s part but those guys are just leaving the state all together.

To be fair to LLP, he was the #9 player and 4th guard off the bench but he is also a freshman. Schools as good as Arizona don’t necessarily have room for freshman right away unless they are really good. He is a legit prospect as you mentioned and I’m sure Michigan was after him the first time around.

Based on what you've seen out west, who do you think will be a better pro player, Chase Budinger or Malik Hairston?

Take care!

b said...

Jake - That’s a good question. Chase is very athletic and a good shooter, but he is a lazy defender and can go long stretches where he is totally invisible. He’s the epitome sometimes of a guy where you don’t notice, then look at the scoreboard and he has 15 points, so he’s very deceiving. The knock on him is his defense and desire - he’s really laid-back, and even though he works very hard with his trainer Trent Suzuki in SD (I know this because Arizona basketball is the only thing out here, so we hear things like this), you sometimes wonder if he really cares. Rarely do you see him anything other than calm (which isn’t a bad thing, granted).

Hairston could be a good pro. Itt seems like he’s been there for so long, but I don’t remember him as being so generally unstoppable as he was the other day. Oregon usually wins with its shooting guards and a versatile big man, and Hairston was knocking down threes and getting inside. I was really impressed. I hope that’s a good sign for Detroit PSL bball - he already has his degree and could be a versatile pro. He’s a 6-6 shooting guard/small forward, so he has the size for the NBA too.

b said...

As for LLP, he actually bailed us out once or twice early in the season, but leaving after just eight games had everyone stunned. I wonder what changed after he chose UA over Wisc, U-M and MSU in such a short period of time or what he was expecting. Our football team could have used him, too! Hopefully he’ll do good things in Ann Arbor; UA has a history of guys that do well after transferring (Reuben Douglas led scoring at New Mexico after leaving when Gilbert Arenas came, Dennis Lattimore @ ND and if we can really count him, Luke Recker @ Iowa).

Speaking of transfers, Ryan Mallett would be very wise to go to UCLA. I’m not a huge fan of his attitude, and I thought Lloyd and Mario were going to slit his throat during the Wisconsin game, but he could work well in the Pac-10, esp under Neuheisel.

Jake said...

Word has it that Mallett will probably end up at Tennessee with DeBord and Loeffler. Tennessee must enjoy pain. That's the only reason that I can come up with for why it would seek out DeBord. I agree that Mallett's best bet would be to go to UCLA where he could throw the ball a gazillion times a game.

I'll give you an "A" for effort on Recker but I think Indiana gets dibs on claiming him as a player who transfered out of the program since he actually played a game there.

You can add J.P. Prince, Will Bynum, and Jesus Verdejo to the list of UA transfers who have had some success at other schools. Prince is doing pretty well at Tennessee right now. It's amazing how many transfers Arizona loses and receives. Brian Williams (Bison Dele), Loren Woods, Chris Mills, and Ben Davis all came from other schools. They must have themselves a good travel agent out there in Tucson.


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