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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

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. 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. “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. 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. 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. The faces and the uniforms are different, but the offense is so familiar.

“I think (Beilein is) underappreciated to some degree, but the people that are basketball minds in the game out there today recognize his ability,” Rauch said. “(When Beilein was hired at Michigan), I said to one of my friends and fellow players, ‘it’s going to be a matter of time before they’re in contention for the Big Ten.’

“It won’t be that long. He just needed to get some of those kids in that system.”

Five seasons in, Beilein has proven Rauch a prophet. With more and more talent knocking on the door, Beilein finally has what he dreamed of as he navigated those bitter Syracuse winters behind the wheel of the LeMoyne team van.

The offense has been modified plenty already, with Beilein tuning it at every possible moment. It is impossible to know what it may look like in the future, but you can count on a few new wrinkles — they’re constantly being added.

Beilein’s offense hums along at Michigan now. More tweaks may be made; more players may thrive; more championships may be won.

But the foundation was set 25 years ago by a young coach searching for a way to get ahead in Division-II.

They will not know this, but if the Wolverines ascend any podiums in the future, they will be standing on the shoulders of Len Rauch and Scott Hicks, of Dave Niland and Russell Barnes, of Michael Meeks and Eric Poole, of Kevin Pittsnogle and Patrick Beilein and Mike Gansey.

They will not know this, but John Beilein will.