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LET THE BALL TALK: Twenty-five seasons of the Beilein offense

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By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 28, 2012

To observe John Beilein explaining his offensive strategy is an exercise in contrast.

Seated in his plush new office in the Bill Davidson Player Development Center, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the poshness. The room is enormous and has its own separate bathroom. The desk and fully-stocked bookshelf at the back of the office scream “importance.”

But when Beilein begins to diagram his offense on his basketball-court pin board, the humble basketball lifer that he truly is emerges. He's a coach who has feverishly and ceaselessly studied the strategy of the game his entire career — “one of the best X and O guys in the business,” in the words of Mike Gansey, his star guard at West Virginia who led the Mountaineers to the Elite 8 and Sweet 16 in consecutive years.

Beilein rapidly moves the five pins around the board, showing the wide variety of offensive looks he uses. The only thing moving faster than his fingers is his mouth, as he breathlessly details what would be overly complex to most.

You realize Beilein is in complete control of this offense, and for good reason — it’s all his. Some may have similar principles in their system, but the minutiae, terminology and endless reads Beilein employs are unique to him. Though the basics come from some ancestral systems, he has morphed and twisted his attack into something all his own.

Ever wonder why you don’t see other teams running the Beilein system? It’d be impossible. The only man who truly knows its detailed intricacies is Beilein.

“You got these other systems that there’s a blueprint for, and every coach has his own little wrinkles to it,” said Rob Dauster, editor of the basketball blog Ballin’ Is A Habit. “John Beilein basically runs his own thing. … He created his own offense. It’s really a lot of fun to watch.”

Beilein really had no choice but to do so. He had no full-time assistants at LeMoyne College, the Division II school he was coaching at when he developed his system, so just about every task for running the program fell to him. He even drove the team van to road games. With no assistants to bounce ideas off, Beilein just devised an offense by himself.

But for all the praise his system receives now, in the beginning, the Beilein offense was born of necessity.

“This isn’t about the offense,” Beilein said. “It was about players who fit the offense.”

***

The exact date is lost to history.

Thirty-four seasons and 1,037 games will muddle the memory of any man, especially one whose mind is in a state of constant frenzy, gears churning endlessly to try and devise the next way his team can get an edge.

It was the 1986-87 season when a young Beilein met with his athletic director to discuss the state of his team.

Beilein was 33 and still near the bottom of the coaching ladder, grinding away in his fourth season at LeMoyne, a Jesuit school in Syracuse, N.Y.

He was restless.

The Dolphins weren’t exactly struggling. Yes, they were coming off a 14-15 season, the program’s first losing record since 1982. But the team was winning again that year, and would eventually finish 20-10.

Still, Beilein wasn’t satisfied. He didn’t like the way things were going offensively. For most of his career prior to LeMoyne, he ran a modified version of the flex offense.

At LeMoyne, Beilein was running the traditional three-guard, two-big-men, set-play offense that was the norm in college basketball in those days. But it wasn’t working for his team.

Beilein’s AD had a suggestion. You would think the coach would be all ears — after all, he was Beilein’s boss. He also happened to be Beilein’s uncle. As if he needed more credentials, Tom Niland was also a Syracuse sports legend. He was the basketball team captain at Canisius, a Division I school nearby, and he later spent 27 years as LeMoyne’s coach. He eventually left his AD post after 42 years.

Niland had a simple piece of advice: play offense like he did back in the 1940s. Instead of clogging the lane with two big men, move one out to the perimeter. Back then, the lane was only six feet wide (it looked exactly like a “key,” hence the term), half as big as it is now, so deploying two big men in the paint was a non-starter. Taking one out now would space out the floor and open up all kinds of cuts and backdoor action.

Beilein mostly ignored his uncle’s advice at first.


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