SportsMonday Column: In Montana, Beilein faces a familiarly unfamiliar challenge

Sunday, March 11, 2018 - 7:29pm

Michigan coach John Beilein applauds as Wolverines receive their March Madness berth

Michigan coach John Beilein applauds as Wolverines receive their March Madness berth Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

It began with the obvious.

Michigan was the 17th team to have its name called, but everyone in the room knew that would happen eight days ago. The cheers came anyway.

Then Saddi Washington started clapping as CBS prepared to announce the No. 2 seed in the East. It would have landed Michigan in Detroit. But Purdue’s name was called, and that same enthusiasm was brought to a halt.

Then the three seeds started dwindling.

Eventually, though, the Wolverines were given theirs. Now a date with Montana in Wichita, Kan. awaits.

It’s no secret that it took a lot of change to get here.

Moritz Wagner needed to start Moritz Wagnering. Zavier Simpson needed to clear every hurdle to become this team’s starting point guard. And Michigan needed to follow his lead en route to becoming a defensive nightmare. The list could go on.

But now John Beilein has a new challenge on his hands. He needs to prepare for a team that he admittedly knows very little about. He jokes his players will have the easy part of it in the next 24 hours. Wagner jokes that, with no disrespect, all he knows is that Montana’s mascot is the Grizzlies — which is “pretty cool.”

And yet, the situation isn’t entirely foreign.

“This happened a few years ago when we played the South Dakota (State) Jackrabbits,” Beilein said. “We knew very little about them. We sorta had to figure a few things out. I’m much more familiar with some of the other teams that we could’ve played. That doesn’t mean anything. We’ll get as ready as we can.”

***

At this point, it may be worth bringing up the scrimmage — not because of what happened in it, but because of who was on the other sideline.

It was closed to media and fans, but marked the first time the Wolverines played anyone but themselves this year. Toledo was their opponent and their host, and the matchup was as official as it could be without it counting on either team’s résumé.

It’s where you could have found Kyle Barlow — Toledo’s assistant coach and a former graduate manager for John Beilein.

Barlow moved to Toledo as the director of operations after the 2014 season before being promoted to assistant coach this past year. He still exchanges texts with Beilein now and then, and they often see each other on the recruiting trail.

And it just so happens Barlow’s first year under Beilein came in 2012-13. I think you remember how that season ended.

“That was very lucky,” Barlow said over the phone Friday afternoon, “and good timing.”

What you may not remember is who Michigan played in the first round that year — none other than South Dakota State.

As Barlow recalled, he had two major responsibilities that year. The first was overseeing the manager program. The second was opponent scouting. He, along with a video coordinator, would “do a lot of the leg work”— cutting clips and generating scouting reports before presenting it to the coaching staff for further tweaking.

“That was probably my favorite part,” Barlow says, “was just the film study and growing in that aspect.”

It’s in Barlow that you can find one of the plenty third-party observers that have found themselves a part of Beilein’s coaching tree.

Though he was unable to speak on record about the scrimmage itself, he says he tries to watch the Wolverines as much as he can.

He even admits Toledo’s offense does similar things to Michigan’s.

“Honestly,” he joked, “I try to steal a lot of stuff that they do and kind of make it our own.”

That, along with plenty of the staff’s own work, clearly worked out. The Rockets finished 23-11, and they came 10 points shy of earning an automatic bid in the Mid-American Conference Tournament championship.

***

But let’s return to 2013 for a moment.

There aren’t many parallels you can find between this year’s iteration of Michigan and one that had a roster with six future NBA draft picks, other than both being pegged to make a run in March.

As Barlow recalls, the first took pride in being flat-out talented. It helped that they had Naismith winner Trey Burke, too. This year, though, Barlow sees something different.

“I think they have more of a chip on their shoulder,” he says. “And that starts with Zavier Simpson, that they take pride in defense and really just shutting opponents down and almost like embarrassing the opponents — not embarrassing them in a bad way, but just shutting them down to the point where they don’t look like (themselves).”

For Barlow, though, there is one parallel worth noting.

“To be honest, the only similarity I’ve seen is that they’ve continually gotten better,” he said.

He added: “You know, it’s hard to find (a team’s strength) sometimes at the beginning of the year. But in the middle of the year and toward the end of the year, he always seems to find it and they play to their potential — and probably above their potential.”

That progress, as always, traces back to Beilein.

With examples abound, Barlow’s experience as a self-admitted “fly on the wall” serves as one instance within a collective.

“He would listen to everybody,” Barlow recalls. “He was like a mad scientist when it came to that. … I bet he does practice plans four or five different times before he actually settles on a final one. He’s just that kind of guy.”

Victor Frankenstein had his monster. Beilein, again, has his.

He may know little to nothing about Montana. But that hasn’t been a problem before. 

Santo can be reached at kmsanto@umich.edu or on Twitter at @Kevin_M_Santo.