SportsMonday Column: Under Beilein, Michigan lands on two feet
With under a minute to go in a Sweet 16 game against Oregon on Thursday, DJ Wilson set up on the left wing to take a go-ahead 3-pointer for the Michigan men’s basketball team. It wasn’t the shot you’ll remember for years.
Before Derrick Walton Jr. missed that shot, Wilson lined up the first one that would have given the Wolverines the lead. It wasn’t as big as the buzzer-beater, but it was critical. Everyone noticed that he missed. Not everyone noticed what he did before that.
Maybe John Beilein didn’t, either. Maybe Beilein has coached the same shot so many times over 1,289 games and 38 years that it didn’t cross his mind. But here’s the thing: Before DJ Wilson took that shot, he caught the ball on two feet.
This time, it didn’t make a difference. Wilson cocked, fired and missed. Oregon grabbed the rebound, and you know the rest: After an empty possession, Walton had another chance to win the game and missed. The Wolverines took two 3-pointers in the final minute, earned two good looks and missed them both.
Back to catching it on two feet, though. Why did Wilson do it? And why does it matter? Well, every fall when Michigan coach John Beilein starts practice, whether he’s coaching local guys at Newfane High School or NBA prospects at Michigan, he teaches his players to catch the ball on two feet so that they’re balanced.
His players don’t forget it. Two years ago, after the Wolverines ended a disappointing 16-16 season with a loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament, then-sophomore Sean Lonergan said: “We start off every single year reviewing how to pass and catch a ball. Catch on two feet. Pass with the seams so shooters can shoot. Everybody gets one-on-one instruction with them with their jump shot to make sure that you’re lifting up.”
A few weeks before that, Javone Moore — who played for Beilein at Canisius and aided the coach’s first NCAA Tournament run — said: “I remember every single thing he’s ever taught us. When you’re passing the ball, pass with two hands. When you’re catching the ball, give the guy a target with your outside hand so the guy can’t steal it.”
Sean Lonergan and Javone Moore played for John Beilein two decades apart.
But they both see the ideas behind Beilein’s practices. Asked again Saturday about his old coach’s tendencies, Moore said, “He understands that you need to have these little things before they become big.”
And Lonergan, two years ago: “Regardless of where he’s coaching, you can just tell the minor details — and the thing is, with Coach B, they’re really not so minor.”
When practice would start with such a minor drill, Moore admits he used to wonder: What the hell are we doing this for?
Fans often question Beilein, too. He took criticism this season, and some of it was fair. The 2013 Final Four run sure seemed like a long time ago when this year’s Michigan team gave up a 20-point lead against Virginia Tech, and when it started Big Ten play 1-3, and when it lost an ugly home game against Ohio State in early February.
But Beilein taught his players to catch the ball on two feet, and he always seemed to know it was going to pay off in the end. Moore said Saturday, recalling his days with Beilein, “He never has this panic. It’s almost like he sees things before they’re about to happen.”
This season, more than ever, that rang true. Whenever this season was about to veer off, Beilein stabilized it. Remember when you say his teams “live by the three, die by the three,” that in the Wolverines’ miraculous Big Ten Tournament run, they shot 6-for-25 from behind the arc and still upset Purdue in overtime, then turned around and hit 10 triples in the title game against Wisconsin. Remember when you say Beilein can’t develop big men that he is coaching two future pros. Remember when you call his teams “soft” that this one survived everything it faced on its way to the Sweet 16.
If the two Big Ten titles, National Championship Game berth and Elite Eight trip in a three-year span weren’t enough, perhaps this season will serve as a reminder that Beilein’s ways still work.
The season ended with one last second-guessed decision. With less than 10 seconds left in Thursday’s game and Oregon still up one, Beilein chose not to call timeout. Walton took the ball up, gained separation, stepped back and shot.
Some said Beilein should have used the timeout to draw up a better play, but consider this: The Ducks had two fouls to give. Beilein said afterward he thought they would commit one and that he would have another chance to call a play.
As it turned out, they didn’t, and Walton got his shot off. If you had asked Beilein when he woke up Thursday morning how he would feel about that night’s game coming down to his senior point guard taking a 3-pointer to win at the buzzer, I’m guessing he would have taken it.
Of Beilein’s 1,289 college games, some have ended in shots like that. Some have gone in, and some haven’t. Trey Burke’s four years ago went in. Wilson’s did not. Neither did Walton’s.
So the season is over, and the miss will sting for a while. But Beilein’s group will have another run at it next year. Perhaps it will lead somewhere, and perhaps it won’t. Perhaps it’ll even come down to another last-second shot. But rest assured: Whatever happens, it’s going to start with catching the ball on two feet.
Lourim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jakelourim.