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

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

Then he happened to catch a University of Washington game on TV late one night — an unheard-of phenomenon at the time — and saw the Huskies running an offense like the one Niland had described.

Washington coach Andy Russo had gotten his job after a successful stint at Louisiana Tech. (He had a star forward there by the name of Karl Malone.) Within two seasons, he’d be out of Seattle and relegated to Division-II the rest of his career, but at the moment he was one of the hottest young coaches in the country.

Beilein wrote to Russo and received in return a blue mimeographed ditto, worn from years of use. It diagrammed the two-guard offense of Jack Hartman, the famous coach at Kansas State who had retired the year before. Its origins probably date to famous coach Henry Iba of Oklahoma State — both Russo and Hartman worked on Iba’s staff at points in their careers.

Ever cautious, Beilein slowly began to implement some of the two-guard offense’s principles. But by the next season, he was convinced — this offense was perfect for his team. He went all-in and switched completely to the two-guard, adding countless plays to his offensive repertoire.

LeMoyne went 24-6 in 1987-88 and qualified for the Division II NCAA Tournament for the first time in 19 years, and the only time of Beilein’s nine-year tenure.

The Beilein offense was born.

***

Players that end up at LeMoyne will never be the most athletic — it's Division II, after all. Skills may often be in abundance, but a Division II player making it to the NBA is akin to winning the lottery.

Beilein had a team full of smart, skilled, disciplined players who lacked athleticism. But the two-guard offense makes up for lack of athleticism with the way it spreads the floor. (“Two-guard” is a bit of a misnomer the way Beilein operates, with four players on the perimeter and just one player inside.) It creates mismatches and shot opportunities and what Beilein calls “leverage” through ball movement and cutting.

It was the perfect offense for LeMoyne.

“We didn’t really have a choice,” said Dave Niland, a guard from 1985-89 and also Tom's nephew and Beilein’s cousin. “It was the only way we were going to win. We weren’t going to dunk on anybody.”

In 1987-88, Beilein really went for it. He moved 6-foot-4 guard Scott Hicks to the “four,” or power forward position, (20-plus years before he would do the same thing with Zack Novak) and he inserted another guard into the lineup. Point guard Russell Barnes wasn’t much of a distributor, but he could shoot, which was all the system required at that point.

And a freshman named Len Rauch emerged at the “five,” or center position. Rauch is now the all-time scoring leader for LeMoyne, but he was also an expert passer for a big man. (He recorded 168 assists in his first season.)

Rauch’s ability to dish the ball resulted in plenty of looks from behind the 3-point line, which had just been instituted by the NCAA in 1986.

The Dolphin shooters took to the 3-pointer well, hitting 44.6 percent of their attempts. If Beilein had any doubts about his new system, the 1987-88 season erased them.

“It was match made in heaven, if you will,” Rauch said. “I wouldn’t trade those years for anything, playing for him.”

***

The principles of the Beilein offense aren’t necessarily unique. The system rests on plenty of downscreens; backscreens; hard, precise cutting; lots of motion 3-pointers and now, ball screens. It requires focus, effort, teamwork, and most importantly, selflessness.

Even if every player won't be shooting the ball on every possession, each will be touching it. The offense works because the players themselves and the ball move around so much. Eventually, a defender will lose position — that gives Beilein's players leverage, meaning they've gained the advantage and can drive or find a good shot.

But the system can only run efficiently if its players are willing to sacrifice their points and make the next pass, which will almost always result in a better shot or better positioning. It’s why Rauch says that unselfishness is an “underlying fundamental” of the offense.

“It’s got to be a guy that values the assist as much as he values the score — a team player,” Beilein said of the type of player he looks to recruit.