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How 19 Became the New 22: Michigan's youth revolution

By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 14, 2012

For a man with more talent than he’s ever had in 35 years of coaching, John Beilein doesn’t feel spoiled.

The sixth-year Michigan coach constructed and perfected an offense with the purpose of doing more with less, but today Beilein doesn’t have less. He has more than opposing coaches feel comfortable with.

He has the top-flight talent he could once see only by scheduling a marquee opponent when he was laboring through the lower rungs of college basketball.

These days?

Tim Hardaway Jr. Trey Burke. Mitch McGary. Glenn Robinson III. The future is in place too: heralded recruits Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin both signed their letters of intent for the 2013 recruiting class this week.

At the center is Burke. Without the sophomore from Columbus, the bridge from Darius Morris to the future of Michigan basketball may not have been built.

Burke is the quarterback of Beilein’s present-day offense, the 2012 iteration of the floor general that Beilein’s always had, but never like this — a lightning-quick, no-look passing, jump-shooting, off-balance-finishing dynamo.

Beilein’s rosters used to be inundated with blue-collar talent. Now, you’ll have a tough time finding a team of his devoid of NBA talent. Very quickly, Beilein’s teams went from the pursuers to the pursued.

And in the process, the face of Beilein’s teams has transformed. Where there once was the savvy, but limited senior leader, now is the stud underclassman with the talent to make it to the next level.

But through this transformation, Beilein hasn’t changed his attitude. He doesn’t feel spoiled because nothing he touches is different. The expectations are the same, the attitude is the same, and the respect he commands is the same.

Therein lies the paradox of Beilein: nothing has changed about how he approaches his teams — but the constant is that he won’t stop changing.

***

Before he won a Big Ten championship, reached the Elite Eight at West Virginia or groomed NBA-level talent, John Beilein had Scott Hicks in 1987.

The guard for Le Moyne College in upstate New York had the height Beilein liked, but lacked quickness to keep up with opposing guards.

So Beilein tinkered. He plugged the undersized Hicks in as a stretch forward, and Le Moyne won 16 out of 17 games that season, finishing 24-6.

If that sounds familiar, it should. History repeated itself 23 years and four coaching stops later when Beilein used an athletically limited, 6-foot-4 scrapper as the undersized forward. Zack Novak flourished in the role and captained Michigan for three years, leading the Wolverines to consecutive NCAA Tournaments for the first time since the Steve Fisher era.

But to conclude that the undersized power forward is a Beilein trademark would be to look limitedly at the players he’s had. West Virginia’s six-foot-11 Kevin Pittsnogle took the nation by storm during March Madness in 2005. The tattooed 3-point sharpshooter played the same position as Novak, just as the versatile 6-foot-8 DeShawn Sims did at Michigan.

“We have to adapt to our players,” says Beilein. “Because Jordan Morgan, for example, is not a 3-point shooter. You tailor the game to him. That’s the beauty of our staff and our experience level. We’re going to tailor our plan to what our talent level is.”

Novak’s departure, though, may have signaled a farewell to the legacy of the Beilein Overachiever. He was Burke’s first running mate and came at the intersection of John Beilein old and new. He represented the Beilein of the past, who found himself on a team rapidly becoming the Beilein team of the future.

Novak may be the last of a dying breed. As Beilein’s status continues to climb in college basketball, he won’t need to rely on the self-made, “small-town boy makes good” mold. Why try to catch lightning in a bottle when you can create it yourself? Beilein, able to get his pick of the litter of high school talent, will be able to customize his teams based on current and future personnel.

Where the Novak archetype may be falling out of favor, the other pieces still need to be there to surround Burke. The stretch swingman — a versatile, inside-outside threat with the ability to rebound and guard opposing power forwards — is filled by the 6-foot-6 Robinson. That spot-up shooter who can bury the big 3-pointer from the corner? Freshman Nik Stauskas. Hardaway is the athletic wing player. Morgan, and eventually McGary, plays the role of the steady big man to clean up around the rim.

It’s as though, after 35 years of coaching, Beilein finally has his fantasy lineup.

***

That offense Beilein developed at Le Moyne became a trademark. He’d overcome bigger and more athletic teams with ball movement, screening and backdoor cuts. The offense was made to find the open man, not the five-star recruit — mainly because he didn’t have one.

It was an underdog system through and through. But before he developed it in the late ’80s, he led unheralded programs at Erie Community College and Nazareth to dominant seasons. Once he broke into the Division-I ranks, he led Canisius College to its best record in the last 55 years. He coached Richmond to five-straight winning seasons and he took West Virginia to the Elite Eight, a height the Mountaineers hadn’t reached since 1959.

At West Virginia, Beilein turned the program around, but not because of the freakish talent. His first top-100 recruit was Da’Sean Butler who signed in Beilein’s last year in Morgantown. It was a school that had been to the NCAA Tournament just twice since 1989, but has missed the tournament just twice since Beilein arrived in 2004.

Then, as he brought Michigan back from the brink of NCAA basketball irrelevance, a funny thing happened.

Suddenly, the Wolverines started to enjoy the size and athleticism that they’d been designed to take down. The alley-oops, spin moves and tip-slams started to infiltrate Crisler Center. Now, they’re pulling in the top-flight recruits.

Manny Harris was inherited by Beilein from former coach Tommy Amaker and was developed into an NBA talent. In the 2010-11 season, Morris went from a standard Big Ten point guard to a Los Angeles Laker. The following year, Burke went from a lightly recruited three-star from Columbus to a probable second-rounder in the NBA Draft.

This begs the question whether Beilein has attracted a much better crop of players, or whether the players reached NBA caliber because of their time under Beilein.

According to Beilein, the NBA wasn’t on Burke nor Morris’s radar early in their breakout seasons.

“There is no way that in January, or even February of Trey’s freshman year and Darius’s sophomore year they were even thinking of going to the NBA,” Beilein said. “If you’re thinking about going to the NBA in December, you probably won’t be going to the NBA.”

***

Michigan had one of its youngest rosters in 2010-11, Morris’s sophomore season. There were no seniors and there was a serious void in size.

This was the pre-windfall Beilein team. The last glimpse of the not-quite-there era. Burke was in his senior season at Northland High School, and Morris had the reins to the offense.

Morgan was the lone reliable post presence in his redshirt freshman season, and the Wolverines lived and died by Morris and the 3-pointer.

In a particularly embarrassing loss to Minnesota, Michigan totaled 11 rebounds and the high on the team belonged to Hardaway and Novak, who each pulled down three. The Wolverine frontcourt amassed a single board.

That season, the 6-foot-4 Novak led the squad in rebounding.

Size was clearly an issue, so Beilein did what he had to do. He stationed Morris — his strong, physical 6-foot-4 point guard — in the post where Michigan could take advantage of the traditionally smaller opposing point guards. This way, Beilein could leverage the one position in which Michigan had the edge in physicality, whereby Morris could attack smaller defenders and spread the court for the team’s shooters.

Following the humiliating loss to Minnesota in Jan. 2011, the Wolverines curbed a six-game losing streak and won nine of their next 12. They earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament and won their first game in convincing fashion, 75-45 over Tennessee.

“I think he learns how to be more flexible with the talent that he has,” Morris said last week. “He might not be as strict on certain things, but more ‘Whatever you can do, do it.’ But his overall philosophy and the morals that he instills in his kids. That’s why he’s so successful.”

Many thought Morris’s early departure for the NBA meant doom and gloom for Michigan for the foreseeable future. What they couldn’t have realized was that the move paved the way for the most promising era in Michigan basketball since the Fab Five in the early 1990s.

Upon arrival in Ann Arbor, some was expected of Burke, but not as much as he delivered. Michigan was expected to compete in the Big Ten, but not threaten Ohio State or Wisconsin.

Beilein had the task of integrating a freshman point guard into a team with seniors Novak and Stu Douglass, who had dreams of making a lasting impact in their last year.

So did the coach work extra hours with Trey to teach him all of the intricacies of his offense so that he could command the system by Big Ten play in January? Quite the opposite.

“What we did do, because that’s the toughest position to come into, is we shortened our package in games,” Beilein said. “We tried to work on our package for the future, but we shortened our package for him in games because it would be too much for him.”

The plan seemed to work. Burke led the team in scoring and assists, was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and earned the complete respect of his teammates.

Burke led the team to its first Big Ten championship in 26 years.

“We all came here with some different ideas and John filters the best of them,” said assistant coach LaVall Jordan. “He’s always thinking about the strengths of the team to get us in the best position.”

***

Burke’s season earned him national acclaim and preseason All-America honors this year. But that success almost came at the expense of the Wolverines’ success this season.

News came out shortly after Michigan bowed out in the first game of the NCAA Tournament that Burke would be thinking about entering the NBA Draft. On April 4, CBS Sports reported that Burke was indeed leaving Michigan.

Amid the rumors, fans questioned how the Wolverines would be able to deal with losing their underclassman point guard for the second straight year. In a year that seemed to be a big step forward for Michigan, Burke’s departure would beckon a rebuilding year.

Burke quelled the speculation by announcing that he’d return to Ann Arbor for his sophomore season on April 9.

The episode frightened the Michigan fan base for a short while, but it spoke to a larger trend under John Beilein.

Long gone are the days where he could count on his players for four years. Now, there’s a tradeoff. The better his players become, the better his teams will be — but long-term success is placed in jeopardy as the allure of money and fame in the NBA is too much for a college student to ignore.

In all but one of Beilein’s seasons at Michigan, an underclassman has led the team in scoring and assists. The young guards have flourished in the system, and the NBA came calling for each of them. This wasn’t Canisius anymore.

“With Manny and Darius and now our current players, Trey and Tim, we want what they want when it comes to their future,” Beilein said. “And if they’re in a position to move to the NBA, we have to be prepared to not be surprised. We have to be prepared to expect that. Just like you have to be ready for an injury or other types of attrition, we have to be ready for it. You have to be prepared for a really good player that has an opportunity in professional basketball.”

Certain things change when Beilein has this type of player. He needs to decide whether to redshirt a player that may be a bigger part of the program once the NBA guy has moved on. He needs to take advantage of the late recruiting periods. He must make sure the goals of the program align with the individual’s wishes.

He may very well have to switch everything up for next season if Burke decides, once and for all, to head to the NBA — whether to plug in crafty sophomore Spike Albrecht or go directly to the touted recruit, Derrick Walton.

But other things need to stay the same.

“We adjust to the players,” Beilein said. “But there’s certain things that are not negotiable. You’re going to be a good teammate, you’re going to be in a (defensive) stance, you’re going to buy into defense.”

***

The rise of Michigan basketball and the growing presence of top-flight talent in Crisler Center might follow an easily constructed narrative.

Beilein came to Michigan, a higher-profile program and made use of rapidly improving facilities and culture to attract some of the best basketball talent in the country on the way to bringing the program back onto the national scene.

If only it worked that easily.

More likely was that Beilein didn’t just begin to attract great talent.

He developed decent players into good players. His success attracted good players, who became very good players. He parlayed those guys into the Glenn Robinsons and Derrick Waltons of the hoops scene.

Michigan basketball is seen as a way to add value to a player with given abilities. It’s a way to showcase their strengths.

“I think Coach Beilein lets players do what they’re comfortable doing,” Burke said. “But then he’ll get on you if you’re doing something that you’re not capable of doing. The players love playing for him because he’s a players’ coach. He allows his players to make mistakes.”

Morris says high schoolers with dreams of playing in the NBA ought to heavily consider Michigan.

Twenty-five years after Hicks at Le Moyne, the styles of Beilein’s teams have varied. Earlier teams were slower and operated mainly in the half-court. This year’s athletically superior group figures to run much more in the open court, but the principles stay the same.

The underdog label for Beilein’s offense may have been shed, but the tenets of the offense stay constant. Find the open man.

But now, that open man is a top recruit. And it’s not just one. There’s a whole floor of them.


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