The writing was pretty much on the wall when Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein brought in Bacari Alexander as his assistant.
Alexander would be given the formidably difficult task of converting Beilein’s young post contingent into a group that could compete with this year’s resume of big men — Kansas’ Markieff and Marcus Morris, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson.
To face off against these Goliaths, Alexander would be given two redshirt freshmen and a handful of true freshmen.
Few thought Alexander would be able to do it. But, as the season wrapped up in the Wolverines’ 73-71 loss at the hands of Duke, Alexander seemed to have converted some of the unbelievers.
Freshman Jon Horford dunked and redshirt freshman Jordan Morgan scored 10 points over Kyle Singler and the other Blue Devils. Freshman Evan Smotrycz, who only started playing post midway through the season, stuck with some of the top recruits in the country.
And still, Alexander counts himself as fortunate to have stood on the shoulders of giants through every step of his coaching career. But time and time again this season, he put his players on his shoulders through a “labor of love,” as he describes it. He turned them into big men that don’t just stand their ground in Division-I basketball but can compete with anybody.
Alexander started playing basketball in middle school, but he didn’t get serious about it until his freshman year at Detroit’s Southwestern High School.
Between middle school and high school, Alexander grew from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-1. While the growth spurt made him a more legitimate post player, his talents hadn’t caught up to his height.
“I arguably was the worst player in the Detroit Public School league at that time,” Alexander said of his first year at Southwestern. “Ain’t no doubt about it, airballing layups and dropping passes. My strength was probably defense and rebounding. I figured you didn’t have to have a talent to do those things. Just effort. So that was my calling card as a youngster.”
Alexander graduated from Southwestern in 1995 and went on to play for Robert Morris College (now Robert Morris University).
“It was the No. 1 team in the country if you read your newspaper upside-down,” he joked. “We were awful, but the thing that was really beneficial from that experience was that it was an environment where I could really shine.”
But in 1997, after his coach at Robert Morris had left for another opportunity, Alexander returned to his hometown to play for the University of Detroit-Mercy. At UDM, he was under the tutelage of Perry Watson, who had coached him during his first two years of high school.
And like his first few years in high school, he made leaps and bounds under Watson once again.
He helped his team to two conference championships and two NCAA Tournament berths. And in his senior year, he was named to the conference’s all-defensive team. But more important, Alexander was named UDM’s most outstanding senior student-athlete.
The student part was, and continues to be, critically important to Alexander when it comes to student-athletes.
It would become a cornerstone in his coaching philosophy.
“It had a great influence on who I’ve become as a coach,” Alexander said. “I think a lot of times when you approach things with a lesson plan, with progressions, it gives your students an opportunity to grow at a pace that’s normal and that they’re accustomed to. So that kind of fuels my enthusiasm as it relates to coaching because truly the court is a classroom.”
Following graduation in 1999, Alexander stayed in Detroit, working a short stint as the players programs coordinator for the Detroit Pistons before joining the Harlem Globetrotters. In his two years with the Globetrotters, he performed in more than 400 shows, traveling to 13 countries. But an aching body told him it was time to transition into something new.
That ‘something new’ led him back to his roots at the UDM, where, after two months as the director of basketball operations, he was promoted to an assistant coaching position.
He spent six seasons there before moving to Ohio University and becoming an assistant coach on a team that took part in the inaugural CBI Tournament in 2008.
In 2008, Alexander transitioned to the MAC conference and became an assistant coach at Western Michigan University.
In his first year in Kalamazoo, the Broncos featured a roster of 16 players, eight of whom were freshmen. There was only one returning post player with significant playing time the previous season.
“Through a labor of work and love, we were able to develop those guys to become contributors in the first year and then forces in the second year,” Alexander said. “So as you’re developing (Michigan’s post players) and using the methodology that, quite frankly, we used at Western Michigan, it’s really boded well for our young bigs.”
It was with the Broncos that Alexander began to solidify his post coaching philosophy. He decided that the most important aspect in coaching was establishing a superior work ethic within each player.
“A lot of times athletes want to be really good players but it’s always a tremendous challenge to learn the level of intensity that it takes to achieve those goals,” Alexander said. “I tell our players all the time, ‘Don’t mistake intensity for anger. Just because I have a scowl on my face and I have a volume on the delivery of my words doesn’t mean that I’m upset at you fellas.’
“It just means that we’re trying to establish a mentality in terms of the approach that you have to take each and every day on the practice court.’ ”
He would transition from Kalamazoo to Ann Arbor easily by bringing with him his experience to a very similar situation.
Alexander didn’t personally know Beilein when his phone number appeared on Alexander’s cell phone that afternoon. Beilein had called to talk about a job opening at the University of Michigan. That phone call led to an in-person interview where Alexander ran a full workout for Beilein’s son, Patrick.
“I was looking for, first of all, a big-man coach,” coach Beilein said. “When you’re small and … you’re effective as a big man, you know a lot of the trade secrets. I could sense that right away. Then I ended up talking with his former head coaches, Tim O’Shea and Steve Hawkins, they both said the same thing. And then I just loved his energy, his personality when he came to his interview.
“I could tell right away he was a very good teacher.”
Alexander was offered the job and knew he would be coming into nearly the same situation as when he was an assistant at Western Michigan.
The Wolverines had two redshirt freshmen forwards, Morgan and Blake McLimans, but beyond that, it was a slew of freshmen. The heavy task of taking these players and turning them into Big Ten contenders was placed on the broad shoulders of Alexander.
He immediately took to the players and brought an intensity that few had ever seen in a coach before.
“He always says he’d never make us do anything that he hasn’t done himself, so he’s basically just trying to make us in his image,” Horford said. “Having strong post play is crucial to any team that wants to have great success like the success we’re looking for.”
Morgan added: “He tries to have a different approach about everything. He finds a way to make doing good things fun. You do a lot of good things to be a great player. And he finds a way to break everything down and make it real simple for you.”
With the true freshmen, Alexander taught them the what’s, how’s and why’s of being a Division-I basketball player. But with McLimans and Morgan, Alexander focused more on teaching them the when’s and the where’s, since they were expected to see the most game time.
With each player, he brought game-like intensity to every practice and every game.
“My personal belief is that you win games in practices,” Alexander said. “Practice is the process that takes care of the outcome. So for me to stand on the sideline and not give a ‘yes face’ to our players is really a recipe for disaster on some levels when you have a young developing talent of guys that are trying to establish confidence consistently for themselves.
“So I’m always sitting over there with a ‘yes face,’ a pat on the back, a smile, a wink, you know, or even some laughter, just to break up the mood and keep it light.”
When Alexander was at UDM he wore the jersey No. 34. He said he wanted to pick a number that great, tough players like Charles Barkley once wore.
It was a big deal to him because he also believed that the number was lucky — the two numbers added up to seven.
And while he doesn’t wear the uniform number anymore on the sidelines, the coach is still concerned with his attire.
It may have started as a joke, but now Alexander is a four-time winner of CollegeInsider.com’s Runway to the Fashionable Four — the only coach in the country to do so.
He said that his game-day decorum is more about being positive than about what he wears, but he admits that his wife does pick out his suits for the game because it’s important to always look put together.
“(You must) not only dress for where you’re at, but dress for where you’re trying to go,” Alexander said.
At this point, none of the Wolverines wear No. 34 and Alexander jokes that “they still have to earn their stripes and the jury is still out” on whether any deserve to wear his historic number.
But perhaps after a season that saw the Wolverines’ post group make leaps and bounds, every player this summer will be wearing No. 34 jerseys.
It is, after all, where they’re all trying to go.