SportsMonday Column: Beilein's experience will help team keep improving

BY NATE SANDALS
Daily Sports Editor
Published December 7, 2008

John Beilein admitted he was “a little bit stuck for words.”

The Michigan men’s basketball coach was addressing the media after his team’s 81-73 upset of No. 4 Duke at Crisler Arena. It was a momentous win, the kind that could kick-start a downtrodden program’s return to the top. So it was understandable that he was at a loss for words.

But during the game Saturday afternoon, Beilein knew what what he was doing and in coaching, knowing what to do is far more important than knowing what to say.

Eight games into his second season in Ann Arbor, Beilein has already proven himself the right choice to lead Michigan back to prominence. After losing a program-record 22 games last year, Beilein’s Wolverines have already beaten two top-five teams this season and have a legitimate shot at making the program's first NCAA Tournament since 1998.

Big wins like the one against Duke come with the risk of the team (and its fans) getting over excited and struggling with higher expectations. With Beilein, that won't happen. After the game he was quick to remind the media that there were still be plenty of ups and downs this season.

While there was plenty of great basketball to see at Crisler on Saturday, there was great coaching, too. Deshawn Sims, Manny Harris and their teammates were the ones putting up the points, but it was clear Beilein was pushing all the right buttons.

Beilein’s quick turnaround of the Wolverines shouldn’t come as a surprise.

This is his 31st year as a college coach and he has succeeded at every level. But like any good leader, Beilein is quick to deflect the credit.

“I think that we are gaining poise — we still had three timeouts at the end of the game,” Beilein said. “The players kept their composure any time Duke would make a run.”

Beilein won’t say it, but much of that poise comes from his steadiness in tense moments and the trust he puts in his players.

With the score tied at 48 in the second half, Beilein had enough faith in his team to rest Harris and Sims for two-and-a-half minutes, preparing them for the final push. A less experienced coach might have hesitated to rest his stars with a big upset in reach. But Beilein knew the costs and benefits. He had coached in big games before, and he let that experience guide him Saturday.

Beilein’s coaching was all the more impressive when you looked at the opposite bench and saw Mike Krzyzewski roaming in a steel gray suit.

Krzyzewski, now in is his 34th season as a college head coach, is even more experienced than Beilein. He has won three national titles, an Olympic gold medal and 12 Coach of the Year awards. Krzyzewski is a master at getting the most out of the talent available to him. Entering Saturday’s game, Coach K’s teams had lost twice in December — this decade.

Most importantly, Krzyzewski knows how important it is to maintain perspective.

“These are all experiences and you build on them — positive, negative, wins, losses,” Krzyzewski said. “You play good people so that they put you in positions to have experience.”

Beilein could have said the same thing, even though his team came out on the winning end Saturday.

Beilein’s greatest strength as a coach may not be his offensive scheme or his 1-3-1 zone defense. It might not even be his ability to recruit players that fit perfectly in his system (see the impact freshman guards Stu Douglass and Zack Novak are already having).

Beilein’s greatest strength is his experience — just as it is Krzyzewski. In the 31 years he’s worked at the college level, Beilein has learned what it takes to form a group of individuals into a team. He has learned how to deal with the highs and the lows of each season.

Michigan might make the NCAA Tournament this year. Then again, it might not.

Regardless of when this season ends, with Beilein’s steady hand, the Wolverines will keep improving.

—Sandals can be reached at nsandals@umich.edu.