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

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

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.