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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

“Not that you can’t teach that, but we like to find guys that really feel the game more than just their own game.”

But every coach would like to have unselfish players, and every coach would like to have a disciplined attack — look at any successful team and you’ll usually find those traits.

What sets Beilein’s system apart is its open-endedness. On any given trip down the court, there are countless possible ways for the offense to unfold. It all depends on what the defense does.

Run the offense, see how the defense plays it, then react accordingly. No matter how the defense tries to stop the attack, there’s a way for the offense to respond — in fact, it depends on responding to a defense based on the way it tries to counter Beilein’s action.

“It’s sort of organized confusion, it’s read and react,” Beilein said. “If one guy does one thing, it changes the whole thing. … Now everybody’s got to see that and go to the next phase of it. … Nobody talked about it, (it’s just) ‘I saw what you saw, you saw what I saw, we don’t have to call a new play.’

“The ball talked, and said ‘run this instead.’”

It can be dizzying. That’s an awful lot for a college kid to process, and it doesn’t help that he has a defender hounding him as he’s trying to analyze the opposition and react accordingly.

“You’ve just got to read every single little part of the game when you’re on the offensive end,” said senior guard Stu Douglass. “It’s tough sometimes. … You’ve just got to be ready for that (sudden change).”

For example, Jordan Morgan sets an off-ball screen for Tim Hardaway Jr. in the corner. The defender prevents Hardaway Jr. from coming off the screen. Hardaway Jr. is supposed to read that and know that he should fake a back cut and then try and cut back again off Morgan’s screen.

That’s why Beilein’s system also requires intelligent players. But that’s something he’s had at every stop of his peripatetic coaching career.

***

Beilein, young and full of ambition, took the job at Canisius, Tom Niland’s alma mater, in 1992. He met a familiar face at his new gig — Dave Niland was an assistant at Canisius under the previous staff. Beilein, without a staff to bring, retained the assistants already there.

Familiarity aside, it was a big career move to Division I. But he had no doubt that he was taking his offense with him.

The issue was that the Golden Griffins didn’t have a roster like LeMoyne, so adjustments were necessary. But that was a good thing. Canisius wouldn’t be confused with a high-major squad, but the team was much more athletic than the Dolphins, especially at the “five” spot.

Beilein went from Len Rauch to a Jamaican-born Canadian center named Michael Meeks. In doing so, he went from a skilled, unathletic big man to one with a lot more bounce in his step. That allowed Beilein to get Meeks more involved with movement, which in turn allowed the guards to be more active and saw them do more backscreening.

It’s been the same story at every stop, Beilein tweaking his offense to fit the players that he has. It reveals another hallmark of his system: flexibility.

“We’re not always right, but we keep changing to find the answer,” Beilein said. “We’re never satisfied. Never.”

When Beilein moved on to Richmond in 1997, he found himself with a big man named Eric Poole. Unlike Rauch and Meeks, Poole wasn’t particularly athletic or skilled, but he could rebound. Once again, Beilein adapted to his talent.

When he left for West Virginia in 2002, there was an incoming recruit named Kevin Pittsnogle who had committed to ex-coach Gale Catlett. An unknown at that point, he would later take the country by storm in the 2005 NCAA Tournament. After all, a 6-foot-11 sharpshooter is an oddity — but in Beilein’s ever-adapting offense, Pittsnogle found his perfect niche.

For Beilein, it’s all about the details. So even when he reached West Virginia and the big-time Big East, the Mountaineers constantly practiced fundamentals. The team would spend 30 or so minutes every practice just on shooting, and would devote about 20 to walking through the offense.

Beilein got to Michigan in 2007, finally reaching the pinnacle of his career. By then, installing his system was old hat. The Wolverines were excited when they found out Beilein would be their coach.