The best offense in college basketball two years running was not built on the strength of five-star recruits or dominating post play. That's not how John Beilein has done it at Michigan, and if he has it his way again, it's not how the Wolverines will do it this year.
Beilein's spread offense was honed at West Virginia by spacing the floor with shooters to open up holes in opposing defenses. As he enters his eighth year in Ann Arbor, there aren't many programs winning as consistently as Michigan. There also aren't many coaches who do more to boost the stock of their players than Beilein.
Michigan has sent five players to the NBA the last two years, including four as first-round draft picks. Of those four, only Mitch McGary entered college as an ESPN top-30 recruit. The other three -- Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas -- weren't even ranked in the top 75 of their high school class.
With Hardaway leaving before his senior season and Burke, Stauskas, McGary and Glenn Robinson III jumping to the pros before their junior years, maintaining Michigan's new standard of excellence won't be easy. When you have the most efficient offense in the country in back-to-back seasons according to KenPom, it never is. This year's team could have as many as seven freshmen, and neither of the two players projected to share the majority of the minutes at center has played a second of college basketball.
While a new season presents a new set of challenges for Beilein, the talent pipeline is far from dried up. Beilein has his next star, and he fits right in with the trend of taking under recruited players and turning them into NBA material overnight.
For Michigan, this is the year of Caris LeVert. After establishing himself in his sophomore season, LeVert returns as Michigan's primary option. If LeVert follows the path of Burke and Stauskas and takes another leap forward in the role, he could be one of the best perimeter players in the country. Not bad for a player who was barely on college radars just two years ago.
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(Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
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"Coming in I didn't really lift a lot. I didn't lift at all," LeVert said Thursday at the Big Ten's media day near Chicago. "Eating differently, changing my diet and things like that to help me gain weight."
The player Caris LeVert is today is completely different from one that entered school in 2012.
When LeVert arrived at Michigan, he checked in at 162 pounds. He was so slim the Wolverines originally intended to redshirt him before the team's depth issues became apparent and forced the him into action in the seventh game of the season.
For LeVert, just making it to Michigan registered as an upset. Two years prior, he was coming off the bench for his high school squad and playing for the B-team in the same grassroots organization that produced Burke, Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft.
LeVert was considered a mid-major prospect at best. ESPN rated him a two-star prospect, while other services had him as a three-star. Still, he showed enough on tape for Ohio coach John Groce to offer him a scholarship heading into his senior season. It was the start of a manic year for LeVert that would help shape his future in basketball.
As a senior, all LeVert did was lead Ohio's Pickerington High to the state championship by averaging over 18 points per game. As soon as his season ended, he watched Ohio, his future school, go on a wild run to the Sweet 16 as a No. 13 seed. LeVert thought he was joining a program on the upswing, but as soon as he was ready to take off for college, Groce left for the head coaching job at Illinois.
LeVert waited for a call from Groce that never came. Fortunately, Michigan picked up the phone.
No one at Michigan knew what they had in LeVert entering his sophomore year, but they knew they needed him with Burke and Hardaway Jr. off to the NBA. That became even more apparent when McGary injured his back and didn't play another game after Dec. 8.
Wherever expectations were at for LeVert, it's safe to say he shattered them. He scored 24 at Duke on Dec. 3, setting himself up for a season full of scoring explosions. He dropped 20 points in a road win over No. 3 Wisconsin in January, 25 against the Badgers a month later and scored 23 in a victory over rival Michigan State a few days after that.
Michigan's season would end in heartbreak, minutes before a return trip to the Final Four. The Wolverines were the latest victim of Aaron Harrison's heroics, or perhaps more appropriately, Kentucky's NBA-level front line. After the Elite 8 loss, Stauskas and McGary declared for the draft and starting big man Jon Horford transferred to Florida.
Going from an unknown to a quality starter is one thing. Now LeVert is tasked with his biggest challenge yet: taking his game up another level just as Burke and Stauskas did to keep Michigan humming. If the Wolverines are going to fight off a down season after so much success the last few years, it will be largely because LeVert takes another leap.
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(Credit: Mike Carter, USA Today Sports)
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"I think what separates Caris is his quickness," Beilein said Thursday. "He's slippery and quick. He can get to spots because of his frame and his quickness. And now what's added is he can see the floor. At 6'7, you can look over everyone too. That's really an advantage."
Stauskas' biggest improvement last year might have been in his ball handing and playmaking. With Burke gone, Stauskas found the ball in his hands and raised his assist rate from 7.6 to 18.6. Now that Stauskas is gone, it stands to reason LeVert will take on a similar burden alongside sophomore point guard Derrick Walton Jr.
"I think Nik always had the ball handing ability, the playmaking ability." Beilein said. "When you have Tim Hardaway and Trey Burke, you don't necessary need him to do that. Now we do need Caris to do this. He's always had it. He continues to improve and work hard at it. He'll have great opportunities to help us win.
"I think he'll make lots of great plays. People got to make the basket to get the assist. Last year he had lots of great players around him. You throw it to the rim, Glenn is gonna finish it. Glenn hit huge threes for us. Nik was arguably the best shooter in the country. So he's gonna need people to finish to get those assist numbers. I'm more concerned that he's just making the right plays, and he's grown so much in that area."
At least in the starting lineup, it appears as if LeVert will some talented if unproven players around him. Walton was the No. 30 recruit in the class of 2013, per ESPN, and showed potential as a freshman. Zak Irvin was one of Beilein's best recruits ever as the No. 22 player in 2013. LeVert, Walton Jr. and Irvin each took over 100 three-pointers last season while converting greater than 40 percent.
The front court is where things get interesting. Both LeVert and Beilein raved about freshman Kameron Chapman, the highest rated recruit in Michigan's class of 2014. He's likely to start at the four, giving Beilein another four-out lineup he's had so much success with in the past. The center position remains largely a mystery, but Beilein said he expects freshmen Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal to split time there.
Even if the parts around the core three perimeter players remain undermined, don't expected Michigan's offense to change much. LeVert said playing last season almost entirely without McGary helped the team learn how to make things work without an interior scoring option. He said the biggest challenge for the centers will be on defense.
"We don't really feed the ball in the post," LeVert said. "We try to do a lot of drop off passes when the guards drive. The bigs clean up rebounds a little bit."
For a team that placed fourth in the country in three-point shooting percentage and finished in the top 20 in limiting turnovers per KenPom a season ago, it's going to be a perimeter based attack. With Beilein, it often is.
For as good as Beilein's system is, the coach knows it doesn't work without talent. It's been a mutably beneficial relationship that has taken Michigan deep into the NCAA Tournament two seasons in a row, and has helped make their five best players a lot of money. Now it's LeVert's turn. Pay close enough attention and it's not hard to guess which way this trend will continue to go.