By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 9, 2012
John Beilein has always built his teams to maximize the talent on the roster. He’s just never had this much to work with before — never this much size, strength or speed.
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The No. 3 Michigan men’s basketball team’s 80-67 victory over Arkansas on Saturday — Beilein’s 100th win at Michigan — showcased the delicate balance of powers woven together by Beilein, from an electric transition game to a dominating performance on the boards.
Beilein, a teacher-first kind of coach, is known for finding raw role players and cultivating them into legitimate college ballplayers. But now, thanks to a blockbuster freshman class and the return of sophomore guard Trey Burke, Beilein isn’t looking down the bench at walk-ons or overachievers; he’s got talent stockpiled.
There’s something special going on down at Crisler Center. Michigan is off to a 9-0 start for the first time since 1988-89 — the Wolverines’ last and only national championship season — and the third time in program history. In five of those wins, Michigan has led from start to finish.
Michigan hasn’t lost at home — or anywhere, I suppose — this fall, and is 21-1 at Crisler in the last two seasons.
It doesn’t look anything like a traditional Beilein team. But that’s fine by him.
Gone are the days of living and dying by the 3-pointer, when Michigan could beat anyone but could just as easily get beaten if its shooters went cold.
Since Beilein took the helm of the Michigan basketball program in 2007, the Wolverines have ranked first, first, second, first and first in the Big Ten in 3-point attempts, never dipping beneath 730 attempts per season or 23 attempts per game.
That’s a recipe for slumps and inconsistency, not the brand of a college basketball giant. But Beilein has shifted his pieces to the right places to put a winning product on the court. And now, he’s shifted toward his new strengths.
The Wolverines are shooting at a 42.1-percent clip from behind the arc — the previous high under Beilein was 35.3 percent in 2010-11 — and have plummeted from their perennial top-15 national ranking in 3-point attempts to a tie for 119th.
Instead of lofting a deep prayer, Michigan can dunk. Instead of walking the ball up the court, it can get transition buckets. It’s the kind of approach that wins right now in the college game. And people are taking notice of the Wolverines.
Even Mark Titus, a former Ohio State walk-on who now writes for Grantland, wrote last week that this is his favorite Beilein squad ever.
“Even though they have a ton of young stars who have been coddled their entire lives, they already seem to have put their egos aside and developed better chemistry than some teams loaded with upperclassmen,” Titus wrote.
But setting aside the tempo change, there’s still one Beilein staple that has propelled the Wolverines to the top of the polls: balance.
Michigan has had four different high scorers in its nine wins, and that kind of balance isn’t easy when you’ve got two guards in Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. with NBA talent and a penchant to prove it. Then throw in that two of those high scorers are true freshmen.
Beilein has always been a coach hell-bent on rotating players to keep a fresh five on the floor. In the past, the depth hasn’t been there. Today, there’s plenty of it. And even better: nobody is a one-dimensional player.
Instead of defensive specialists, 3-point threats or ball handlers, Beilein has a litany of steady, well-versed options. Just look at the five freshmen. If they were one-dimensional players, they’d be riding through a redshirt season. But Beilein burned any possible redshirts — he knows they’re ready.
Nik Stauskas is a dead-eye shooter, No. 4 nationally at 60.5 percent from 3-point range, but he can get to the rim. Spike Albrecht can dribble around you, but he can beat you from deep. Mitch McGary might be raw offensively, but he’s a monster on the glass.
“With Michigan, just about every guy who gets minutes can do it all,” Titus wrote. “It not only makes them damn near impossible to stop, it also makes them fun to watch.”
Fun to watch — not a roller-coaster, not an adventure. Fun.
With a Big Ten schedule featuring powerhouses such as No. 1 Indiana, No. 7 Ohio State, No. 13 Illinois, No. 14 Minnesota and No. 19 Michigan State fast approaching, the Wolverines won’t be handed anything. But they’ve got a sustainable style this time. They’ve got staying power.
And with Beilein at the helm, there’s no ceiling in sight.
— Nesbitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.