Michigan has been here before, but turnaround won’t be easy

Dylan Burkhardt

In the best of times and the worst of times, it always comes back to the process for John Beilein.

“We’ve been here before and our great teams have been in this exact same spot before,” Beilein said after Michigan’s humbling loss at Arizona. “This is just part of the process. We just have to keep getting better throughout the process.”

Beilein has been coaching for a while now and he’s learned a thing or two along the way. He knows how to build a winning team and program and he’s preached his process for years since he arrived in Ann Arbor.

Early on during Beilein’s tenure at Michigan, there were times when it seemed like his process might have lacked the punch to be successful and, at times, the process hasn’t always worked. But at this point, it’s impossible to argue with the overall results.

Things look incredibly bleak for Michigan’s young team right now. The point guards are hurt, the young big men are struggling and the star players aren’t producing at the level expected. Does Michigan have a vocal leader? Can the Wolverines get any offense created around the basket? How can such a young frontcourt pose a legitimate defensive threat in the Big Ten?

There are far more questions than answers right now. But for better or worse, stretches like this have always been part of the process.

The last six Michigan basketball seasons have all featured weeks or months that were at least somewhat similar. Whether it was a slump in a previously promising season, or a moment where Michigan finally snapped out of a season-long rut. In five of the last six years, Michigan righted the ship in remarkable fashion.

2009 – Michigan loses seven of nine games over a month period starting in mid-January, but the Wolverines manage to finish the year with a .500 conference record and win a game in the NCAA tournament.

2010 – Michigan goes 6-5 in non-conference play and never recovers, finishing the season 15-17 with just a 7-11 conference record.

2011 – Michigan loses seven out of eight games from December 28th onward and sits at 11-9 (1-6 B1G) on January 22nd — only to turn things around and win 9 of its final 13 and win a game in the NCAA tournament.

2012 – Michigan fails to win consecutive games between throughout January and early February, only to bounce back and win six of its final seven en route to a share of the Big Ten Championship.

2013–  Michigan loses six of its final 11 games, including a loss to a Penn State team that was 0-14 in Big Ten play, and loses the Big Ten Championship at the buzzer. Two weeks later the same team puts everything together and advances to the National Championship.

2014 – Michigan loses four non-conference games, including one to an average Charlotte  team in Puerto Rico, and learns that Mitch McGary will be sidelined indefinitely in late December. The Wolverines respond by rattling off 10 straight wins and win the Big Ten by three games and advance to the Elite Eight.

Beilein would swear that those losses were the most important part of the process that led to where those teams ended up. But while Michigan has been here before, it might be facing an even more difficult turnaround than in recent seasons.

The last time Michigan lost three consecutive games was in January of 2011. The last time Michigan lost to two teams ranked outside of the KenPom top-100 was 2010, when Michigan failed to reach .500. Those were both milestones that the Wolverines thought they had left in the past. After snapping that January streak in 2011, Michigan has been arguably the class of the Big Ten since then, accumulating a 48-17 record in conference play and winning two league championships.

While the Wolverines have gone through rough patches before, this scenario looks much more similar to the 2011 team than the ’12, ’13 or ’14 groups, and that season was perhaps the most miraculous turnaround during Beilein’s tenure. Losing to NJIT and Eastern Michigan at home then suffering a drubbing on national TV is up there with this program’s worst weeks in the last few years.

There are problems with this team that aren’t going to be fixed over night. Nik Stauskas, Jordan Morgan or Glenn Robinson III isn’t coming back to help and the Wolverines are going to have to improve from within. On the other hand, Michigan’s players are all capable of playing better basketball than they have over the last week. This is the same team that beat Oregon and Syracuse and battled Villanova to the buzzer.

The talent is there, but there’s not much time left to put it all together.

The good news is that now John Beilein can point to his process and his players have no choice but to listen. There’s little question that the process works and that credibility should count with this young team. While convincing past teams to heed his guidance might have been a chore, Beilein can point to the Big Ten Championship and the Final Four banners in the rafters of the Crisler Center and get this young team’s attention.

A win at Arizona was never likely, but the Wolverines have to start digging themselves out of this hole sooner than later. Saturday’s home game against SMU is a good start. The Mustangs are a good team, but they are a team that Michigan can beat at home – even if All-AAC big man Markus Kennedy returns from his semester-long suspension before the game.

Similar to Michigan’s game against Stanford last season, this is the chance to create some positive momentum heading into conference play. Before the January 1st, Michigan hosts SMU, Coppin State and Illinois.

Win those three games and the Wolverines will have a shot of confidence before heading out on their first Big Ten road trip to Purdue and Penn State. Drop one or two more games before the calendar turns to 2015 and suddenly Michigan finds itself even further behind the eight-ball.

The process hasn’t let John Beilein down yet, but this season might be its biggest test yet.

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  • gobluemd16

    Been trying to stay away from the comments as I can (understandably) imagine the negativity going on around here. What do you think of our chances of a turnaround, Dylan? Still think we have a greater than 50% shot at making the tournament?

    • John

      I’m not Dylan but I will give it a go. If we win out in the non-conference and play “as expected” basketball in the BIG(factoring in both one unlikely loss and one unlikely win, and factoring in that yes, even though we got destroyed by Zona, NJIT and Eastern were abberations and not indicative of future performance), we will be going into the BIG tourney at 19-10, finish four or fifth in the conference. One victory in the BIG tourney(yes, over Illinois, without question), and we finish 20-11 with wins over 3-5 top 25 teams (depending on what State and Syracuse do with themselves).
      If that holds, yes, we are in, no sweat. 8 or 9 seed.

      • Wayman Britt

        John that sounds about right – good analysis, but I thought the program was beyond scrapping to just get into the tourney. UM’s expectations should be a national top 10 – 15 team every year. Why can’t UM be like UK, KU, Zona, Duke, Ville. We have the coach, facilities, maybe UM just needs more time.

        • John

          Unforeseen developments. Burke and Stauskus’ performances far exceeded expectations, and their play both paved the way for us to be a national power but their early departures made it hard to sustain. Mitch’s injury last year could have actually bought us some time to replenish because it nearly forced his hand to stay, but his forced departure was the proverbial dong-punch. Horford was some nasty icing on an already putrid cake. My guess is that we may return everybody next year, Levert included, and that could stabalize things in order for us to reload. A big part of the issue this year is that we have not seen development from certain players we expected to. Now, it is a long season, but early returns have been disappointing.

    • arete

      Don’t worry gobluemd16. I read somewhere that the only year Michigan won the National Championship, they lost to EMU. History may be about to repeat itself.

    • Champswest

      I think there is too much to overcome this year. Lack of experience, lack of big man depth, lack of strong willed leader, etc. Add to that a well balanced league versus a top heavy league will make it hard to have a strong B1G record. It will be hard to be much above 9-9, unless this team grows up in a hurry.

  • Tony DeMaria

    I’ve learned better than to count a Beilein team out. Especially when there are 4 Top 100 guys on the roster, and that doesn’t include the pre-season All Big Ten first team player. And its especially hard to count out a team whose roster includes only 3 upper classmen and no seniors. It’s possible we never get it together and are NIT bound or worse, but again I’m not counting out a Beilein team.

  • mikey_mac

    I think the parallels to the 2010–11 team are pretty strong, and the ceiling is probably similar. That team had to complete re-identify itself after losing program pillars Sims and Harris (and most of their front court minutes). There was obviously talent on the team, though (Morris’ big year, Stu/Zack, and freshman THJ) … it just took a long while to come together.

  • JimC

    Beilein needs to go. He has worn out his welcome.

    Just kidding, relax.