In our first edition of our 2019 State of the Union for athletics, we looked at Detroit sports teams. Now it’s time to turn our attention to the two major universities that dominate the Great Lakes State. Michigan and Michigan State both had ups and downs in the past year. While 2018 was a mixed bag for the two, 2019 is looking like it could be a special year for both schools, especially on the hardcourt.
Boy, the revenge tour was fun while it lasted. In 2017, Michigan lost to Penn State, MSU, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. Coming into 2018, there was a ton of talk about whether or not Jim Harbaugh was the right man to turn this program into a contender. The year started ominously enough with a poor display in a losing effort on the road against Notre Dame. However, the Wolverines were determined to change their losing ways and set out on what star defensive end Chase Winovich dubbed the Revenge Tour 2018. The Wolverines would win 10 straight games, including convincing wins against MSU, Wisconsin, and Penn State. Michigan was firmly entrenched in the #4 spot, and a playoff berth was theirs for the taking – all they had to get was get by their archrival, Ohio State, and they would have changed the narrative about Harbaugh, their program, and completed the Revenge Tour. Well, we all know what happened next. The #1 defense in the country got absolutely picked apart by Dwayne Haskins and Urban Meyer’s coaching, and the Buckeyes embarrassed the Wolverines 62-39.
This gut-wrenching loss ruined what was shaping up to be a dream season, and the Wolverines went from a potential playoff berth to a Peach Bowl game against Florida, and the sharks were back on the Jim Harbaugh hate train. If Michigan could defeat the Gators, though, maybe the season would still look like a success. Well, that didn’t happen. The Gators stomped Michigan 41-15 in the Peach Bowl, ending Michigan’s once-promising season with a whimper. The 2018 season was an improvement in that Michigan got back to 10 wins, but they still didn’t win the big games, which has been a major issue during the Harbaugh era.
Michigan heads into the 2019 season with major question marks, and Harbaugh should be firmly back on the hot seat. The team loses star defensive players Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary, and Devin Bush, and while it does return starting QB Shay Patterson and much of the offense, there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered going into next season. The biggest one to me is whether this is the ceiling for Michigan under Harbaugh. It’s clear that this offense is not up to par with the top teams in the country, and the defense has major issues if their pass rush isn’t there as they struggled in coverage against the best teams. Harbaugh recruits well, and the players play hard for him, but it seems like the ceiling for Michigan is consistently 10 wins and perpetual struggles in the most important games. Harbaugh is at a fork in the road; it’s clear that he can get the team to 10 wins, but to get them to where their fans demand, which is conference championships and occasional playoff appearances, can he create a better offensive game plan that can make the most out of his talented recruits? Michigan is a good football program, but to become great, it needs an evolution from its coach. If that doesn’t happen, you have to wonder how long the fanbase will tolerate the continuing narrative of good but never great.
On the other end of the spectrum from Jim Harbaugh and the disappointing football team, you have John Beilein and the men’s basketball program. I can say without a doubt that what Beilein did in 2018 was his greatest coaching performance to date. He turned a fringe top 25 team at the start of conference play last year into a national title contender. While this isn’t Beilein’s first title contender at Michigan, what makes this one so special is how the coach, who has been known as an offensive genius throughout his coaching career, adapted a defense-first philosophy and tailored it to his team. He realized that, unlike the 2012-13 final four team, which had five first-round NBA draft picks on it, this year’s team, which only had one, was nowhere near the talent level of that group, and he had to change his whole coaching strategy to get the most out of this team. That type of innovation in coaching is very rare and illustrates the genius that is Beilein. The team finished 8th in points per game allowed, and rode that aggressive man-to-man, switching defense all the way to the national title game. It was a magical run for Michigan, and even though they fell to Villanova in the final, there was no doubt that the season was a complete success.
While most didn’t see Michigan turning into a defensive juggernaut last season, I can tell you that no one saw what has happened this year coming. Michigan came into the 2018-19 season without their two best players from the National finalist team, as Moe Wagner turned pro, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman graduated. Not to mention three point specialist Duncan Robinson also graduated. That’s three core players gone from the previous team. It was natural to expect a slight regression considering the loss of all that talent, and most experts agreed, as they had Michigan ranked #19 in the AP poll to begin the year. However, what has happened so far this season is shocking, to say the least. Michigan has been arguably the best team in the country, and at the time of this writing, is one of only two unbeaten teams left in college basketball. They’ve climbed all the way up to #2 in the country and have gotten even better on the defensive end as they are now 3rd in the country in points allowed per game. While many experts expected the defense to be solid again, the question marks were how Michigan would replace the scoring of the three core members they lost a year ago. That answer has been solved by an electric freshman and a sophomore breakout by last year’s tournament darling, Ignas Brazdeikis, one of the best players in the country. The freshman from Lithuania leads the team in scoring at 16 PPG and is a matchup nightmare for defenders at the four. Aggressively press him and he has the handles, speed, and power to blow by you. Sit back, and he will launch threes, as he’s shooting nearly 40% from three. He is not the only person carrying this offense, as he has been joined by the breakout star of last year’s tournament, Jordan Poole. Poole, who is as fun to watch as any player in the country, has more than doubled his scoring from a season ago, as he’s averaging 14.1 ppg. He is an ankle-breaker with moves for days who can create his own shot as well as drain a contested three. The key to Poole’s emergence has been finding consistency, which is one of the hardest things for young players. While he started the season a bit slow, he has turned it up over the past 10 games, as he’s hit double digits in every game, including two 20-plus performances. These two underclassmen have really picked up the scoring load for the offense, and coupled with improved play from the rest of the team, the Wolverines may actually be better on both ends of the court than they were a season ago. Michigan is a legitimate national title contender, and Beilein deserves the credit for adapting his style to fit his talent and bringing out the best in his players. As long as Beilein is on the sidelines, expect the Wolverines to be contenders, and hopefully, 2019 is the year they finally get John his long-overdue National Championship.
Michigan State Football
The Spartans endured a trying 2018. Coming into the season, hopes were high that MSU could build on their 10-win 2017 season and get back to competing for Big Ten titles. Instead, they struggled all season and finished a disappointing 7-6. The good news for the Spartans is that their defense is back to being elite, which was the calling card for this program during their great run from 2010-2015. Joe Bachie and company finished 10th in total defense and kept the Spartans in every game they played. With All American Kenny Willekes returning for his senior year, MSU returns eight starters to their outstanding defense, and they enter 2019 as one of the best units in the country.
The problem with MSU this year, though, was the offense – what the hell happened to them? The easy answer is injuries, as 10 of MSU starters on offense were injured at some point this season, and 16 offensive players in total for the Spartans were hurt during the year. Even great offensive teams would struggle to cope with that kind of attrition, and the Spartans struggled mightily as they finished 116th in the country in total offense. The injury that affected the team the most was Brian Lewerkes’ shoulder injury. The junior quarterback looked like a star in the making in 2017 as he threw for nearly 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns. This year, he barely hit the 2,000-yard mark and threw more interceptions than touchdowns with eight TDs to 11 picks. What bothered me the most about this offense was the stubbornness of Head Coach Mark Dantonio to keep Lewerke in many games when it was clear he was struggling mightily, either due to injury or ineffectiveness. Backup Rocky Lombardi wasn’t much better, but he did enough of a job to give the team a chance, something the injured Lewerke could not do. The losses to Arizona State, Nebraska, and Oregon all could’ve been avoided if they switched QBs and Dantonio's unwillingness to do that was a major reason for those defeats. The other major issue with the Spartans’ offense was terrible play-calling. Dave Werner was clearly out of his depth as the offensive coordinator. The Spartans wanted to be a run first team but when it was clear they struggled running the ball, instead of adapting the offense to the talent that was actually healthy, Warner kept trying the same tactics to minimal effect.
After a disappointing 2018, 2019 is a real program-defining season for the Spartans. Can Dantonio right the ship and get MSU back to competing for Big Ten titles? Assuming the Spartans have better luck with injuries than this past year (and it would be hard for it to be worse), you have to figure that at least the talent will be better for 2019. At the same time, though, the coaching on the offensive side has to change. Dave Werner is not a quality offensive coordinator and his uber-conservative, and frankly piss-poor play-calling cannot come back for another season. It seems Dantonio realized this as he shuffled his staff around. However, he did not fire anyone on his staff, which shows me that Dantonio simply believes that last year’s struggles were due to injury and not other issues, and this is a very flawed thought process. Michigan State’s coaching staff is not up to the level of previous regimes, and Mark Dantonio’s refusal to fire a coach – he has never fired a coach at MSU – means that he is prepared to run it back with the same group, and this is completely unacceptable. If the Spartans have another poor season, is it time to consider moving on from Dantonio? This is the dilemma MSU faces as it heads into a pivotal 2019 season.
Michigan State Basketball