John Beilein is no stranger to watching his players loft a basketball from beyond the 3-point line. For much of his career, it’s been the bread and butter of his offense — something his teams practiced so often that he even developed a special ball to help players track the rotational spin of their shots.
That’s no different this year. Beilein’s players continue to send ball after ball in the air from at least the 20 feet and nine inches that it takes to go from the arc to rim. But a number of times this season, instead of the ball arching downward into the net, its trajectory is aimed to the left or right of the rim. Out of nowhere, a soaring Tim Hardaway Jr. or Glenn Robinson III snatches the ball from midair, and in one fluid motion thunderously redirects the ball through the hoop.
The alley-oop: the most exciting play in basketball.
For the first time in his 35 years of coaching, Beilein now incorporates the alley-oops into his practices.
“I realize it’s a really good play,” he noted Monday, pausing before he finished, “if you have athletes.”
But Beilein didn’t just come to this realization. The play is said to have originated in the 1960s, and the talent it requires is the exact reason Beilein turned to the 3-pointer. If his players couldn’t spark the crowd with monstrous slams, at least they could score baskets that counted for one more point than yours. But now, in his sixth season at Michigan, Beilein has the shooters, the slammers and the guys who can do both.
Last year, when the Wolverines had middle-of-the-road talent by Big Ten standards, they won with Beilein’s schemes and with the grittiness exemplified by Zack Novak and Stu Douglass.
Novak and Douglass are gone now, but as Michigan continues to draw charges — even late in 40-point blowouts — it’s sometimes easy to forget they aren’t out on the floor.
But they are gone, and roaming the Crisler Center corridors in their place is a new No. 1 in Robinson, the freak of an athlete in an NBA-ready body who also has a shooter’s touch and McGary, another pride of Chesterton, Ind., who is the hulking post presence that finally gives Beilein a difference-making rebounder. Add in sharpshooter Nik Stauskas and you’ve got what’s sure to be one of the nation’s most productive freshmen classes.
Throw in a more nimble, agile Jordan Morgan, a reborn Hardaway that may breach triple-double territory in some games this year and Burke, the first preseason All-American Beilein has ever coached, and it’s easy to forget that just a few seasons ago, Michigan hadn’t received an NCAA Tournament bid in 11 seasons.
If Michigan were a basketball school, Beilein’s doubters in 2007 may have rivaled another West Virginia product that arrived to Ann Arbor a year later. The criticisms of Beilein paralleled some of the first naysayers of Rich Rodriguez: finesse offenses with spread-you-out principles won’t work in the Big Ten.
But Beilein won with his system, falling just short of a Sweet 16 in his second year. In that season, when Michigan tied for seventh in the conference, and the few that followed, just getting to the Big Dance was enough to please the fan base.
Last year, the bar was raised. Beilein’s bunch broke their huddles in practice with “Big Ten champs.” That was the goal. Even after the Wolverines’ disappointing first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament, the season had already been deemed a success by most when Michigan finished in a three-way tie atop the conference. Later this month, for the first time since 1986, a Big Ten Championship banner will be raised to the Crisler rafters.
But a conference crown alone won’t satisfy this year. Until Big Ten basketball champions start earning Rose Bowl invitations, they’ll continue to be judged by their performance in March — a month last year that was unkind to the Wolverines, who seemed deflated after exceeding so many regular-season expectations.
Beilein is used to his players lofting the ball from beyond the 3-point line, just as he’s used to the goals of his programs growing loftier each year. But even to a tenured coach like Beilein, this season is unlike anything he’s familiar with.
“At Michigan, you come to win championships,” Beilein said Tuesday.
There are new goals in Ann Arbor this winter. A Big Ten title might be a 3-pointer, but it’ll take a trip to Atlanta in April for this year to be an alley-oop.
— Wasserman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @d_wasserman.