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How Michigan basketball built another national title contender on its own terms

The Wolverines are ready to win from day one.

John Beilein sat in the bowels of the Alamodome a day before coaching against Villanova in the national championship game when he was asked how he would grapple with failure.

At 65 years old, a national championship was just about the only thing missing from Beilein’s career. If he didn’t get one, would it change the way he thought of his own legacy?

“I honestly say I wouldn’t look at it any differently. I really would not. Others may. But I don’t think Kathleen and I would look at it any different. This is what, like, 1200 games as a head coach.

“And it’s just like you hang in there and you just do your absolute best every single day. And some day you’re going to say, I gave it everything I had, and if I’m falling into my grave, that’s okay, too.”

The subtext here was obvious, even if no one wanted to say it.

This might be Beilein’s last real chance at a title. Michigan was set to lose star big man Moritz Wagner to the NBA. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, the team’s leader in minutes, was about to graduate, as was Duncan Robinson, the ideal role player for this system. The recruiting class coming in to replace them was good, but it wasn’t ranked in the top-10. Beilein’s recruiting classes were almost never in the top 10.

Despite one of the most dominant runs of decade in college basketball, it still didn’t feel like Michigan should expect to be here. This wasn’t a school that competed for one-and-done freshmen. It wasn’t a blueblood like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, or North Carolina. It wasn’t even the most prestigious basketball program in its own state. Nothing Michigan could do on the hardwood would even change the perception that this is a football school, through and through.

You know how this played out: Villanova, with its four first round draft picks, took command of the game late in the first half and never looked back. It was an almost perfect season for the Wolverines, but one that ultimately went down as another missed opportunity for Beilein. For the second time in six years, he had failed to win the last game of the season.

The roster that was left for Michigan was not supposed to be a championship contender this season, not with everything it lost. The Wolverines started the year No. 19 in the preseason polls, nine spots behind Michigan State. Star wing Charles Matthews was back, as was tournament hero Jordan Poole, but a team that relied so heavily on Wagner a season before felt like it provided a lot more questions than answers.

Maybe Beilein would figure it out again in February, as he had the last two years. Maybe the Wolverines could still compete for a Big Ten championship and head into March as a trendy team to make a late run. It just didn’t seem like this would be a powerhouse from the jump. Beilein’s teams rarely have been that.

It turns out everything we thought we knew about Michigan was all wrong. This Wolverines team didn’t need time to round into a title contender this year, only because they were a title contender all along.

Michigan v Northwestern Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Beilein had the look of a man who was exhausted, relieved and only mildly satisfied as he faced reporters in Evanston on Tuesday night. Michigan, who had won its first eight games by an average of 21.2 points, had just survived a dog fight against Northwestern, coming away with a 62-60 victory in a game it once led by 15. This was the first time they had been tested all season.

“I knew we’d have to go through games like this if we were going to be good,” Beilein said. “We survived it. I don’t know how.”

Deep down, Beilein knows Michigan is already good. The start to this season has been as dominant as could be. It beat Villanova by 27 in a national title game rematch that hardly felt like it. It pounded a North Carolina team with Final Four aspirations by 17 points. It beat Providence and Purdue each by 19.

In the process, Michigan has been putting on a clinic on both ends of the floor. What was once a program defined by its offense now wins with defense first. The transformation started last year as assistant coach and defensive coordinator Luke Yaklich entered the program. After finishing no higher than No. 37 in defensive efficiency during Beilein’s stay, Michigan was No. 3 in defensive efficiency last season. This year, it’s No. 1.

A system alone can’t produce a defense this smothering. There needs to be great defensive talent, too, and Michigan has that. It starts with Zavier Simpson, the junior point guard who took over as the starter midway through last season. Simpson is a limited offensive player as a 40 percent free throw shooter and a non-threat from three-point range range, but the man defends his ass off on every possession, applying intense ball pressure and establishing himself as the vocal leader for the best unit in the country.

Behind him is Jon Teske, a 7’1 junior center who played only 10 minutes combined in the two Final Four games last season. There might not be a better defensive center in college basketball this year. Teske is a savant with his rotations, blowing up ball screens, protecting the rim and cutting off passing lanes to prevent plays that never get started. His numbers look modest (8 points, 6 rebounds per game) but his impact isn’t.

Michigan is allowing 86.7 points per 100 possessions during its 9-0 start, a full point more stingy than Texas Tech, the country’s next best defense. It’s holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 40 percent. It’s the best in the country at avoiding sending opposing players to the foul line, it excels at limiting offensive rebounds, and it’s done well to limit three point attempts.

Michigan is winning with defense, but this is still a Beilein team. They can score, too.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ignas Brazdeikis isn’t your typical freshman. For one, he’ll turn 20 years old in January. He’s been ready for the moment from the season’s opening tip, establishing himself as the team’s go-to scorer and playing with a outward swagger that seems to rub off on everyone around him. All of this while wearing Wagner’s old No. 13.

Brazdeikis feels like the perfect stretch four for Beilein’s system, giving Michigan an attacking 6’7 forward who thrives driving to the basket but can also stretch the floor (44 percent from three). He’s been at his best in the Wolverines’ biggest games, dropping 18 points against Villanova, 24 against North Carolina, and 23 against Northwestern. Right now, he ranks in the top 10 of KenPom’s National Player of the Year rankings.

Brazdeikis isn’t the only player on Michigan who constantly seems to be feeling himself. Jordan Poole, last year’s NCAA tournament hero for his epic buzzer-beater vs. Houston, might just be college basketball’s most confident player. Poole’s game is all step-backs and daring drives to the rim, the type of player who will hit a three in your face and then taunt you with a sly smile after. He can go off at a moment’s notice, as he did against Purdue when he went 5-of-5 from three-point range to finish with 21 points.

He is also something of a walking meme, with the short shorts and the irrational self-assurance. The more Michigan keeps winning, the more Poole’s star will grow.

All of this leads back to Matthews, who likely could have been in the NBA right now if he entered the draft. Instead, Matthews came back to school to establish himself as one of college basketball’s best two-way players, an athletic 6’6 wing who scores on a variety of pivots, fadeaways and slashing drives while locking you up on defense. The former Kentucky transfer hasn’t found his shooting stroke yet (28 percent from three), but he still feels like the headliner on this team. When Michigan needs a clutch bucket or a clutch stop, Matthews will be the one in the spotlight.

Michigan isn’t a deep team — guard Eli Brooks and big Isaiah Livers help form a tight seven-man rotation — but the pieces fit together so well.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

After the win over Northwestern, Michigan has won 23 of its last 24 games, with the lone loss coming in the national title game to Villanova. Unlike the last two years when Michign rode massive winning streaks at the end of the season, this year’s team looks the part of a title contender from day one.

Beilein has done it on his own terms. There isn’t a recruit on this team who ranked anywhere above the 40s in his class, per 247 Sports. Teske and Simpson are veterans who might not have the typical talent Beilein looks for offensively, but they are the backbone of the country’s top defense. Beilein was quick to point out Brazdeikis’ mistakes after the Northwestern game, but he’s also been the type of instant impact freshman this team needed after the void left by Wagner.

Michigan is so balanced, so competent on both ends. Even without blue chip recruits or obvious first round draft picks (Brazdeikis will get there if he keeps this up), the Wolverines have been college basketball’s most impressive team to start the season.

Beilein teams tend to build slowly and peak at the right time. Could this one really go wire-to-wire as a contender in their pursuit of a title? Throw out everything you previously believed about this program. Beilein still has another big opportunity left in him. Michigan is ready to win, right now.