Niyo: Wolverines will recognize bright future when they emerge from 'empty place'

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Anaheim, Calif. – Ignas Brazdeikis didn’t feel much like talking about the future after Michigan’s season came crashing to an abrupt halt Thursday night. Neither his own nor that of the team he’d helped spark as a flamboyant freshman scorer the last six months.

Michigan coach John Beilein reacts during the second half against Texas Tech.

"It’s just hard to look forward right now,” Brazdeikis said, still absorbing the shock of the Wolverines’ lopsided Sweet 16 loss to Texas Tech at the Honda Center.

“But it is endless,” he finally added, looking up for a moment, “and it’s bright, for sure.”

Even brighter than it was a year ago, in many respects. And they’ll all see that soon enough, once they get past the blinding pain that inevitably follows a season like the one Michigan just completed – another 30-win campaign that began with their head coach recovering from heart surgery and ended with the kind of heartbreak only the best teams in college basketball feel, really.

That was something John Beilein tried to remind his players of as they searched for answers following a 63-44 drubbing that set a program record for offensive futility.

“There’s gonna be a team that wins the NIT and a team that wins the NCAA Tournament, and everybody else is gonna be in tears,” sophomore guard Jordan Poole said, parroting what Beilein had told his team in a muted locker room. “Or if they’re not in tears, they’re not playing right.

“Right now, in this moment, it’s tough. It’s hard. We’re kids, we’re growing up, and we obviously want to keep playing basketball as long as we can.”

But now they won’t for a little while. There’s no practice this week, just a team meeting back in Ann Arbor. The winter semester ends in a few weeks in Ann Arbor.

And for Beilein, this is the worst time of year to be a basketball coach.

'An empty place'

“It is really just an empty place for me, trying to figure out what do I do with myself,” he said, though he was admittedly thrilled about his son Patrick landing his first Division I head coach job at Niagara this week. “Usually I just go recruiting. Just get the hell out of the house and go recruiting. Because I’ll just mope around the house all the time.”

Once he’s done moping, though, it’ll be time to map out a plan for the Wolverines heading into next season with a roster that should return largely intact. Charles Matthews is expected to turn pro with a year of eligibility left. And Brazdeikis and Poole may explore their NBA options, though neither wanted to discuss it Thursday -- "I'm not thinking about that stuff right now," Brazdeikis said -- and I'd be surprised if league executives don't tell both they'd be better off staying in college for another year. Particularly given Beilein's track record with player development.

“We’ll see,” Beilein said, shrugging. “You’ve got transfers, guys will look at the NBA, that same ol' thing. … But if we have everybody back, it’s in really good shape.

And the expectations will reflect that in the fall, with Michigan coming off back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time in program history, as well as a fifth Sweet 16 trip in seven years.

Few expected this kind of season from the Wolverines after losing three of their top four scorers from last year’s Final Four team and then nearly losing their coach to the NBA. When Michigan began playing exhibition games in Spain last August, Beilein was left behind recuperating following double bypass surgery. What he saw watching the livestream feeds from overseas was not particularly healthy, either, as a young team struggled mightily to find an offensive flow.

Yet by the time the regular season was underway, there they went, rolling to a program-record 17-0 start that included impressive wins over Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue. That only raised the bar even higher. Probably too high, in the end.

Because as Beilein noted one last time late Thursday night here in Anaheim, “We all know we were a defensive team this year, and we had trouble scoring points.”

Michigan players watch from the bench during the second half against Texas Tech.

That it took a resilient rival in Michigan State and the nation’s top defensive team in Texas Tech to finally drive that point home in March says plenty about what Beilein and his staff did accomplish, though.

After losing Moe Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson last spring, Beilein opted not to go the route he’d gone a year prior when he brought in a grad transfer (Jaaron Simmons) to add an experienced hand. (Or the way Texas Tech’s Chris Beard did, loading up on transfers after attrition hit his Elite Eight team hard last spring.) Instead, Beilein said, “we decided to stay with our young guys.”

That meant inserting a freshman in Brazdeikis into the starting lineup from Day 1 and handing much bigger roles to the likes of Poole and Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers. It meant leaning heavily on Zavier Simpson and Matthews, the lone fourth-year player on the roster and a guy who’d flirted with going pro himself last spring. But it also meant a short bench and a little margin for error, with the rest of Michigan’s five-man freshman class unable to crack the rotation.

“And if there’s a positive in today’s loss, it’s that they know there’s other good teams out there and other good players and they have to continue to work and get better,” Beilein said Thursday. “Get better at everything about the game, mentally and physically.”

Offseason emphasis

That certainly happened last summer. Simpson became more than just an intense leader. Michigan’s defensive linchpin also emerged as one of the nation’s best point guards playing out of ball screens as a junior. Teske went from a marginal player off the bench to one of the Big Ten’s top defensive centers, a 7-foot-1 presence inside who still has plenty of room to grow his game. Poole nearly tripled his playing time as a sophomore and showed flashes of his offensive potential. So did Brazdeikis, the Big Ten freshman of the year, and Isaiah Livers, who filled a sixth-man role well down the stretch.

But now Beilein has to figure out how to adapt once more, something he’s done countless times in 40-plus years as a head coach and something he sounded ready to do long before Thursday’s finale. With more and more teams opting to defend ball screen-heavy offenses by switching every position – like Texas Tech did Thursday night, and Gonzaga would have if Michigan had advanced to the Elite Eight – the game is changing again offensively.

“It’s the way it’s going: Isolation basketball,” said Beilein, long hailed as one of college basketball's most innovated offensive minds. “And we’re not a great isolation team. We’re not a team that can score 1-on-1.”

So that’ll be a primary emphasis between now and September, getting players like Poole and Brazdeikis to expand their games, learning how to create their own leverage off the dribble and then creating more for their teammates. Brazdeikis had Michigan’s highest usage rate this season, yet he finished the season with only 31 assists in 37 games. He'll likely shift to the three with Livers stepping into the starting lineup replacing Matthews. Likewise, Beilein will be looking for Poole’s assist rate to jump the way it did a couple years ago for Abdur-Rahkman at that critical two guard spot. And maybe rising sophomore Adrien Nunez can provide another perimeter threat a la Robinson.

Simpson won’t become the kind of shooter Derrick Walton was, but he worked tirelessly to become a more efficient offensive weapon this season. Only Cassius Winston had a better assist rate in the Big Ten, and no one developed a more unique way to score than "Captain Hook" did. Next year, he should have a backup in David DeJulius that can add a slightly different element off the dribble. Same goes for Teske inside with either Colin Castleton or Brandon Johns Jr. -- or both -- stepping up as sophomores. And among the things Beilein talked about Thursday night was the need for Teske to develop some sort of post-up game, if only to help free up shooters.

“That would be the hope,” he said. “He’s still not comfortable there.”

No one was with the way this season ended, of course. But that’s where the real optimism should lie, once the fog lifts.

“We’re young,” Poole said. “And being able to do something like this with a young team, obviously there’s a lot of hope, definitely something to look forward to. … This definitely gives us fuel.”