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.
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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.
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.