I don’t think anyone saw this one coming.
In a college basketball offseason that has already seen it’s share of surprising and head-scratching moves, particularly with regards to early entry into the NBA draft, perhaps the biggest surprise came this morning when it was reported, and quickly confirmed, that John Beilein is leaving Michigan to coach the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Arguably the top Michigan fansite was blindsided (and eventually just devolved into chaos and NSFW language). There were no rumblings about this possibility in either the local or national media. Nonetheless, the most successful coach in Michigan basketball history is no longer in Ann Arbor.
There are a lot of angles to this story to consider: what it means for Beilein, what it means for Michigan, and what it means for the college basketball landscape as a whole.
First, let’s deal with Beilein. By all accounts Beilein is truly one of the “good guys” in basketball, and has had a sterling reputation as a “clean” coach in his nearly 30 years coaching in Division I. Part of why Michigan fans (myself included!) are taking this so hard is that Beilein represented the university so well; many hoped that he could one day be what Tom Izzo is to Michigan State and Mike Krzyzewski is to Duke, a coach that is synonymous with the program itself. This is a guy who literally worked his way up through the entire basketball coaching ladder, starting as a high school head coach and proceeding through the lower levels of college basketball before reaching D1, then a power conference school in West Virginia, and finally a top-tier program in Michigan.
From that perspective, it makes sense why Beilein might want one final challenge in his career (he’s 66 years old), and the NBA certainly represents that. There will be a lot of questions about the particulars of the decision (Why leave for an unappealing job in Cleveland? Why leave when the Wolverines’ have chance to compete at the national level in 2019-2020? Will his coaching style and personality translate to the NBA game?), but I’ll personally be rooting for his success. While he did say last summer that he planned on “ending his coaching career at Michigan”, let’s not forget that statement came after Beilein flirted with the Detroit Pistons’ job, and did so in a completely transparent matter, so his NBA interest isn’t completely out of left field. Another factor to keep in mind: by going to Cleveland, Beilein may not need to move his family from Michigan, and he also is a reasonable drive from Niagara, where his son is now head coach.
Now, what does this mean for Michigan? Barring a miraculous hire, my insistence that the Wolverines would be a National Title contender in 2020 is likely on life support. With every coaching change there comes attrition, both in the form of transfers and new decisions from incoming recruits. Michigan’s key upperclassmen, senior point guard Zavier Simpson, senior center Jon Teske, and junior forward Isaiah Livers, likely aren’t going anywhere; Michigan could remain a Top 25 team even with major attrition with those three leading them through this transition. But now it becomes highly unlikely that Iggy Brazdeikis withdraws from the NBA Draft (barring a very poor combine showing), and even less likely that Franz Wagner, Mo Wagner’s little brother and a legitimate NBA prospect, will choose to develop in Michigan rather than Germany. And while I’d be surprised if rising sophomores Brandon Johns and David DeJulius transfer, as both have in-state roots, other members of that Top-10 recruiting class could choose to leave Ann Arbor (one name to watch: Colin Castleton, a “Beilein-style” long and mobile center who can shoot who showed flashes of promise late in his freshman season, but may want to go to a program fitting his playing style). And the two 4-star incoming wings in the 2019 class, Jalen Wilson and Cole Bajema, are now major question marks.
As far as coaching candidates, many in Michigan circles will likely want a big name: some are already speculating that the Wolverines may try to poach Jay Wright or even Tony Bennett with a blank check, or see if Brad Stevens or Billy Donovan want to leave the NBA. Obviously those scenarios are likely moonshots. The most likely option is Michigan stays in house, probably with current assistant Luke Yaklich. Yaklich is almost singlehandedly responsible for Michigan’s stellar defense the past two seasons, as Beilein handed him the keys and dubbed him a “defensive coordinator”. It’s also been reported that he is a dogged recruiter and was key in many of Michigan’s recent recruiting successes. Despite this, his name has yet to come up in any rumors for open coaching jobs, would may mean he had some sort of non-explicit “coach in waiting” deal in place at Michigan. In my mind, Michigan’s best option to maintain both continuity and the program’s momentum would be to quickly name Yaklich head coach and redefine the program entirely around his defensive identity. Were that to come to pass, it’s likely with the current upperclassmen that Michigan will remain a Top-5 defense this season, and thus still a team to reckon with.
As far as Duke, and the college basketball landscape at large, there are short and long term implications. In this short term, it’s very likely that Michigan won’t be the same in the first year post-Beilein. That clears the path for Michigan State atop the B1G, and potentially bumps Duke up some “Way-Too-Early Top 25” lists. In the near term there likely isn’t a major impact on Duke recruiting either, as the last major recruit that Duke and Michigan competed for was Mitch McGary (Beilein made his name by focusing on recruits that fit his system, while also finding numerous diamonds in the rough, not the 5-stars that make up the Blue Devils’ roster).
But Michigan will be a very attractive job given the Wolverines’ recent success, not to mention the major upgrades to both the arena and practice facilities made in Ann Arbor over the past decade. If Yaklich or another in-house candidate gets the job, Michigan’s identity probably won’t change much. But if a big name comes in, Michigan could become a new player in the battle for top-tier recruits. It’s certainly something for Duke fans to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.
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