Michigan coach John Beilein answers questions from the media after the 70-69 loss to Purdue on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, at Crisler Center. Video by George Sipple/DFP
Isaiah Livers was on campus for less than a week when he realized things were about to get interesting.
Livers, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound rock of a freshman from Kalamazoo had watched John Beilein’s Michigan basketball programs over the years. He knew about the intricate offensive system, the discipline, the attention to detail.
But when he walked into Michigan’s first full gathering as a basketball team over the summer, his roommate took center stage. He was loud. He was confident. He was infectious.
“Someone turned some music on,” Livers recalls. “And that dude just went wild.”
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“That dude,” of course, is freshman guard Jordan Poole. A supremely confident firecracker of a two-guard from Milwaukee who does things his own way and never apologizes for it. Poole plays at Michigan, home of the Fab Five’s baggy shorts.
But upon his arrival, Poole went to long-time equipment manager Bob Bland (or “Bossman Bob,” as Poole calls him) and asked for the shortest pair he had.
He grabbed them, folded the waistband, and wore them up high.
“That’s my style,” Poole smiles. “That’s my swag.”
Michigan forward Isaiah Livers (4) and guard Zavier Simpson (3) celebrate during the first half on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo: Jeffrey Becker USA TODAY Sports)
Swag is the operative word here.
Beilein’s had more skilled clubs during his 11-year run at Michigan, a journey that’s produced two Big Ten titles, a league tournament crown and a national title game appearance. He’s certainly had more seasoned rosters.
This group features a rotation that includes three freshmen, a sophomore point guard (Zavier Simpson) who barely played a year ago, a sophomore wing (Charles Matthews) who came from a completely different world and a 7-footer from Ohio (Jon Teske) who had more fouls than points last season.
They’re far from perfect or polished. But they’re not bashful either.
It’s a word Nik Stauskas and company taught Beilein back in 2012, when Michigan’s eventual star-studded freshman class took the program by storm, led the Wolverines to the Final Four and changed Beilein as a coach in the process.
This group isn’t that explosive on the floor. At least right now.
But it’s collective swagger and willingness to stay in the fight has been enough to shorten the remaining hair left on Beilein’s 64-year-old head and cause him to ooze with excitement at the same time.
“It’s going to be quite a journey (this season),” Beilein said earlier this year. “Quite a journey.”
Through 18 games, it has been exactly that. Every trip down the floor has been a learning experience for this group as a whole, and for Beilein. On Tuesday night, during a near upset of No. 5-ranked Purdue, the entire dynamic was on full display midway through the first half.
With Michigan down double digits and in danger of letting things go off the rails, the Wolverines’ moxie took center stage when Poole — who had barely broken a sweat after checking in 52 seconds prior, collected a pass on his first offensive possession and launched a deep triple directly in front of the visiting bench.
He banked it in.
On the next trip, a nerve-racked Beilein stormed through his coaching box, frantically shouting instruction to his young group who appeared to be veering off the coach’s planned offensive set. The ball wasn’t moving the way he wanted. Beilein’s rolled up sleeves were tossed into the air, sure the Wolverines were going to squash the spark of momentum they’d just found.
Then, in a blink, Matthews calmly took the ball outside the top of the key, made one jab step and calmly buried a 22-footer. The bench erupted. The crowd followed. Michigan was back in the game and all Beilein could do was turn and shrug.
“We’re just tougher (than previous young Michigan teams). We know we can hang in and fight through till the end,” senior co-captain Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman says. “Stuff happens in a game. We keep playing.
“The moment’s not too big. It’s encouraging to have people who are ready to make a play when needed.”
Beilein’s talked in the past about working toward being a coach who can help younger players avoid, as he describes it, playing “with tuxedos on.” In Beilein language, that’s a diplomatic way of describing a player who is soft.
He’s explained how difficult it’s been for him and his coaching staffs over the years to identify players who hold both the prerequisite offensive skill sets required to function in this offense, while also showing a willingness to claw for a loose ball or step in and take a charge. AAU tournaments are not littered with floor diving competitions, as this is an issue every program has.
For Beilein, at least this year, the answer has come in confidence. And that confidence is turning into toughness.
Michigan will enter its lone rivalry tilt with fourth-ranked Michigan State on Saturday in East Lansing with a 14-4 record, 3-2 in Big Ten play. Perhaps most surprising, though, has been the way the Wolverines have defended in tough spots this season.
Every game has been a learning experience for Michigan’s growing group, but a collapse at Ohio State in December might have been the biggest educational tool to date. The Wolverines held a 20-point lead before the break, but ended up losing by nine. The team’s defensive efforts vanished and, for the first time all year, they panicked offensively.
“I’m not glad we lost early in the season,” Livers says. “But they’ve been big for us.”
Entering the Michigan State game, Michigan’s KenPom-rated defensive efficiency number (28) is actually higher than its offensive mark (42). For Beilein teams, that’s basically unheard of. Michigan’s Sweet 16 squad a year ago ranked No. 4 offensively, No. 69 defensively. In 2013, when Michigan made the title game, it did so on the back of a ridiculous offense (No. 1) that was opposed by what was nearly the worst defensive efficiency number (37) to win the whole thing in a decade.
Against a Purdue squad that’s been one of the nation’s best Tuesday night, Michigan fell behind by 14 in the first half and was almost immediately back down 12 to start the second. But its defense — along with the staff’s willingness to ride a potential budding star in Livers at the four — gave Michigan a chance to make it a game again.
“I can’t put my finger on it,” Beilein says. “But I hope we have that ‘it’ where we can just stay in games even when we’re over-matched with experience.”
It’s far from perfect and Michigan’s massive test this week is nowhere near over. Michigan State and Purdue are the best teams Michigan will play during the regular season. They’ll see them both in the span of five days.
Moritz Wagner, the team’s dynamic center, didn’t find the bottom of the net enough against Purdue. Matthews, Michigan’s leading scorer, missed an open Wagner and lost the ball out of bounds in the closing seconds.
In years past, mistakes like these have compounded for some of Beilein’s younger clubs. Three years ago, Michigan’s freshmen provided very little and injuries derailed everything in a .500 season. In 2015-16, maturity, confidence and toughness plagued the Wolverines from wire-to-wire as Michigan barely scraped into the tournament. Last year, before Derrick Walton led Michigan on a springtime joy ride, Michigan found itself playing too tight again and, as a result, were on the outside looking in when February started.
Time will tell whether or not this Michigan team finds its stride or its ceiling. But it’s tough to see anyone calling squad soft or shy.
Beilein’s youngsters have some swag again. Maybe not to the level of a Stauskas telling anyone who would listen he’s the best shooter in America or Trey Burke pulling up from 30 feet in the Sweet 16 because he knew he was due. But this group’s not trying to be someone else. Just itself.
Meantime, Livers will keep surging. Wagner and Matthews will keep evolving. The rest of the club will keep working. Poole will keep dancing.
And maybe Beilein will learn a move or two.
“If he asks,” Poole says. “I’ve got some stuff in the bag for him. For sure.”
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