College Basketball Nation: John Beilein
In 2007, at age 54, John Beilein became the head men's basketball coach at the University of Michigan. He was well-known for his five years at West Virginia, probably best for the deep 2004-05 tournament run he made with Mike Gansey and Kevin Pittsnogle. But as much as anything else, Beilein was known for his unusual tactical style.
The system that took a seemingly outmanned West Virginia group to the brink of 2005 Final Four came out of nowhere, and seemed fully formed. Gansey and Pittsnogle were perfect centerpieces for the 1-3-1 zone defense and the two-guard front -- an old-time offense more out of fashion than Latin. In reality, Beilein picked it up in the course of his atypical 30-year rise to the top of his profession. The two-guard front was smart, precise, almost unassuming. The system mirrored the man.
Beilein began his coaching career at Newfane (N.Y.) High School in 1975. He was 22. His first job was his first as a head coach, and it's worth noting as much because this would become a theme. Beilein didn't know what he was doing back then, he's since admitted, so he did what all of the other coaches were doing: flex offense, straight motion, set plays, man-to-man. He tried on different identities. He coached like a man in his 20s.
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Tennessee made a remarkable run to the Sweet 16 after beginning its journey beginning in the First Four. The Volunteers topped Iowa, UMass and Mercer to reach the Sweet 16, but Michigan was just too much in a 73-71 victory on Friday night.
Here are five observations from that Sweet 16 game:
What a comeback: The Vols didn’t give up. With 4:10 to play, they were down 67-60 after being down by as many as 15 points. They were down just 70-64 with 2:21 to go. Tennessee continued to attack the floor and get to the rim. With less than two minutes to play, Tennessee and Michigan were separated by only five points. The Vols continued to whittle away, drawing within three with 23 seconds left and moving to within one when Jordan McRae scored with 10.8 seconds left. Caris LeVert then stepped out of bounds with 9.6 seconds to play, making things real at Lucas Oil Stadium. Tennessee, despite struggling from 3-point range, was in position to win. But Jarnell Stokes drew a late charge against Jordan Morgan with six seconds left that essentially ended the game for the Vols despite a great comeback effort.
Michigan nearly flawless in first half: In some of the great upsets in past NCAA tournaments, the underdogs succeeded because they got off to fast starts. That didn’t happen with Tennessee. The Vols needed an impressive 11-3 run after going down 15-7 early. But the first half from there was all Michigan. The Wolverines dissected the Vols from that point forward. Cuonzo Martin’s squad couldn’t handle John Beilein’s collection of 6-foot-6-ish wings -- is there a factory in Ann Arbor, Mich., that we don’t know about? -- who just kept punishing Tennessee inside and outside. Michigan went 7-for-9 from the 3-point line, a 78 percent clip. This isn’t some Tennessee team that got lucky on its way to the Sweet 16. The Vols had defeated its three previous opponents in the NCAA tournament by nearly 20 points per game. But the Wolverines were just too much. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Michigan is 18-for-30 from the 3-point line in the first halves of its NCAA tourney games. The Wolverines don't wait. They just go.
LeVert the future: Nik Stauskas (14 points) has no reason to stay in school beyond this season. That much was clear in Friday’s game. He’s a big guard with range and solid ballhandling ability. Glenn Robinson III (13 points) could leave, too, but the program will still be in good hands if LeVert (10 points) returns. The 6-6 sophomore has made dramatic improvements this season. He’s been a 41 percent shooter from the 3-point line, but the most impressive element of his game on Friday, something I didn’t see until I watched him live, was his quick first step and ability to create his own shot. He is thin, and a summer in the weight room would really enhance his game, but he’s a special talent who might be the next Michigan superstar. His late error doesn't define his season or his potential.
Size doesn’t always help: When Tennessee walked to the podium for its pregame media session on Thursday, it looked like a college football team. Jeronne Maymon and Stokes are large individuals, with size that Michigan lacks, and, on paper, that appeared to be a potential issue for the Wolverines. How would they deal with a team that had big wings and strong post players such as Stokes and Maymon? Well, that wasn’t the real question. The real question became, "How can Tennessee stay in front of the Wolverines?" It couldn’t in the first half. Martin had Maymon on Robinson early, which didn’t last long, as Robinson kept beating Maymon off the dribble. He had to insert Derek Reese, a 6-8 wing, to guard him. Early in the game, Tennessee wasn’t even using Stokes and Maymon together. Maymon’s early foul trouble might have contributed to that, but the Vols were better with the one-big system. That’s how you know Michigan is a really good team, as Tennessee had to adjust its entire scheme in the first five minutes to deal with it. But the one-big system also helped the Vols climb back into the game.
Beilein deserves credit for developing players: Yes, Beilein doesn’t exactly draw kids from the prep market’s scrap heap, but he’s also not signing a bunch of one-and-dones, either. Look at Stauskas, Robinson and LeVert, along with Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. Check out the game that Morgan (15 points, seven rebounds) had. They’ve all developed at a respectable pace. Stauskas will be a millionaire lottery pick if he decides to turn pro. Robinson could be a first-round pick, too. LeVert could be a top-15 selection in 2015 if he doesn’t leave this year. Walton looks comfortable. Irvin is next. And we haven't even mentioned Mitch McGary, who was the team's top pro prospect entering the season before a back injury ended his year. He was just a solid freshman, but by the end of last year's tourney, he was a lottery pick. Sure, the Wolverines can shoot, but the perennial progression of Beilein’s rosters is worth noting. His players have made some tremendous strides.
"Our defense," Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III said, "is going to make us or break us."
Defense pushed Robinson and his teammates into the round of 32 after their normally fluid offense zigged and zagged against Wofford. The Wolverines made just one-third of their field goal attempts in the second half but allowed just 20 points, the same total they allowed in the first 20 minutes.
Wisconsin, a program famous for stifling defense -- but one that hasn't always delivered it this season -- was even better at keeping American off the scoreboard. The Badgers allowed only 13 points in the second half -- the fewest in a half for a Badgers opponent in any modern-era NCAA tournament game -- and just 18 points in the final 29 minutes, 17 seconds.
"Obviously, we were very good," Badgers assistant Greg Gard said, "but it will be a totally different challenge [Saturday]. It goes from a test of your discipline and your focus for 30 seconds, to the shot clock might not even get to 30 at times for Oregon."
Dana Altman might not be college basketball's Chip Kelly, but his team, unlike American, is all about pushing the tempo. Oregon led the Pac-12 and ranked 11th nationally in scoring offense, reaching 90 points in nine games and 100 points in four. Offensive threats are everywhere, from the starters to the bench, which needs 18 more points to reach 1,000 for the season.
The Ducks showcased their scoring speed and prowess Thursday against BYU, tallying 87 points on 50 percent shooting. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan wondered aloud whether any tournament team will face a bigger contrast in opponents than his Badgers.
"It's crazy," said junior guard Josh Gasser, Wisconsin's top defender. "They are just completely opposite. Their philosophies, what they're trying to do, even their personnel. But we've played teams that like to slow it down, we've played teams that like to push it in transition.
"We're pretty much used to anything by now."
The Badgers have seen shades of Oregon in Big Ten foes like Iowa and Michigan State. Their defense hasn't been bad -- 63.7 points per game allowed, 42.9 percent opponent shooting percentage -- but it hasn't always met the Ryan standard, in part because of a stronger, quicker offense and a new-look front line.
Oregon is mostly perimeter-oriented but could target the post more with veteran Mike Moser and Elgin Cook, who had a career-high 23 points against BYU in his Milwaukee homecoming.
"We're attacking from every direction," Ducks point guard Johnathan Loyd said. "Anybody can go get 20 on any given night. It's just tough to defend. ... [Opponents] kind of start bickering with each other, like, 'Hey, you should have been there! Nah, I had this guy!'
"That's when you know our offense is really clicking."
Michigan faces much bigger post problems with Texas. Longhorns center Cameron Ridley and forward Jonathan Holmes combined for 483 rebounds during the regular season, including 187 offensive boards.
"We're a good rebounding team," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "They're a great rebounding team."
Texas isn't Wofford, which started no players taller than 6-foot-7 and went 1-for-19 from 3-point range.
"I don't think that's going to happen again," Michigan forward Jon Horford said, "so we have to be realistic about defensive expectations but still bring that emphasis into every game."
Longhorns players liken Michigan's perimeter-oriented style to Iowa State, a team it split with during the regular season.
"I look to attack more," Ridley said. "This is an opportunity for me and Jon, Prince [Ibeh] and Connor [Lammert] to show how good we are and exploit the advantage we might have."
Michigan is one of the more efficient offensive teams in the country, but its defense has slipped at times, including late in the regular season. Beilein unveiled some 2-3 zone during the Big Ten tournament as a changeup from the team's standard man-to-man or 1-3-1 zone looks.
The Wolverines geared their defense against Wofford toward stopping guard Karl Cochran, the team's offensive catalyst. Texas, meanwhile, has four players who average in double figures and six who reached the mark against BYU.
"We have to vary our defensive coverages," Michigan assistant Bacari Alexander said, "whether that be man-to-man or trapping or zones, and see if we can get them off rhythm."
Even if the Wolverines succeed at forcing missed shots, Texas could still make them pay.
"Any time you can get offensive rebounds, it breaks their back," Holmes said. "Another 35 seconds of defense is never fun."
Michigan and Wisconsin had plenty of fun on defense Thursday. Both teams must dig in to keep the good times going.
We couldn’t boil down the list. That was the amazing thing.
Every year, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association board members and district representatives get together on a conference call to boil down the candidates for player of the year, freshman of the year and coach of the year. Usually it’s not terribly complicated. This season it was.
Not for the first two, but for the third. There were so many choices, we were worried we’d leave someone off.
Which got me to thinking, what would coaches say? Who among their peers would they deem the most worthy?
So I decided to ask. I polled 22 different coaches -- from big conferences and small, West Coast, East Coast, Midwest and South -- and asked them (anonymously so they wouldn't feel strange) to name their national coach of the year and why he earned their vote.
A majority, yes, but not a consensus.
Of the 22 people polled, 11 said Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, three picked Florida's Billy Donovan and two chose Cincinnati's Mick Cronin, while Creighton's Greg McDermott, Virginia's Tony Bennett, Villanova's Jay Wright, SMU's Larry Brown, Kansas' Bill Self and Michigan's John Beilein received one vote apiece.
Marshall got the edge for logical reasons. The head coach of the undefeated Shockers has already made history, leading his team not only to the NCAA's first undefeated regular season in 10 years, but also to a 34-0 record and the Missouri Valley regular-season and conference tournament titles.
"They simply haven’t made a mistake," one coach said of Marshall’s Wichita State team.
Added another: "Going undefeated is next to impossible. Going undefeated after a Final Four appearance is beyond impossible because of the target you have to wear into every game."
Donovan earned the respect of his peers for his ability to overcome suspensions and injuries yet still lead his Florida team to 23 consecutive wins, the first 18-0 conference record in SEC history, an SEC regular-season title and just two losses.
"If the guys weren’t hurt or out against Wisconsin, he could have one loss," one coach said of the Gators’ first loss, in which both Dorian Finney-Smith and Scottie Wilbekin did not play. "And he just does his job. That’s it."
Cronin, the only other multiple-vote-getter, earned props for Cincinnati’s relentless style. The Bearcats, picked to finish fourth in the inaugural season of the American Athletic Conference, instead shared the league title with Louisville.
"He’s just done a heckuva job with his team," one coach said. "They play the best defense and he’s gotten so much out of those guys."
Even though McDermott, Self, Wright, Bennett, Brown and Beilein each received just one vote, plenty of coaches mentioned them while whittling down their choices to a single name.
The stakes were raised this year for Creighton with the Bluejays' move to the Big East, yet thanks to McDermott and in no small part to his son, Doug, not much has changed. Creighton finished second in the league.
"I understand he has the best player in the country, but still, to move up a league, that’s impressive," one coach said of McDermott.
In the expanded and ever-more-difficult ACC, Bennett led Virginia to its first conference regular-season title since 1981, losing just two league games in the process.
"Sixteen-and-one and 13 in a row in the ACC is pretty impressive," the one coach who voted for Bennett said before the Cavaliers closed the regular season with a 75-69 overtime loss to Maryland to end that streak.
"This is an example of how a team with capable college players executing a cohesive brand of basketball can achieve at a very high level," Wright’s voter said. "Jay has masterfully orchestrated this championship team, pushing all the right buttons."
And speaking of unexpected, there is SMU. Larry Brown promised big changes when the school hired him two years ago. No one expected such dramatic improvement so quickly.
"No one else could have done what LB has done at SMU," Brown’s endorser said.
Self, meanwhile, essentially has rebuilt his roster with little change in results. Kansas won yet another Big 12 title, the Jayhawks' 10th in a row despite a roster heavily reliant on freshmen.
"He started brand new and here he is. That’s pretty amazing," another coach said.
Finally, Beilein is almost a combo of Self and Donovan. He led the Wolverines to a Big Ten regular-season title despite losing the player of the year (Trey Burke) and Tim Hardaway Jr. from last year’s national championship runner-up team and Mitch McGary for the better part of this season due to injury.
"At the end of the day, it’s not all just about toughness," one of Beilein's peers said. “We talk about that too much. It’s about execution, and he’s the best execution coach in the game."
The Michigan Wolverines spent their January being more or less unstoppable. From Dec. 21 on, including two nonconference wins against Stanford and Holy Cross and the first eight games of its Big Ten schedule, Michigan went 10-0 in high style. Nik Stauskas emerged as a dual-threat scorer and made a ridiculous percentage of his shots; the Wolverines’ offense pummeled all comers into submission. When they beat Michigan State on the road, and Stauskas waved a kiss to the Izzone on his way out the door, the message was clear: Mitch McGary or no, the Big Ten title chase was headquartered in Ann Arbor.
Then, on Feb. 2, Indiana did something no team since Duke had managed to do: It stopped Stauskas. And it beat Michigan, which had last lost to then-No. 1 Arizona.
On Saturday, when Iowa stomped a lifeless, disengaged version of the Wolverines in Iowa City -- the final score was 86-67, and even that might have been deceptively close -- the warning sirens went full blast. All of a sudden, Michigan looked beatable, vulnerable, even -- gasp -- on the verge of collapse.
After Tuesday night, it’s time to make another grand pronouncement about the Wolverines. Are you ready? Here it goes.
Michigan’s 70-60 win at Ohio State on Tuesday night should, at least for the moment, quell any doubts about whether the Wolverines have the fortitude to hold on to the Big Ten pole position they share with Michigan State. The Wolverines’ first win at OSU in the Thad Matta era was a genuinely impressive victory -- a blend of great offensive execution and good-enough defense on the road against a team seemingly designed to prevent exactly that.
What ensued was a classic John Beilein chess match abound with beautiful offensive wrinkles. The Wolverines worked Stauskas off screen after screen, changing directions and using OSU’s aggressiveness against it. Stauskas finished with 15 points on nine shots, and there were a handful of possessions that should be immediately become mandatory inclusions in coaching seminars.
But Michigan’s performance was much more than Stauskas. That might have been the most encouraging thing about it: Derrick Walton Jr. didn’t shoot well, but he still scored 13 points and added 10 rebounds and six assists. Zak Irvin made two key 3-pointers off the bench. The Wolverines’ big men, Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, combined to go 7-of-9 from the field for 14 points and 12 rebounds. Beilein’s team was just judicious enough offensively -- it made 8 of its 17 3s -- to tough out a road victory in which it shot just 41.5 percent overall.
Ohio State’s poor shooting helped, of course. The Buckeyes made just 3-of-20 from 3, and that was the biggest difference in the game. But Michigan also rebounded 42.4 percent of its own misses and 75.8 percent of OSU’s. The Wolverines’ ability to find and can open looks from the outside stemmed both from Beilein’s clever push-pull sets and from post-offensive rebound scrambles. Michigan scored 1.20 points per possession against a good defensive team as a result.
In the process, they avoided falling back to the middle of the Big Ten pack. That’s a tough place to be, a place where Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State are scrapping like crazy to stay within striking distance of the title chase -- a place where a .500 record in a deep and difficult conference is a legitimate concern. Instead, Michigan is out to 10-2. On the next two Sundays, it hosts both Wisconsin and Michigan State. Those games aren’t easy wins no matter where they take place, but they effectively end the Wolverines’ top-half responsibilities -- and might just end the Big Ten race once and for all.
Of course there are no guarantees. But the Wolverines’ ability to win on the road in a variety of ways remains very much intact. Saturday’s disaster against Iowa looks more like an outlier than a sign of things to come. Never mind all that. Michigan should be just fine.
Still, John Beilein had the pieces to compete for a Big Ten title. When McGary's back problems snowballed into season-ending surgery, however, those dreams should have been squashed.
But they weren't.
Beilein's squad is on top of the Big Ten now, despite everything it has lost since that Final Four run, as it prepares to face No. 17 Iowa on Saturday (2 ET, ESPN). Nik Stauskas is the Big Ten's player of the year. Robinson and Caris LeVert are pivotal components of No. 10 Michigan's success, too. Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford aren't superstars, but they're respectable.
They're not the biggest team in the land, but Michigan's high-powered offense (third in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) has its "disadvantages" as an advantage. The Wolverines are difficult to guard because they're led by players who stretch the floor and create mismatches, especially on fast breaks and in space.
Their defense is still a work in progress, though. The Wolverines allowed a Michigan State team that competed without Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson to score 1.19 points per possession in their win over their in-state rivals on Jan. 22. But they've given up 63.9 PPG in Big Ten play, second in the league.
Defensive discipline will be the key in Michigan's matchup in Iowa City on Saturday. The Hawkeyes have lost three of five, largely because of their own defensive deficiencies. But their offense (sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) has struggled during this slide, too. The Hawkeyes scored only 1.01 PPP in their loss to Ohio State on Tuesday. They recorded 1.01 PPP in a loss to Michigan State last week. In their Jan. 22 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Hawkeyes managed 1.02 PPP. They made just 20 percent of their 3-point attempts in that loss.
In a game between two of the top offensive units in America on Saturday, defense shouldn't be overlooked. Both the Wolverines and Hawkeyes have had challenges on that end of the floor this season. They possess flashy offenses. So it could be a high-scoring game.
But defensive stops will matter most.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Before Michigan could even soak in the joys of silencing an opponent’s crowd -- hearing how a rival’s arena goes from a roar to a hush because of what they had done -- the criticism had snuck into most Michigan players’ thoughts.
For so many -- they know -- there will be an asterisk next to the Wolverines’ 80-75 win over Michigan State on Saturday.
Yes, Michigan State was short-handed. Adreian Payne is out with a foot injury and Branden Dawson broke his hand Thursday during a film session (which MSU coach Tom Izzo actually complimented, saying “it’s good to see some passion for basketball.”).
Those two players are important for Michigan State’s success and the Spartans didn’t have them. That is a fact. But basketball is a game with changing elements and coaches play the hands they are dealt.
So don’t let that take everything away from this Wolverines team. Don’t let that completely discount a victory because the Breslin Center is at least a sixth man, maybe even a seventh man on a night like Saturday when Michigan comes to town.
And don’t let that take away from freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. coming into his own on an opponent’s court or Nik Stauskas hitting five 3-pointers with hands in his face. Don’t let that take away from the fact that the Wolverines played their way back into this game, then hit 14 of 16 free throws in the final two minutes.
“Don’t take anything away from them,” Izzo said. “They made some shots. They made some plays. We had our chance.”
That charge was led mainly by sophomore guard Gary Harris, who led all scorers with a career-high 27 points on just nine field goals. Senior point guard Keith Appling recorded a double-double (10 points and 10 assists) to just one turnover.
So the Spartans certainly did have a chance, Harris and Appling made sure of that. And Breslin was there to back them up, to get into the heads of a team that has had 89 percent of its scoring this season come from freshmen and sophomores. Certainly, those are the players that a crowd can get to.
“I’ve never heard a crowd that loud,” Walton said. “Iowa State and Duke really wasn’t that loud. Coming out of that locker room here, hearing 18,000 kids jumping up and down, that was a crazy feeling.”
And while the Wolverines might’ve jumped out to an early lead, hitting their first four shots, it was the Spartans who played the more composed first half. They led 36-30 at halftime and, even without Payne, they allowed just six points in the paint.
That would end up being one of the stat lines the Spartans dominated, scoring 30 points in the paint to Michigan’s 16.
But the Wolverines were better elsewhere. They hit 11 3-pointers. Their top three scorers combined to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor and 77 percent from 3-point range. They rebounded 39 percent of their misses. They shot 83 percent from the charity stripe. They scored 15 second-chance points, the most given up by the Spartans defense this season.
That’s where Appling and Harris and Breslin couldn’t counter enough.
“I’m kind of glad I don’t have to come back here,” fifth-year senior center Jordan Morgan joked after the game.
Off all people, Morgan can talk to the Spartans about stepping up in the midst of injury. He and Jon Horford stepped into the minutes left behind by preseason All-American Mitch McGary when he had back surgery a few weeks ago.
Those two combined for eight rebounds and 10 points in 36 minutes of play.
By the time Morgan was reflecting on his previous games in the Breslin Center it was already empty -- that exodus had begun with a minute left in the game when the momentum had swung heavily to Michigan. He could appreciate the silence then, especially because he knows how rare it is to come by on the road.
In his five years at Michigan the Wolverines have never been better than .500 on the road in a single season. Right now Michigan is 4-2.
“That’s the best part,” Morgan said. “They try to get all in to your head but at the end of the day, you just kind of keep moving and don’t let it affect you. … When we went on our run it got pretty quiet in there.”
And like a veteran team, Michigan put a run on the Spartans. After the last eight days John Beilein’s group has had it’ll certainly see a significant boost in the rankings, and perhaps Izzo’s group will drop sans its two starters.
But those don’t really matter because in a rivalry game statistics and records are thrown out, leaving it to the bitterness to play itself out. And on Saturday, the Wolverines walked away the victors.
The Spartans visit the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor on Feb. 23 and they’ll then have a chance to silence the Michigan crowd. But for now, let Michigan savor this victory without an asterisk.
“It’s fair to say that we don’t like each other very much,” Stauskas said. “So it makes it a lot of fun to come here on the road and make these fans quiet up.”
MINNEAPOLIS -- If he builds it, will players come?
Richard Pitino’s field of dreams is housed in a place that was built more than a decade before World War II. The Barn, completed in the 1920s, is the nostalgic home of Minnesota men’s basketball, a program Pitino agreed to lead last spring.
It’s also a team with a past that is scarred by scandal. The academic mess in the 1990s that erased a Final Four appearance and a Big Ten title from the record books. A rape investigation in the 1980s. Dozens of NCAA violations in the 1970s.
Minnesota won its first NCAA tournament game in more than a decade in March 2013. It hasn’t won a Big Ten championship -- an official conference title, at least -- since 1982.
There’s smeared ink on the Book of Minnesota. Missing chapters, too.
And the only way for Pitino -- and every coach trying to rebuild a Division I program -- to change things is by luring better players to Minneapolis. It’s that easy and that complicated.
Minnesota's 63-60 loss to Michigan on Thursday could have been a positive step for Pitino and his program.
The Gophers outplayed an incomplete Michigan squad for a chunk of the night. Preseason All-American Mitch McGary didn’t play. And sophomore NBA prospect Glenn Robinson III missed most of the second half with an ankle injury.
But that’s when John Beilein turned to Nik Stauskas (14 points, seven assists), Zak Irvin (15 points, 5-for-8 from the 3-point line) and Jon Horford (14 points, nine rebounds). That resilience was a sign of Michigan’s depth and overall quality.
It wasn’t always this way, though.
So Beilein understands Pitino’s position.
Before he had a national title contender and a Wooden Award winner named Trey Burke, he had a team that hadn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 1998. In 2007, Beilein left West Virginia and accepted the charge of reinvigorating a program that had consistently failed to equal the success attained by the Fab Five. Much like Minnesota, Beilein had an old arena and no practice facility. And his chief rival Tom Izzo -- the equivalent of Bo Ryan to Minnesota -- had the edge on local talent.
In his sixth season, however, Beilein guided Michigan to the national championship game with an elite crew. And he boosted his team’s recruiting pipeline, ensuring a bright outlook for the squad.
When his two NBA prospects, McGary and Robinson, were unavailable against the Gophers, a pair of former top-100 recruits helped the Wolverines thrive.
Although he struggled from the field (1-of-4), freshman Derrick Walton Jr. (30th in the 2013 class, per RecruitingNation) was out there, too.
Only a healthy program can win a Big Ten road game with its two best players sidelined by injuries.
“You don’t think about what you don’t have,” Beilein said.
It helps when the next guy in line is a former McDonald’s All-American nominee (Irvin).
Beilein has two four-star recruits, Kameron Chatman and Ricky Doyle, in his 2014 class, which should allow Beilein to sustain this level of success.
That’s what Pitino wants.
“I think it’s all about patience, to be honest,” Pitino said. “And I know that’s a bad word in sports. I understand that. I think it’s all about recruiting and each class has got to get better than the next. And every player that you bring in, you’ve gotta bring in with great potential. You’ve just gotta stay positive. We understand that it’s all about recruiting. It really is. All about building that culture.”
Added Beilein: “I think he’s well on his way.”
That’s what separates the best from the rest in this game. Everything starts with talent. It’s natural to talk schemes and coaching and experience when assessing teams and their potential. But it’s more relevant to discuss the role that personnel plays in building a program.
If Pitino doesn’t sign young stars, he won’t transform Minnesota into a Big Ten title contender.
Beilein faced the same predicament and external hopes when he arrived.
But he had some assistance. Michigan has completed both a renovation of Crisler Arena and the construction of a new practice facility in recent years.
“We recruited pretty good players with pictures,” Beilein said. “It’s the efficiency with which we can operate. We can have guys shoot-around at all times. We’re not juggling with the women’s team. We’re not juggling with other sports. It’s huge that we can just be efficient with our practice times and really get the most of it. Obviously, it helps in recruiting. It certainly would hurt in recruiting if you don’t have it because everybody else in this league has it. So that’s a big thing.”
Facilities alone don’t guarantee an influx of talent. But they certainly matter.
“You know they’re committed to you,” Stauskas said. “You know with the practice facility they built, it just shows they’re willing to do whatever it takes to help us win. And last year with us going all the way to the national title game, it obviously shows that their investment is starting to pay off.”
There are no shovels in the ground on the Minnesota campus. No bulldozers moving dirt.
The practice facility is only a pipe dream that lacks the funding to become anything more than a fantasy.
The Barn should be torn down and replaced or renovated into a modern facility that is appealing to a new era of recruits that appreciate shiny things. Many supporters, however, view that as a blasphemous idea.
So the Gophers are, in many ways, stuck.
No new facilities. No sizable investment in basketball. Yet, miraculous results will be expected from the team’s backers in the coming years, even if things don’t change for Pitino the way they did for Beilein.
But Pitino doesn’t complain about his circumstances. He doesn’t have to.
Thursday’s Big Ten opener for Michigan and Minnesota told the story of two programs in separate realms.
One team is obviously equipped for the present and prepared for the future.
The other might need some more help just to get off the ground.
On Friday afternoon, Michigan announced that star forward Mitch McGary had finally had enough.
McGary had been nagged by back problems since the summer. He missed practices, he missed games. When he returned, he was mostly effective, but he was rehabbing and nursing pain like a 15-year NBA veteran. Then, Saturday, he didn’t play at all in Michigan’s 68-65 win over Stanford -- a telling sign in a game the Wolverines desperately needed. McGary’s back wasn’t getting better. It was getting worse.
On Friday, the announcement came: McGary had elected to undergo surgery on his back. Even worse, it included the word no team wants to hear about one of its key player’s potential return from injury: indefinite.
Here’s what we know: McGary probably won’t be back this season. Michigan said it expected McGary to make a full recovery, but ESPN Insider Jeff Goodman’s sources said it was “highly unlikely” McGary would return in 2013-14.
McGary was a preseason All-American and the centerpiece of coach John Beilein’s plans this season. His presence was supposed to (at least partially) compensate for the loss of 2013 National Player of the Year Trey Burke and shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. Michigan would still be guard-oriented, sure; Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III would still be featured scorers in their own right, but McGary would lessen the damage of losing Burke. He would get the Wolverines easy baskets and mask many blemishes.
Now, Beilein’s team, already 7-4, loses much of its potential teeth. Michigan goes back to the combination of Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford that hardly set the world aflame before McGary’s arrival last season.
Frankly, that applies to much of McGary’s 2012-13 season, too. Michigan was good throughout, but it took McGary -- once the No. 2-ranked recruit in the Class of 2012 -- until March to push Morgan out of the starting lineup for good. Even in the final game of the regular season, McGary was still little more than a sub body Beilein used to irritate (and foul) Indiana star Cody Zeller. McGary finished that game with two points and four fouls.
But in March, he came alive. The run of dominance McGary unleashed justified every breathless scouting report of his early prep career: McGary steamrolled through South Dakota State, VCU, Kansas, Florida and Syracuse. In those five games, he shot 37-of-53, scored 80 points, grabbed 58 rebounds and generally morphed into the kind of player who deserved to take a good, hard look at the NBA draft. He did. He decided to return.
Now, McGary’s sophomore season is lost, and it is not unfair to ask the question: What if he leaves after this season anyway? It may be unlikely. No doubt, NBA scouts will want to see McGary and know he is healthy. Back issues make for a frightening investment. But there are plenty of precedents wherein obviously talented players demonstrated their talent in less-than-ideal sample sizes -- Kyrie Irving, anyone? -- before showing up to the draft combine healthy and impressive and hardly worse off for it.
What if McGary’s timeline works out that way? What if his family decides the risk of another year of possibly injured college basketball isn’t worth whatever lower draft slot he might have to take in bargain? Could McGary’s Michigan legacy end up being five brilliant NCAA tournament games and little more?
I don’t know, and neither does Michigan. Such are the perils in the absence of a timetable. How the Wolverines respond in this season, and what it means for them beyond it, is, like McGary’s post-surgery body, indefinite. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Now that you know what you need to watch in every conference in the country in 2013-14, we turn our attention to the theme of change -- from coaching swaps to player development to good old-fashioned rules and anywhere in between. Today: Can John Beilein change again? Does he need to?
Before last season, John Beilein was not a man accustomed to playing with superior talent.
Beilein built his career like he builds his offenses: methodically, intelligently and, most of all, uniquely. He has never been an assistant coach; his coaching career has included stops in high school (Newfane), community college (Erie CC), NAIA (Nazareth), Division II (LeMoyne) and the mid-major ranks (Canisius, Richmond); and he got to West Virginia and then Michigan because he found a way to consistently exploit inefficiencies in the talent market. Beilein didn't coach national players of the year and the progeny of household-name NBA veterans. He coached Mike Gansey and Kevin Pittsnogle.
Now Burke and Hardaway are in the NBA. McGary, named a preseason AP All-American Monday, and Robinson, a multitalented wing hungry for more than a purely athletic role, are set to take a lead role. And so the question is whether Beilein can tweak his formula for maximum offensive output again … or whether he even needs to in the first place.
He isn't convinced by the premise.
"I don’t think there was ever a drastic change," Beilein said. "There was a general migration of subtle changes over time. We’re going to do something 30 percent of the time X number of years ago, then it was 40 and 50 percent of the time.
"And then last year, we have a player of the year, so we’re going to try to get the ball in his hands as much as possible. I don’t think there’s a drastic change back [this year] as well, but those things could drop 20 to 30 percent in either direction."
It's true Beilein never made a total overhaul. He still played the two-guard last year. Burke and Hardaway's perimeter playmaking and the lights-out stroke of freshman guard Nik Stauskas suited those two-guard sets just fine; the Wolverines still got plenty of corner 3s out of those pesky baseline drives. (Freshman point guard Spike Albrecht, a classic unheralded and largely unrecruited Beilein find, was born to play "pure" two-guard, if there is such a thing. The kid throws a wicked baseline bounce pass.)
But it's also true that Beilein wasn't running the same stuff he ran at West Virginia nearly as often. On offense, he cleared out for Burke far more than ever before, and he had viable post options in McGary, Jordan Morgan, and Jon Horford -- a weakness of previous teams, even at Michigan. (With all due respect to Zak Novak, naturally.)
Still, without Burke, some change will have to be in order. So what will it be? More pure post-ups for McGary? Clear-outs for Robinson? Iso offense?! Say it ain't so!
"The biggest question is, what do you do at shot-clock time?" Beilein said. "Do you have shot-clock plays that could go anywhere? [With] 12 seconds, [do you have] five different looks? Or trusting one person? I think that will work itself out as the year goes on."
In other words: It ain't so. Michigan might tweak, and Beilein might tinker, but the things that got him from Newfane to the national title game are still firmly in the playbook. And why not?
That might not have been the motive at all. But that's how it looked, at least from outside the Michigan locker room -- especially when the Fab Five crammed into said locker room after a devastating title game loss. There is never a more sensitive time to be with a team, and it was easy to picture Michigan's players' puffy eyes staring blankly ahead, if only to keep them from rolling.
Turns out, some of Michigan's players might have been just as unconvinced of the Fab Five's motivations as I was. UM Hoops asked former reserve Josh Bartelstein -- one of the best, and most honest, quotes in the sport last season -- about the whole Fab Five thing, and his response was both polite and illuminating. There were raised eyebrows, maybe a dash of resentment. And then Juwan Howard spoke.
"At first, it was a little like, 'What are these guys doing here, they haven’t been a part of this team or a part of this program for a really long time.' But then, once all the media cleared out they spoke. And I thought Juwan [Howard] really had a great message: They were here for us. They were here to link Michigan past and the present and the future together. And he said one of the greatest accomplishments this team will have is bringing Michigan basketball back. They weren’t there to talk to the media, they weren’t there for themselves. They were there to support us and Michigan basketball. They came around and gave everyone a hug, and they said that if any of us ever need anything from them they’ll be here, whether it’s advice about basketball or life; they’re here for us. I think after initially feeling like they were here for the media circus of it, they were here because they loved what we stood for and loved how we played. I think that meant a lot to us. Juwan did a great job with it."
For one, that pretty much lines up with everything NBA people say about Howard, who at 40 years old remained worth a roster spot in Miami the past two seasons even as a quasi-assistant coach/part-time motivational speaker. If you have the cachet to scream at the best player in the world during the Eastern Conference finals, you have officially mastered the art of locker room chemistry.
But the larger points are that A) even Michigan's players were skeptical, and understandably so; and B) Howard, and presumably the rest of his old-school cohort, got it. For whatever other baggage was bound to come along for the "Fab Five Takes Atlanta" routine, they were ultimately there for support, as fans and former players, as people who desperately want Michigan basketball to be elite again. They might even have been grateful: It took a long time for the Wolverines to recover from the Ed Martin scandal, but after a few years of rebuilding, Beilein and a bunch of kids too young to remember the glory days finally got it done.
For the first time in 15 years, the future of Wolverines basketball seems as bright as it did in the halcyon days of the early 90s. The through line has been drawn. The outside noise was deafening, sure, but maybe the Fab Five needed to be in that locker room after all.
Advancement in the modern coaching world requires coaching talent, of course, but it also places a primacy on professional networking unseen in most fields. If you're not a noteworthy former player, you had better come from a visible coaching tree. It's best to have a legend in your résumé's recommendations bullets. Even then, getting ahead means lobbies at the Final Four, attending as many coaches seminars as will have you, and constantly maintaining relationships not only with college coaches but with recruiting gurus, AAU runners and high school coaches. You start as a grad assistant, you slowly work your way up, you get a decent assistant's job, and maybe, maybe you then start thinking about your own program. And oh, by the way: This process never ends.
In April, at age 60, after nearly 40 years of coaching, Beilein finally reached the mountaintop. This weekend, Michigan made that symbolic achievement financially concrete, awarding Beilein with a contract extension through the 2018-19 season. The new deal will pay Beilein $2.45 million annually, a far cry from the $12,000 paycheck Beilein earned in his first college job at Erie CC.
It's been a remarkable journey, and you get the sense that Beilein -- who is never happier than when he's in his office, lost to visions of the perfect basketball in his mind's eye -- wouldn't change a season. There is just one downside I can see: The nagging feeling Beilein could have found his Michigan earlier.
I mean that not as an indictment of the coach himself, but of the culture that surrounds him. For decades, Beilein toiled in relative obscurity, steadily turning mostly inferior assets into winning teams. For the most part, he kept his head down and coached, focusing on little else than each new game and each new season. But that is rarely enough to land a top-flight college job. University administrators and boards of trustees are notoriously cautious, and athletic directors are never keen to stake their own employment on risky unknowns. If you don't come with high-profile approval, or have a "hot name," your chances of breaking into the highest levels of the profession become drastically slim.
In many ways, the college game is better about this than the NBA, which makes a hilarious yearly spectacle of recycling unsuccessful retreads. But as ever more money flows into the sport, programs could become even more cautious with their hires. The same candidates will be floated year in and year out, with only a tangential relationship to actual ability. Things like outreach and fundraising will grown in importance, as impossible as that seems. And it will take the Beileins of the world even longer to rise to the top.
Let's hope that's not the case. There are too many good coaches in the world at all levels -- coaches doing interesting, even revolutionary things on both ends of the floor, people who were born to coach and are willing to quit their cushy corporate marketing gigs and don the flair at Applebee's if it gets them there -- shut off from the insular college circuit already.
In 2007-08, when Beilein took the job at Michigan, he was already age 54. Fortunately, he found his final summit in time, and now he has anywhere between five years and a decade (when he will be 70) to cement a lasting legacy at a proud Big Ten school. But what if he had gotten there five years earlier? Or 10? Would Michigan have risen from the Ed Martin ashes even sooner? How many other John Beileins have been overlooked? How many other would-be national title contenders have stalled out for their oversight?
2. Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins was thrilled with the performance of one of his star players, Dwight Powell, who was second on the Canadian World University Games team in scoring at 12.1 points a game (behind Baylor's Brady Heslip) in Kazan, Russia, earlier this month. Powell lost his mother, Jacqueline Weir, on Sept. 13, 2012. Stanford's team and staff rallied around Powell and attended a memorial. Powell was able to still play his sophomore season and was named the Pac-12's most improved player -- going from 5.8 points as a freshman to 14.9 as a sophomore. The Cardinal have a real shot to finish in the top three of the Pac-12, and a lot of that has to do with the play of Powell. Dawkins is beaming with pride over Powell's development and his progress. He should. He has stuck by him throughout a terrible ordeal, thousands of miles from his Toronto home. These are the good stories, the ones in which a coach rallies around a player in a time of need with a bond built between the two that can have a lasting legacy.
3. As expected, Michigan gave John Beilein a contract extension, which takes him through the 2018-19 season. This is exactly what the Wolverines have needed -- a long-time, consistent coach who is a proven winner. Of course, it helps if he fits and the timing is right. Tommy Amaker came to Ann Arbor after the Brian Ellerbe years and following NCAA sanctions. The expectations were high but hard to meet. Amaker has found his groove at Harvard where he is thriving. Beilein had West Virginia winning at a high clip. He needed time to develop his style at Michigan. And he's rolling. Having Beilein locked in at Ann Arbor and Tom Izzo a fixture in East Lansing gives this in-state rivalry two of the game's best coaches. This should ensure that both programs will be regulars in challenging for Big Ten titles. Beilein made Michigan nationally relevant again by reaching the Final Four, and added a title game appearance to enhance the comeback story. The recruiting is still strong and the staff has settled down into a highly capable recruiting core. The Michigan students who arrived two years ago (and those who are to come) are getting a basketball program/coach combination that are in concert just as well as they were 20 years ago -- but without any of the NCAA enforcement drama.
2. VCU and Northeastern are in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic but are on opposite brackets. VCU will host Northeastern on Nov. 29 in a "fourth" game as part of the tournament. But it allows the two schools to renew a CAA game that was worthy of attention when the two were in the same league. And if they were to play twice in the same season then what's wrong with that? The Las Vegas Invitational shouldn't have worried about UCLA and Missouri still playing against each other on Dec. 7 in Columbia. So what if they end up playing twice in the same season? The Invitational would have had more appeal if it were a true tournament format instead of set matchups of UCLA and Missouri playing Nevada and Northwestern. Creighton and Marquette are both in the Wooden Legacy and are in the same conference now (Big East). Marquette also had a scheduled game against Arizona State yet both are in the Wooden Legacy. Memphis and Oklahoma State are scheduled to play, yet both are in the Old Spice Classic -- on opposite sides of the bracket. UCLA and Missouri could have done this as well and run the risk/gamble/chance of playing twice for two quality games.
3. The USA World University Games team finished a disappointing ninth in Kazan, Russia, but the kinship of the staff clearly is going to have shelf life. Michigan coach John Beilein and South Carolina coach Frank Martin, who were assistants to Davidson's Bob McKillop, were quick to tweet out how much they enjoyed coaching together. Martin tweeted spending time with Beilein and McKillop was "unreal. They're brilliant basketball minds and better men. USC basketball just got better." Beilein tweeted, "I will always cherish my 24 days with this team and staff. Bob McKillop + Frank Martin and I have a bond now that will last forever. USA!!" This was Beilein's first time -- ever -- being an assistant. The sharing of ideas is what coaching should be about at any level and the best of USA basketball is when a staff can get along, discuss each other's strengths and improve each other's program.