BY DAN FELDMAN
Published May 4, 2008
Is this the beginning of the end of the John Beilein era at Michigan?
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Can the loss of a player who averaged just six points and five rebounds last year start Beilein's demise after just one year on the job?
As sad as it may seem, junior-to-be center Ekpe Udoh's decision to transfer may mean just that.
The Wolverine men's basketball program is in such a fragile state that it may not be bigger than one player. With an alarming lack of production from this year's or next year's senior class and the announcement of actual plans for a new practice facility seemingly always around the corner, Beilein succeeding in Ann Arbor is an uphill challenge.
Beilein puts more focus on offense than defense. For him to have Udoh, who led the Big Ten in blocks on the way to conference All-Defensive team honors last year, was more of blessing than he realized. Without his coach emphasizing it, Udoh took pride in his defense and cleaned up a lot of the mistakes his teammates made. I don't see anyone else on the roster taking on that kind of responsibility. This isn't losing K'Len Morris, Jerret Smith, Kendric Price, Reed Baker and Phil DeVries - the other players to leave the team since Beilein's hiring last April. Udoh was one of the few players Beilein inherited that he could build an NCAA Tournament team with.
Redshirt junior-to-be Zack Gibson and incoming freshman Ben Cronin are the most viable options to replace Udoh. Gibson showed nowhere near the level of Udoh's defensive presence last year, and Cronin can't be counted on to be an elite defender his first year on campus.
And make no mistake about it, that's what the Wolverines need - an elite defender. Michigan's defense was poor for most of last season, and that was with Udoh doing his best to make up for his teammates' weak on-the-ball defense. With him out of the picture, opponents must be salivating about padding their scoring averages against the Wolverines next year.
Beilein was already reluctant to raise expectations for next season. Even assuming the offense progresses from last year, the defense will take a huge step backward. Michigan could be facing a season similar to this year's 10-win train wreck.
If that happens, what will Beilein sell recruits on? Much of the appeal in hiring Beilein was his experience. In his 30 years as head coach, there's very little he hasn't seen. But he has never had two losing seasons at any of his coaching stints, let alone in his first two years on a job, like he's facing the possibility of now. What will he say to convince quality players to join him in Ann Arbor then?
Beilein took a very tough job that just got a lot tougher. He could be out of it sooner than later.
- Dan Feldman can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org