On Saturday, Michigan will play a game that on paper is the most meaningless game of its season. Why? Because Michigan clinched the outright Big Ten title on Tuesday. Yes, in the toughest conference in the country, Michigan clinched the outright conference title with a game still left on its schedule. For a team that many expected to struggle this season, achieving the Big Ten title in this fashion is nothing short of spectacular.
First, let's set the table. Michigan was not just a good team last season, they were a great team. Not only did they fall just a bucket roll short of the Big Ten title last year (literally), but they made the Final Four, the National Championship game, and led Louisville on halftime. If a ref had called Trey Burke's block on Russ Smith for what it was (a block), maybe Michigan pulls off the comeback and wins the whole thing.
From an outside perspective, one would assume Michigan would have been projected to do big things this year, but that's a false narrative. First, we have to remember that Michigan's best two players from last year's team (Trey Burke & Tim Hardaway, Jr.) both left early to join the NBA. These guys dominated the possessions and were both 1st team All-Big Ten players. The only other teams to lose two 1st team All-Big Ten players from last year were Indiana and OSU. Indiana is 7-10 in the conference and likely headed for the NIT. OSU is barely over .500 in conference play.
However, the loss of Burke and Hardaway wasn't all that Michigan had to undergo. In December, Michigan announced that preseason All-American Mitch McGary would be likely out for the remainder of the year. McGary may not have been Michigan's best player from last year, but during Michigan's incredible Final Four run, he was easily the 3rd best player and perhaps even the 2nd best player on the roster. This put Michigan down 3 starters from the previous season. Even if you thought Michigan was going to do well without Burke and Hardaway, you had to have doubts once McGary went down.
Despite these significant losses, Michigan has not only played well, but they actually have a better Big Ten record than they did last year. Michigan finished 12-6 in the Big Ten last season with Burke, Hardaway, and McGary. Even if Michigan loses to Indiana on Saturday, the Wolverines will be 14-4. If Michigan wins, they will be 3 games better than they were last year, concidentally missing their 3 best players from last year too.
Now, improving on a conference record isn't unparalled, it happens all the time, but two things are worth discussion. First, we're not talking about rising from a bad record to an average record. We're talking about an already good team getting even better without their best guys. That's not something you see happen everyday. Add in that it gets tougher to improve as you go up in the rankings and you can see why it's so impressive in this case. Moving from a record like 6-10 to 8-8 isn't that big of a deal, but something like 12-6 to 14-4 is huge because you're now talking about winning more games against top teams. That's difficult to do, especially without your best 3 players from last season.
Next, Michigan played arguably the toughest schedule of any of the top teams this year. They played Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska, and Iowa twice. The only team Michigan did not play twice in the top half of the current conference standings was OSU and Michigan had to face them on the road. Compare this to some of the other top teams. Wisconsin played MSU, OSU, and Nebraska each once. MSU played Wisconsin and Nebraska just once. Nebraska played MSU and Wisconsin just once. Iowa played Nebraska just once. OSU played Michigan and Wisconsin just once. The only team at the top that played a schedule like Michigan's was Iowa and they are a full 5(!!!) games back from the Wolverines right now. That's more than just impressive.
Look, Tim Miles deserves recognition. What he did for Nebraska is incredible, but there are a few reasons why Beilein deserves to be Big Ten Coach of the Year over Miles. First, Beilein is doing this at the top level. Nebraska has edged toward the top of the conference, but were never seriously in title contention. Second, Michigan played a much tougher schedule than Nebraska. The Huskers actually only went 2-4 against the top half of the conference. If they had been forced to play 3 more games against the top teams like Michigan did, they probably don't have the crazy record improvement that we have seen. Finally, the argument that Michigan was already at the top just doesn't work here. Nebraska improved significantly, but so did Michigan considering their offseason and midseason losses. At the end of day, you should go with #TeamBeilein this year for Big Ten Coach of the Year.