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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

Pretty much all they knew was that his offense meant a lot of 3-pointers, which was good news for the team’s many shooters.

So imagine Michigan’s shock when, during Beilein’s very first practice, the team began with passing, layup lines and catching the ball with two feet. It was a flashback to youth basketball in that way.

Some Wolverines struggled with picking up the offense at first, such as then-walk-on Dave Merritt, while others thrived in it immediately. That’s the pattern everywhere Beilein’s been. Despite its reputation, the offense isn’t overly complex, but every player is different when it comes to picking it up.

“I don’t want to undervalue his offense, but it’s not the craziest thing ever,” Douglass said. “You just diligently learn it.”

Most players on the current Michigan team have adjusted well, particularly point guard Trey Burke, who amazed Beilein with his ability to do so this season.

Elsewhere, Beilein’s son Patrick played for him at West Virginia and was a natural in the system, having studied it when his father was coaching at Richmond. Gansey, meanwhile, played well immediately, but it was such an involved offense that even in the 2006 Sweet 16 against Texas in his last-ever college game, Beilein had to lay into him at halftime for not executing properly.

The biggest alteration in the offense to date has been the prevalence of the high ball screen at Michigan. After three years of running the system in more typical fashion in Ann Arbor, Beilein began employing the ball screen with Darius Morris in 2010-11 and ramped it up even more with Burke this year.

Beilein’s added it because he can — Morris and Burke are athletic enough to be able to make plays off the pick-and-roll. It removes the need to make multiple passes around the floor, like LeMoyne was forced to do. Leverage comes much more easily.

It’s a credit to Beilein that he can integrate something so different to his offense almost seamlessly. But he’s used to fine-tuning, having done so at four other schools already.

“He has done a remarkable job at every level of getting guys to play together,” said Dave Niland, now the head coach at Division-III Penn State-Behrendt. “He really understands the team game. … It’s amazing to me how he’s been able to get guys to buy in and share the ball.”

***

It was a clinic.

Dec. 22, 2005 will forever live in the minds of that West Virginia team as the day when its offense could absolutely not be stopped.

The Mountaineers had charged their way to the Elite 8 the year before, but they were unranked and a 7.5-point underdog going into the nightcap of the All-College Classic against No. 8 Oklahoma. The Sooners, coached by Kelvin Sampson and led by Taj Gray, Kevin Bookout and Terrell Everett, were essentially playing at home with the game in Oklahoma City.

“We had no business winning that game,” Patrick Beilein said.

But like it had done so many times before — like it was built to do — the offense made up for West Virginia’s athleticism deficiency, and then some. The Sooners tried to take away the Mountaineers’ 3-point shooting by pressuring them.

Beilein, Gansey, Pittsnogle and company responded by back-cutting Oklahoma to death, and with ease. It was almost comical how many times a simple backscreen would result in an uncontested layup for West Virginia. The Mountaineers were running circles around the Sooners.

“They were just dumbfounded,” Gansey said.

West Virginia won, 92-68, and went 32-for-48 from the field. At 66.7 percent, it stands as the second-best shooting performance in program history.

If this was the offense at its best, the question becomes, how do you stop it?

The easy answer is to hope Beilein’s team isn’t making its 3-pointers. Critics say that the offense is too reliant on the outside shot, that if the system lives by the three and dies by the three, it too often dies.

Players vouch for the system by pointing out that 3-pointers allowed them to spring plenty of upsets, and if they were missing in a game, they at least weren’t turning the ball over, allowing them to stay in it even if open shots weren’t falling.

Aside from that, the key to slowing down the Beilein offense seems to be disruption. Get the team out of its rhythm. Don’t allow it to get comfortable.