I watched the 2013 NCAA Basketball Championship game from a Pizza Hut in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the only other people in the restaurant were an impassioned, older Michigan fan and a woman who sat quietly with him.
Throughout the second half, that fan yelled at Trey Burke, berated John Beilein and my God did he scream at Luke Hancock.
I didn’t get it. I couldn’t trace his anger. Michigan wasn’t even supposed to be in the national championship, but the game was close right to the very end. Now, after another year and another deep tournament run, I think I’ve finally figured out what that guy was thinking.
He set the bar for the Wolverines at their ceiling and then expected them to clear it. If that sounds like a contradiction, that’s because it is.
That’s the standard John Beilein has built for the Michigan men’s basketball team. Not a screaming, disappointed fan in a Pizza Hut, but a team that beats the odds with such regularity that fans have come to expect it.
Beilein’s teams have been a refuge for Michigan fans lately, not simply because they’ve won, but because they’ve done it with dramatic flair, even when they weren’t supposed to. Fans know what his most recent teams have done, and now they want it by the pound.
Expecting Michigan to repeat the kind of success Beilein’s teams have had in the last few years just isn’t fair. Not when it will rely heavily on unproven freshmen in the frontcourt and play in arguably the best conference in the nation.
And yet, as we temper expectations for the Wolverines, we do so with one caveat: They could defy logic again.
We predict one result, and then we anticipate them outperforming that forecast. What kind of logic is that?
Call it Beilein’s Paradox, because Michigan’s veteran coach is directly responsible for this puzzling phenomenon.
It’s easy to forget that the Wolverines lost to lowly Charlotte in the championship of last season’s Puerto Rico Tip-Off. They were a young team that didn’t know who to look to for a big shot — exactly what they were expected to be.
And yet, by late January, Michigan was right where it wanted to be — undefeated in league play and first in the Big Ten.
Beilein coaches with a bigger vision in mind. He doesn’t so much mind a stumble here or there if he ends up in the right spot at the end. The approach is conducive to stability, and in turn, growth.
Keeping with that approach, the Wolverines never lost back-to-back games last season. And when a loss was especially painful, they seemed to learn a proportional amount. When Michigan dropped a heartbreaker to Arizona, it proceeded to win 10 straight, including three consecutive wins over teams ranked in the top 10.
And after Wisconsin rocked them at home, the Wolverines came right back to beat Michigan State by nine.
Beilein’s teams have also had a penchant for magic. Trey Burke’s shot against Kansas comes to mind, as does Glenn Robinson III’s buzzer-beating layup against Purdue. So does the Jordan Morgan charge. So does the other Jordan Morgan charge.
Those moments are special for a reason — they’re a factor you can’t count on. But Beilein makes it easy to expect them anyway.
Here’s what reality says: True freshmen are going to look like true freshmen at times, and Michigan could rely on five of them this year. It’s too early to tell whether Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. are ready to shoulder larger loads. The Big Ten is going to be as tough as ever.
Knowing all of that, the media didn’t pick Michigan to finish in the top three of the Big Ten. Some say they’re not sure if the Wolverines will be in the top five. There might not be any enchantment coming the Wolverines’ way this time.
But it’s getting to the point where nothing a Beilein-coached team does will surprise anyone. They could win the whole thing, and few would be stunned if they do. And in a funny way, that’s its own brand of high expectations.
Max Bultman can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @m_bultman