WASHINGTON — After finishing practice in the dark on Wednesday, John Beilein gathered his team to tell a story.
The Michigan coach spoke of a team that entered its conference tournament as an eight-seed, in need of wins to strengthen its NCAA Tournament résumé.
It was a team full of experienced veterans and talented youth, who had hit a fair share of speed bumps throughout the regular season, but was poised to make a run in the postseason if they found their heads were in the right place.
There was adversity that had to be overcome. The team had issues with their flight the day before they were scheduled for an early afternoon tip-off. But they persevered, easily winning their opening game despite the travel troubles the day before. The team then went on to beat the tournament’s No. 1 seed, and escape a close one against the four-seed to get into the conference championship.
No, John Beilein wasn’t predicting the future when he told this story Wednesday.
He already lived it.
Back in 2005, when he was coaching West Virginia, Beilein took a scrappy yet skilled bunch of country boys on an improbable run to the Big East Tournament championship game. It was one of, if not the most, memorable postseason run Beilein had been on in his 40-plus years of coaching.
Before that tournament, Beilein had little experience coaching on stages as big as the one he was on in Madison Square Garden that year. His team entered New York needing two wins to feel good of its chances of making the NCAA Tournament field.
While the run became one of the defining stretches of Beilein’s career, in the moment, every game was a learning experience. He noted how his Mountaineer team came together as one, developed a belief that anything was possible and learned to dream big while staying grounded enough to face the immediate challenge ahead.
That Big East Tournament came to shape Beilein’s identity as a coach.
And it’s apparent the lessons from it have made an impact on Beilein’s current group, as Michigan has fought its way into the Big Ten Tournament championship.
“At the time, we listened to him, but I didn’t really understand what he was trying to say,” said redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson. “I think it was fitting with everything that had happened over the past few days. It matches up to the story he told us.”
But the similarities don’t just stop at what’s happened the past four days — they extend to the future as well.
West Virginia faced an experienced Syracuse side two years removed from a national title game appearance in the conference championship game.
Fast-forward 12 years and once again Beilein will be matched up with a team that made a trip to the national championship two years ago in Wisconsin.
While this is where the story took a downturn in 2005 — the Mountaineers lost by nine to the Orange — tomorrow, Beilein can write a different ending in this latest, almost identical saga.
Beilein has made seven NCAA Tournament appearances and a Final Four since then. He’s soaked up every one of his postseason runs and continues evolve his tournament coaching style with every additional game he takes in.
More than ever, Beilein realizes this time of year is a mental marathon. Rather than focusing on fixing the negatives, Beilein has built his most successful teams on their strengths.
“You have to always believe in your team, especially this time of year,” Beilein said. “Anything can happen. So when you’re with a team all year long, you have a tendency to think too much about their weaknesses and not their strengths. When you have strength of character like we have, and we have multi-dimensional players, that can really serve you well here in March.”
Every game of Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament run has had a moment in which Beilein and his coaching staff has challenged their players to look inward for strength rather than outward at improving their weaknesses.
That began in the hotel in Ann Arbor following all of Wednesday’s plane drama, when Beilein realized basketball was the last thing his team should be focused on after all, and brought in counselors to help the players process the accident emotionally so their minds could be clear.
Before Purdue, Beilein let assistant coach Billy Donlon preach the simple, yet effective message of “not today” that resonated with the team as they came back and closed out the Boilermakers in overtime.
But most impressive of them all, with his team on the verge of breaking after allowing Minnesota to erase a 16-point deficit and tie the game at 55, Beilein called a timeout to get his players’ heads in the right place mentally.
“That timeout was nothing about basketball,” Beilein said. “We never bicker with each other. People were yelling at players for not boxing out. People were yelling for not defending. That timeout was like, ‘Hey, guys, I’m not going to yell at you here. Here’s why we win — because we’re connected. Let just get back together. We’re going to win this game if we just stay together and stop pointing fingers. Just go out and guard each other and let the talent you have come to work.’”
That timeout was the turning point for Michigan, as the Wolverines jumped back out to the lead after the timeout and never relinquished it from there.
Moments like that show how important the mental game is in college basketball’s postseason. That’s the lesson Beilein began to fully understand in 2005, and he has tried to prove his proficiency in the seasons that have followed.
On Sunday, Beilein will take the big stage again, with a chance to show how he’s mastered the mindset of March against a team that has shown it year after year in Wisconsin.
And if it’s the Wolverines who walk off the Verizon Center floor with the trophy, just remember: it’s more than a coincidence that Beilein had the chance to make sure history didn’t repeat itself twice.