The day has finally arrived. John Beilein has coached his last game as the head man of the Michigan Wolverines and has accepted an offer to be the head coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers. There is, without doubt, a lot to process here.
Beilein walked in when Michigan’s Basketball program was the whipping boy of the Big Ten, and what he did in Ann Arbor was nothing short of stunning: winning two regular season Big Ten Championships, two Big Ten Tournament Championships, five Sweet 16’s, three Elite Eights, two Final Fours, and two berths in the National Title Game, while putting six players in the first round of the NBA draft along the way (Ekpe Udoh does not count), all while running one of the most ethical programs in the country the whole way through.
Even more impressive is that within his twelve seasons at Crisler, Beilein managed to completely reinvent himself and his program between the two runs to the Title Game, making a run in 2013 with a high-octane, pacy team, before bottoming out and rebuilding his program before going deep in 2018 with a resilient team built on an impenetrable defense.
Now that it’s over, it’s time to look back at the players who have come through the program in John Beilein’s time. Will any of his players have their numbers retired in Ann Arbor? No. However, it is undeniable that Michigan fans have been treated to some exceptional players in the last 12 seasons, and now is as good a time as any to take a look back at the 10 best players of the John Beilein era at Michigan.
Let’s start with some honorable mentions:
Stu Douglass, G, 2008-2012 Stu Douglass is the first of many players mentioned here who’s importance is more a function of time and place than being able to blow people away on the court. Douglass’ career stats aren’t particularly impressive (6.9 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists), but he shot 40% from deep in his final two seasons, including a program-altering shot that propelled Michigan to the first Conference Championship of John Beilein’s tenure, setting the stage for what was to come.
Zak Irvin, G/F, 2013-2017 Expectations are a bitch, aren’t they? Zak Irvin came into Ann Arbor with more expected of him than any other player in Beilein’s tenure, and he will go down in history as a bit of a disappointment. But while the former blue-chip recruit never set the world afire, he was undeniably productive in his three years as a starter, posting double-digit scoring averages in all three seasons, while emerging as a solid swingman to complement point guard Derrick Walton Jr. (more on him in a little bit), and served as co-captain of the 2016-17 team that won the Conference Tournament and upset Louisville in what would be Rick Pitino’s last game.
Duncan Robinson, G/F, 2015-2018 Duncan Robinson transferred in from Williams College and had to sit out the 2014-15 season before suiting up for the Maize and Blue, and when he finally did, nobody minded the wait. Robinson scored 11.2 points per game while shooting 45% from beyond the arc in his first season, and while he never matched those numbers in subsequent seasons, his importance did not diminish. The New Hampshire native was a key cog in two Big Ten Tournament-winning teams, including being one of the many shooting weapons at John Beilein’s disposal in 2017-18, a season that saw him serve as co-captain while being named the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, and compiling the silliest statistic of the season: When Duncan Robinson scored 6 or more points in a game in 2017-18, Michigan went 29-0.
Zavier Simpson, G, 2016-Present I guess I’m dead to Alex Drain for not putting Zavier Simpson in the Top 10. The man formerly known as ‘X’ sat behind Derrick Walton Jr. in his freshman season, standing out for his impressive defense and his equally unimpressive offense. In his sophomore season, Simpson seized the starting job and has not let up since, marshaling the Wolverines to the Big Ten Tournament Title and the National Title Game in 2018. While defense will always be his calling card, Zavier Simpson took another step in 2018-19, as his offense improved thanks to developing the most hilarious pet move in college basketball. I find it difficult to put Simpson in the Top 10 now, as his story at Michigan is not yet complete, but I will remember that triple double against Ohio State for a long time.
D.J. Wilson, F, 2014-2017 I had to think long and hard about this one. D.J. Wilson’s status as a first-round draft pick overshadows that fact that he really only had one good season at Michigan, and he wasn’t even the best player on that team. For this reason, he is left outside of the Top 10, but it is staggering how physically talented he was, being able to play on the wing as well as at the rim and having a massive wingspan that made driving against him all but impossible. The Michigan team of 2016-17 would not have been able to win the Big Ten Tournament without him, as they hit their stride late in the season right when he did, as he averaged 15.3 points per game in the tournament, including scoring 26 against Purdue. An injury in his Freshman season effectively robbed him of his first two years in Ann Arbor, but that third season was a big one.
Now on to the Top 10…
10. Glenn Robinson III, F, 2012-2014 Glenn Robinson III was the highest rated recruit in the best Michigan recruiting class since the Fab Five, and while he did not end up as the best player of that class, his ability was never in question. Robinson was thrust into a starting role as a freshman, and posted per game averages of 11.0 points and 5.4 rebounds, as he emerged as a key part of the Final Four run in 2012-13. While he more or less stayed the same statistically in his second season (13.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg), he became a lot more consistent, and was an excellent complement on the Big Ten Title Winning team in 2013-14.
9. Zack Novak, G, 2008-2012 I can only dream of what Luke Yaklich could have done had he ever had Zack Novak at his disposal. Novak was a leader in every sense of the word, and he, along with Stu Douglass, established through sheer force of will what Michigan Basketball would become, winning the Big Ten Regular Season Title in 2011-12 and establishing himself as a cult hero in Ann Arbor. Novak is certainly not the only Michigan Basketball player to win over the fans in this way (see: Munger, Nicole), and he would never be mistaken for a top-shelf talent, averaging 8.1 points per game, along with 4.5 rebounds, across his Michigan career, but he more than made up for it by diving for every loose ball, hounding opponents on defense, and willing John Beilein’s program forward into it’s impressive future.
8. Caris LeVert, G, 2012-2016 If only Caris LeVert’s body held up more consistently. After a largely anonymous freshman season, LeVert became a force as a sophomore, averaging 12.9 points per game while shooting 40% from three, establishing himself as an NBA talent as Michigan won the Big Ten and reached the Elite Eight in 2013-14. Unfortunately, LeVert’s body had other ideas, so while he was measurably better in his junior and senior seasons (14.9 ppg in 2014-15, 16.5 ppg in 2015-16), he wasn’t able to play more than 18 games in either year. While we can look at LeVert and ask what could have been, he was a special talent who could change the course of a game, as well as the course of a season, when he was on the court. It is not a coincidence that Beilein’s lean years came when LeVert couldn’t stay healthy.
7. Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman, G, 2014-2018 At the outset of the 2017-18 season, I described Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman as ‘a rich man’s Zack Novak’. I was wrong with that comparison, MAAR was much more gifted offensively, was better in the clutch, and led in a more understated manner, but one (Alex Hsi) could argue that Rahkman’s impact on his team transcended his stats in the same way as his predecessor. Abdur-Rahkman was not a ball of energy, and was nowhere near the vocal presence that the notoriously fiery Zack Novak was, but there was absolutely no doubt who led the 2017-18 team behind the scenes in their run to the Final Four. Rahkman was an adequate starter in his junior season, and largely stayed that way for the rest of 2017, but announced himself to the world in a big way on Martin Luther King Day in 2018, draining two free throws to complete a comeback victory with 1.2 seconds left. From there, the captain would not be overlooked again, repeatedly coming through when it mattered with timely shooting and stout defending, and providing a calming, efficient counterpoint to Moe Wagner’s flamboyance. It was the perfect counterbalance in the dichotomy that propelled that team to a Big Ten Tournament Title and a Final Four banner.
6. Derrick Walton Jr., G, 2013-2017 Derrick Walton Jr. endured some tough seasons in Ann Arbor. An injury sidelined him for half of his sophomore campaign in 2014-15, and he somehow managed to play a massively underwhelming 2015-16 team into the NCAA tournament. But Walton’s improvement was perfectly linear, and his Michigan career ended in a big way, averaging 15.5 points per game, 4.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists in his final campaign and leading Michigan to the 2017 Big Ten tournament Title. Walton’s numbers and accomplishments as a four-year starting point guard are impressive enough already, but he will always be remembered for how he, and the team he captained, responded to what could have been a complete disaster. After the infamous aborted takeoff that almost derailed Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament run before it started, questions were asked whether they should even make the trip. It was put to a vote, and off they went, and in their first game, in which they had to wear practice jerseys, Walton (who had voted to forfeit the tournament and not go) hung 19 points on the Illini, firing the Wolverines through to the quarterfinals. After a tough quarterfinal against Purdue, Walton went supernova, scoring 29 in the semifinals against Minnesota and 22 against Wisconsin in the final, ushering in John Beilein’s second stage of dominance in Ann Arbor.
5. Manny Harris, G, 2007-2010 John Beilein’s first top player will always be overlooked because he played at the start of John Beilein’s tenure when Michigan was quite dreadful. While Harris doesn’t have any banners to his name, he was among the most lethal scorers in the Big Ten across his three seasons in Ann Arbor (17.0 ppg for his career). An All-Big Ten player in each of his three seasons, Harris shot 40.6% from beyond the arc across his Michigan career, including shooting 42.1% in his final season. Harris was also a plus rebounder (5.7 rebounds per game in his career), setting the template for future swingmen such as Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Zak Irvin. Harris is unfortunate to have played during a very dark time in the history of Michigan Basketball, and as a result, he doesn’t have the legacy of other players here, but let it not be forgotten that he was an extraordinary individual player.
4. Tim Hardaway Jr., G, 2010-2013 Tim Hardaway Jr. could have left Michigan for the NBA after his freshman season. He had it all going for him, 13.9 points per game as a freshman, solid shooting numbers, prodigious size (6-6 as a shooting guard), name recognition, unanimous selection to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team, everything. Instead, he stayed at Michigan. Ultimately, this probably turned out the be the correct decision, as Hardaway’s contributions at Michigan will be remembered for a long time, and he still ended up being, at least for the moment, the best NBA player of John Beilein’s tenure. Hardaway had a good but somewhat underwhelming sophomore campaign in 2011-12, before becoming one half of one of the best backcourts in the country in 2012-13, providing a veteran presence on a team largely comprised of underclassmen as they shot their way to the Final Four.
A two-time All-Big Ten selection, Hardaway always had a reputation of being a high-volume scorer with poor shot selection and streaky shooting. And while that was largely true in his first two years, Hardaway was still very productive and ultimately shed that mold in his final season, improving as a rebounder, providing adequate defense, posting his best shooting numbers, and turning into an elite transition player. While Hardaway’s career numbers (14.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.1 apg) don’t match those of Manny Harris, Hardaway was more efficient, received less usage at his best, and provided a key locker room voice in situations that Manny Harris was unfortunately never in. As the vocal leader of the 2012-13 team in the wake of Zack Novak’s graduation. Hardaway’s career is not actually all that dissimilar from Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and while he also was never the top option on any Michigan team, his importance to that 2012-13 Final Four team cannot be overstated.
3. Moritz Wagner, F, 2015-2018 Michigan is not, and never will be, a “Basketball School”, but if there was ever a point where it came close, it was in 2018, and it was because of Moe Wagner. The German big man captivated Ann Arbor in a way that no Michigan Basketball player had done since Chris Webber. Wagner might as well have been grown in a lab with the purpose of creating a player to play in today’s style of basketball, a big who could run the floor, drive and finish at the rim, and, most especially, shoot from downtown. Moe shot 39.4% from beyond the arc in his last season in Ann Arbor, but it would be a massive injustice to only use Wagner’s numbers to justify the effect he had. Wagner was an NBA talent and he knew it, his flamboyance and brashness on the court reflected that. It made Michigan fall in love with him and made others detest him. It also didn’t hurt that no moment was big enough for Wagner.
His legend was set as he burned the Breslin Center to the ground to the tune of 27 points and a hell of a lot of tongue-wagging at the Michigan State crowd. He followed up at the Big Ten Tournament by posting 15 points and 8 rebounds against the Spartans in the semifinals, before dropping 17 points on Purdue in the final to secure a second consecutive Big Ten Tournament Title en route to John Beilein’s second Final Four berth. Wagner’s tangible accomplishments are absurd enough already: Two Big Ten Tournament Titles, National Runner-up in 2018, Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player in 2018, named a 2018 All-Big Ten player by both coaches and the media, 2018 NCAA Final Four All-Tournament Team, 2018 NCAA West Regional All-Tournament Team. However, Wagner’s combination of self-confidence, attitude, and propensity to rise to the occasion was every bit as important. John Beilein has had better players at Michigan, but no other player in the last 12 years (25 years, for that matter) made Michigan fall in love with basketball the way Moe Wagner did.
2. Nik Stauskas, G, 2012-2014 Nik Stauskas would likely have made this list had he stayed for two or three years as an incrementally improving catch and shoot specialist. Stauskas averaged 11.0 points per game in 2012-13 as a freshman while shooting 44% on three point attempts, so merely sustaining his freshman performance for a few years would have been more than welcome. Instead, foreshadowed by a 22-point (7-8 from the field, 6-6 from deep) outburst in the 2013 Elite Eight against Florida, Stauskas learned how to play on the ball, complemented is deep shooting with a developing mid-range shot, and proceeded to launch the rest of the Big Ten into space. With a brand new starting backcourt in Derrick Walton Jr. and Caris LeVert, Stauskas took on more responsibility in 2013-14 and morphed from a sniper to a one-man offensive juggernaut, averaging 17.5 points per game while failing to crack double figures only four times, and he somehow became more efficient as an offensive player despite a massive increase in his usage.
After only scoring 9 in the season opener, Stauskas broke the 20-point mark in five straight games that November. 50 days later, Michigan hit its toughest stretch of the season, with three straight games against Top-10 teams, two of which were on the road. Stauskas rose to the occasion, hanging 23 on 3rd-ranked Wisconsin and silencing the Kohl center, which he then followed up by scoring 26 in a victory against 10th-ranked Iowa in Ann Arbor, before entering the Breslin Center in East Lansing and vexing Tom Izzo to the tune of 19 points on 5-6 shooting from deep in an upset of 3rd-ranked Michigan State. Stauskas went on to close the regular season as strong as anybody, scoring another 25 against Michigan State in a home victory, the first of the Wolverines’ five wins to close the regular season, which included Stauskas scoring 21, 24 and 21 in the final three games to seal the Big Ten Title for Michigan.
Stauskas did not go unnoticed, as he was unanimously selected to the All-Big Ten First Team by both the coaches and the media, and was named the 2014 Big Ten Player of The Year. He then carried his hot form into the postseason as well, never scoring less than 15 in a game, punctuating his Michigan career by dropping 24 in his final game as a Wolverine in the Elite Eight. It isn’t often that an unheralded college prospect vaults himself from a late-second/undrafted rating into the top 10 of the NBA draft, but that is exactly what Nik Stauskas did, going 8th overall in the 2014 NBA draft, a fitting reward for one of the greatest seasons in Michigan history. As a freshman, Nik Stauskas was efficient, ruthless, and consistent. As a sophomore, he was unstoppable.
1. Trey Burke, G, 2011-2013 Everyone knew John Beilein had something special on his hands when he poached Trey Burke from the heart of enemy territory (colloquially known as Columbus, Ohio) ahead of the 2011-12 season. The diminutive point guard delivered immediately, scoring 14.8 points per game and dishing out 4.2 assists per game as a freshman starter on a Big Ten Title winning team. Burke was graded as a late lottery pick right then and there, and he very well could have left, along with Tim Hardaway Jr., his backcourt partner. Instead, they both stayed, and Beilein’s program floored the ignition.
Burke led the line as the linchpin of John Beilein’s best team ever, scoring 18.6 points per game and dishing out 6.7 assists per game. Burke scored in double figures in every single regular season game in the 2012-13 season. The Wolverines’ point guard then hit a snag, starting off the NCAA tournament with a pair of underwhelming games and being held scoreless through one half against Kansas in the Sweet 16. After what happened next, John Beilein’s program had officially arrived. Burke clawed Michigan back into striking distance, before forcing overtime on the most ubiquitous shot of John Beilein’s coaching career. Burke starred again in overtime, finishing the game with 23 points and 10 assists, as Michigan upset top-seeded Kansas, en route to the National Title Game, a magical season than saw Burke take home the Wooden Award as the consensus National Player of the Year.
John Beilein has always developed excellent players at Michigan, but none of them legitimized this program the way Trey Burke did. Novak willed the program back to its feet, but Trey Burke defined it, and shot Michigan into the stratosphere of national relevance, leading a stacked Michigan team with a series of defining moments known to everyone who saw them (the steal, the shot). John Beilein painstakingly brought Michigan Basketball back from the dead, but this recent golden age, which Beilein will always be remembered for, began with Trey Burke.
Thank you very much Coach Beilein, and best of luck in Cleveland. You’ve earned it…