It was quite a weekend for Michigan athletics. Not just was there a sweep of Michigan State in baseball, a Big Ten Championship in women’s gymnastics, a win streak that hit 18 in softball (albeit it was finally snapped), but more importantly, the basketball team made the Final Four and the hockey team made the Frozen Four. It is the first time since 2001 that any school has sent both its basketball and hockey squads to the Final Four/Frozen Four simultaneously, and the 4th time in University of Michigan history that it has happened. And what’s more incredible is that neither was supposed to happen. Not anything close to it! Yet it happened. That’s thanks to two fantastic coaches in Ann Arbor, veteran John Beilein, experiencing a second peak of his Michigan tenure, and first year man Mel Pearson. Both of these teams could win the National Championships, though they also could easily not. But no matter what happens the next two weekends, it’s time to honor the fantastic work of Pearson and Beilein, both this season, but also setting their programs up for success long term.
A Sweeping Success on the Ice - Mel Pearson’s Magic
Michigan hockey was bad last year. Very bad. Legendary head coach Red Berenson retired after the season and 2017-18 was expected to be a rebuilding year, as the program looked to get back on its feet before returning to the mid-90s-mid-00s glory. It was picked to be 6th out of 7 teams in a very deep and competitive Big Ten Conference. Instead, it has overachieved more than anyone could’ve imagined back in October.
With the two wins over the weekend, which I will comment on in a minute, the Wolverines are now 14-4-1 in their last 19 games. They have not lost a game in regulation since February 3. That’s the beauty of this team, and the excellence of Mel Pearson’s coaching. Not just has this team overachieved and made it to the Frozen Four, but they got significantly better as the year went on. Back in early January, Michigan was 8-10-2 and far from any national college hockey pundit’s radar. But the team turned it on, thanks to the growth of young players like Quinn Hughes, the leadership of Cooper Marody and Tony Calderone, and the stellar play of emerging goalie Hayden Lavigne. And this winning streak has come even while top 6 forward Will Lockwood is out for the season (injured in early January).
Now onto this weekend. Michigan entered the Northeast Regional as the #2 seed, facing Northeastern. I previewed the regional in this post last week, and in it, I noted how difficult the region was. Michigan was staring down a Northeastern team with two of the five or six best players in college hockey, a stud goalie, and one that had given up the fourth least goals while scoring the fourth most. Oh, and they had a lethal power play, Michigan’s kryptonite. Also in the region was #1 seed and defensive monster Cornell, along with red hot and NHL-talent laden Boston U. It was not going to be easy.
Yet, the Wolverines emerged as the Victors Valiant. On Saturday, they thoroughly outplayed Northeastern, perhaps Michigan’s most complete performance of the season. They played largely clean (though did surrender one power play goal), got some timely goals, and stifled Northeastern’s top line. The Huskies barely had any good looks with the goalie pulled, and Michigan won 3-2. Then on Sunday against the #4 seed Boston U. Terriers, the Wolverines were in for a tough fight. The Terriers were 14-2-3 in their final 19 games preceding Sunday and with an insane amount of NHL talent, this was no ordinary 4 seed. After all, Boston U was the preseason #2, a talented team finally figuring it out. But Michigan played the better game, converting on the power play, not taking many penalties, possessing the puck, limiting turnovers, and most of all, getting the timely goal. Jake Slaker put Michigan up 4-3 in the third and Nick Boka added insurance late, before Nick Pastujov’s empty netter to seal the win. Michigan beat two quality teams en route to the Frozen Four and put together two complete performances in consecutive days.
I’m not going to get into a Frozen Four preview, that’ll come next week. But I like the matchup with Notre Dame, given the success Michigan had against the Irish throughout the season. And this is college hockey. Anything can happen in the course of one singular 60 minute game. If Michigan is to defeat the Fighting Irish, they will face either Minnesota-Duluth or Ohio State in the title game. My gut says I’d rather face Duluth, but it doesn’t really matter. The Wolverines are on fire and have so far exceeded expectations that they’re playing with house money at this point. No matter what happens, this is a team to be proud of, and it’s thanks to Mel Pearson. He’s shaken up the style of play and given the locker room a fresh voice. And with almost every starter returning next year, the addition of several top recruits, and maybe generational talent Jack Hughes, the Wolverines will likely be a college hockey powerhouse for the foreseeable future. So thank you, Mel.
A Hardwood Return to Stardom - John Beilein’s quest for greatness
Michigan basketball’s run to the Final Four hasn’t been as surprising as hockey’s to the Frozen Four, but looking back on the earlier stages of the year, it absolutely has been a shock. This was a rebuilding year too, a team that had lost the three best players from its squad a year ago. This dude from BTN had Michigan slated to be 8th in the Big Ten at the start of the year. Michigan was a preseason 8 seed in the NCAA Tourney, according to Joe Lunardi. Even midseason, like after the Ohio State loss in December, no one could’ve seen this run coming for the Wolverines. But just like Pearson’s hockey squad, the team has gotten significantly better as the year has gone on.
Charles Matthews has gone from a raw star in November to a lost talent midseason, only to become a refined/budding star in March. Zavier Simpson seized the starting job in December/January and has elevated his play to become maybe the best defensive point guard in the country. Duncan Robinson and Moe Wagner’s defense has improved substantially and suddenly Beilein’s group has the 4th best defense in the country, per KenPom (Texas Tech is now barely ahead of Michigan). It’s a team winning in a way that no other Beilein group could, with teamwork, toughness, and an ability to pull games out even when the shots weren’t falling. There’s no singular star, and in some ways, the team resembles the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, with intensity and gritty team defense leading the way. They have not lost a game since February 6, and since then, they are 13-0, and according to Bart Torvik’s T-Rank, they are the best team in the country over that span.
The Final Four will be tougher. Michigan will be prohibitive favorites over Loyola-Chicago, a game they absolutely should win, but don’t write off the Ramblers. That said, assuming the Wolverines find themselves playing for a National Championship next Monday, it will be against either Villanova or Kansas, two of the 8 best teams in the country according to Kenpom, and 2 of the five best over that same span where Michigan is #1. It will not be easy. Michigan would probably be even money against Kansas, and slight underdogs in the betting markets about Villanova. I like Michigan’s matchup against Kansas a little more but a 40 minute, single elimination basketball tournament contest is anyone’s game. And in anyone’s game, that leaves the possibility for a title, one that would be so unlikely, it was laughable just a few months ago.
But before I conclude, I want to look back at John Beilein’s career arc, and acknowledge what I see as his “second peak”. Beilein arrived in Ann Arbor in 2007 and inherited a barren program, crushed by poor coaching and NCAA sanctions. It took several years to get the program up and running, but he finally had a group of players he was comfortable with from 2012-2014, claiming a pair of Big Ten Regular Season titles, two Elite Eight appearances, and one Final Four/National Championship Game appearance. That was the first peak. However, the program hit a speed bump when all his players left for the NBA. As a head coach, you try to plan out your program, how many scholarships allocated for which specific years. During that span, he had an unprecedented amount of early departures to the NBA. There is no way Beilein could’ve planned that 4 star Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas were going to leave two years early or that three star Trey Burke was going to leave two years early, or that Caris LeVert would have the final two years of his career damaged by injuries.
Yet that is what happened, and it demonstrated itself in 2015 and 2016, with two down years. And for a good chunk of 2017, that was the case too. But since the disappointing loss to Ohio State in early February 2017, Beilein is 44-10 (0.815), with two sweet 16 appearances and a Final Four. Whether he wins the title this year or not, he has returned to the mountaintop, gotten the program back in order and with lots of talent returning and one of the strongest recruiting classes Michigan basketball has had under Beilein, expect continued success for the Wolverines for the next several seasons. That growth, perseverance and resilience is why we should be saluting John Beilein this week.
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