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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

Overwhelm the traditional Beilein player with your superior length and athleticism.

“You want to be extremely physical and you want to try to crash the glass, limit Michigan’s opportunities to score,” Merritt said. “If I was an opposing coach, I would also try to take away the sideline passes.”

Gansey always struggled against Pittsburgh because guards like Ronald Ramon and Carl Krauser weren’t afraid to get physical. They bumped him off his cutting paths, and even a slight alteration like that is enough to confound an offense that rests so much on precision.

But stopping the offense is easier said than done because it is extremely hard to prepare for. Michigan assistant coach LaVall Jordan knows that firsthand, having spent three years trying to prep for the system while on Iowa’s staff.

“They’re really tough to scout because a lot of their plays are based on what you do defensively, not necessarily set plays,” said former Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose team played against Beilein in the 2009 ACC/Big Ten Challenge. “They take good shots and they’re not afraid to make the extra pass to get a guy the best shot.”

***

John Beilein’s mind is always working. You get the sense that there hasn’t been a moment in which he wasn’t thinking about basketball since the day he was hired as coach at Newfane High School in western New York in 1975.

He would often scribble haphazard notes about his offense on pieces of paper and excitedly show them to his son when Patrick was in high school. Jordan said he wouldn’t be surprised if Beilein thought about his offense in the shower or if he wrote down memos on napkins at the dinner table.

Beilein has a lot to ponder these days because he’s about to have the most athletic team he’s ever coached.

Some have wondered whether his offense will still work with great athletes — after all, it was designed to make up for lack of those, and there seems to be an innate contradiction between his disciplined attack and unrestrained athleticism.

Most of Beilein’s teams have looked the same — “A bunch of white guys, and not very intimidating at all. Not very strong, not very athletic, down the line,” is the way Gansey remembers his teams. In fact, after Oklahoma State defeated Tennessee in the game played before WVU-Oklahoma in 2005, he recalls the Cowboys teasing the Mountaineers, laughing that they were about to take on such a bigger Sooner team.

But from the moment he conceived his system, Beilein immediately thought that it would be even better with elite athletes. The whole offense is predicated on leverage, spacing and matchups. Great athletic ability only magnifies those attributes — it’ll be much easier to get good shots with a roster full of players with bounce, so long as they still have the necessary skill and smarts.

The cavalry begins to arrive next season with forward Mitch McGary and wings Glenn Robinson III and Nick Stauskas. Add that trio to Hardaway Jr. and Morgan, and as long as Burke stays in school, Beilein will have the kind of athletic riches he’s wanted for so long. The ability to recruit such players is one of the chief reasons he came to Michigan.

“I can only imagine (how the offense will perform),” Patrick said. “I think it will take off. He’s dreamed about having these type of athletes within the offense. … I think he’s very excited.”

McGary’s arrival is especially intriguing since Morgan is already entrenched at center. Can the two play together? It would go against the way the offense has operated before, but if history holds true, Beilein will find a way to make it work.

***

Len Rauch has a son named Jack, a freshman in high school who Len hopes will have all the same basketball opportunities he once did.

Like Beilein, Rauch now has the mind of a coach. He helps out the varsity at his alma mater, Bishop Ludden, in Syracuse, and coaches an AAU team in the summer.

He watches Michigan games with Jack, and for Len, it’s like watching himself back at LeMoyne. The system has changed, but much of it is the same, and Len knows his old coach’s offense so well that he’ll tell Jack what’s about to happen before it does.

Len knows it because he lived it.

Every former player reached for this story watches their old coach and his new team now, able to rattle off the strengths of each player. They say “we” or “us” when talking about Michigan, before correcting themselves.

But you can’t blame them.