ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan isn't known as a college basketball blue blood, but John Beilein is doing his best to change that.
For the second season in a row, the Wolverines were surrounded by question marks as the calendar turned to February. Last year, a home loss to Ohio State dropped Michigan to 14-9 overall and 4-6 in the Big Ten. This year, Beilein's team struggled for a three-week span, losing to Northwestern and Nebraska and nearly falling to Minnesota and Maryland at home.
In both instances, Michigan responded in a big way.
The whole country knew Michigan's story last year after the team bounced back from a plane crash to win the Big Ten Tournament title and advance to the Sweet 16. But on the court, this team's transformation is even more impressive.
Point guard improvement
At the beginning of the season, Michigan's biggest question mark was the point guard position. Derrick Walton Jr., who willed Michigan to the Sweet 16, was gone, and there were no proven options on the roster.
It was a major issue for Michigan over the first couple of months. Zavier Simpson was solid on defense, but struggled offensively, while Eli Brooks and Jaaron Simmons received sporadic playing time.
Beilein realized he had to commit to a starter and let them be the leader of the team. Even though Simmons is a former Mid-American Conference Player of the Year, Beilein handed Simpson the reins to the team.
Beilein knew what he was doing. Simpson went through growing pains, but by the end of the season he had developed to an elite perimeter defender, a savvy conductor for the offense and a capable scorer.
En route to the Final Four, Simpson held Houston star Rob Gray to 8-22 shooting, shut down Texas A&M point guard T.J. Starks and picked up three steals while stifling Florida State's C.J. Walker.
It might not be flashy, but Simpson has become the defensive leader on a team that is only alive because of its defense. What was once the team's greatest weakness has become a strength.
Beilein has been a basketball coach for 40 years, and his reputation as an offensive genius is well deserved.
But it's no secret that this Michigan team is different, with the No. 3 defense in the nation and the best defense left in the NCAA Tournament.
That was never more prominent than in the Elite 8, when the Wolverines played an extremely talented and athletic Florida State team coming off back-to-back 75-point performances against Xavier and Gonzaga.
Michigan turned the game into a rock fight, holding the Seminoles to 31.4 percent shooting and forcing 15 turnovers. It wasn't an offensive masterpiece for Michigan, but it held FSU to 54 points, its lowest offensive output of the year.
Simpson and Charles Matthews are the two best defenders on the team, but it's a mentality that Beilein and new assistant coach Luke Yaklich have installed throughout the roster. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Isaiah Livers have bought in on the defensive end, and even Duncan Robinson is a solid on-ball defender.
The improvement from 69th to third nationally is the reason Michigan became a national championship contender. It can still win with offense, as it did with 99 points in the Sweet 16 vs. Texas A&M. But Michigan can now win even when the 3-pointers aren't falling.
When Michigan was playing weak competition early in the year, Matthews looked dominant. He scored at least 20 points six times and scored double digits in 12 of 15 games.
In Big Ten play, he never scored more than 16 points in a game, shooting worse than 50 percent nine times. He maintained his strong defensive play, but he was clearly forcing the issue with the ball in his hands.
Beilein worked with Matthews on being more under control when driving to the hoop, and landing with both feet before going up for a shot. That chance has been a huge difference maker for Michigan's offense, especially when the 3-pointers aren't falling.
Matthews was named the West Region's Most Outstanding Player after scoring 66 points and grabbing 29 rebounds in four games. When attacking the basket, he did so with much more conviction, and he even knocked down a few 3-point shots, so opponents had to respect him around the arc.
Since he was so good early in the year, Matthews' improvement hasn't been a major storyline. But it's clear how much work Beilein put into getting him back to a high level of play on both ends.
Michigan is uncharacteristically one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the nation, and that has made it difficult to close out games at times this season.
But in several close, meaningful games this season, Michigan has found a way to come away with a victory, most notably in the second round against Houston.
When Michigan was down 2 points with under four seconds to play, it looked like the Big Ten champs would be sent home on the first weekend. But Beilein had a trick up his sleeve -- one that had worked previously in a win over Maryland -- that gave Jordan Poole an excellent look, considering the situation.
Poole knocked down the jumper to keep Michigan alive, and now the Wolverines are heading to the Final Four.
It wasn't as dramatic, but Michigan faced another tough closing opportunity against Florida State. Simpson and Abdur-Rahkman missed a slew of free throws to give FSU an opportunity to steal the game, but strong perimeter defense and rebounding helped Michigan hold on.
When the field of 68 is narrowed down to four, the games typically get even more competitive. If Michigan's fate comes down to a late-game scenario, Beilein knows his team is battle-tested, and the moment won't be too big.