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Dan Feldman: Beilein's toughest gig yet

BY DAN FELDMAN

Published January 7, 2008

WEST LAFAYETTE - Michigan coach John Beilein doesn't know what he's gotten himself into.

Five times in the second half of Saturday's loss at Purdue, the Wolverines came within three points, only to let the Boilermakers re-extend their lead.

Michigan lacking a killer instinct? What a surprise.

But things were supposed to be different under Beilein.

He's won at every stop - Erie Community College, Nazareth, LeMoyne, Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia.

Well, almost every stop. Not Michigan. The Wolverines (4-10) are the Big Ten's worst team.

When Michigan hired Beilein, eight seasons separated the current team and the program's last game vacated by NCAA sanctions. Michigan won a semi-respectable 54 percent of its games in those eight years, the last six under Tommy Amaker. But the Wolverines rarely showed a competitive streak.

Against ranked teams: 10-49.

On the road: 22-61.

NCAA Tournament appearances: zero.

Amaker admirably moved the Wolverines past the Ed Martin situation, but when it became clear he couldn't take Michigan to the next level, he was fired.

Athletic Director Bill Martin hired Beilein because the coach had a higher ceiling than Amaker.

But it hasn't shown. Beilein has put aside winning to help his young team learn his complex offense of 3-pointers and backdoor cuts and his unique 1-3-1 zone defense.

Michigan needs to learn how to win, and Beilein isn't teaching that.

Beilein asked the public to judge the team on its progress learning his system, not its record.

He's probably a bit scared to see what would happen if he put pressure on his players to win. After all, it's a young team learning a new system - one of the nation's most complicated at that.

The Wolverines' largest obstacle is they don't know what it takes to win. Dealing with the tension of game is the best way to learn.

Michigan basketball has been devoid of pressure for too long. Everything is comfortable; there's no desperation.

Beilein has said games can be nuisances, distractions in the way of practices. He's spending less time preparing for opponents than he typically does.

Put this team out there. See what it can do. Beilein might be surprised with what could happen.

I'm all for building a program, rather than just focusing on short-term success. But you don't need to get bad to get good. Michigan shouldn't lose to Harvard or Central Michigan - both of which have first-year coaches, too.

The Wolverines didn't even pretend to give themselves a chance against Georgetown, Duke or UCLA. Once on the court, they tried to win, but they didn't expect to win.

Beilein, in his 29 years as a head coach, has proven himself, and there's still a very good chance he'll win here. But by making winning a secondary goal, he's drastically slowing down the process.

For the last eight years, there hasn't been much wrong with the Wolverines, but there hasn't been much right either.

If Beilein doesn't put pressure on this team, the mediocrity will continue. Maybe he's going to flip that switch next year when the team knows his system better. But why wait?

Beilein can work on schemes all he wants, but until he changes the program's culture, not much will change.

- Feldman can be reached at danfeld@umich.edu.