Famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi once said, “If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?” Lombardi was a classic coach with a classic mindset — the only thing that matters about sports is winning.
Some Michigan men’s basketball fans may be alarmed to find out that’s not the theory Wolverine coach John Beilein holds for every game.
“He’s not really concerned about winning and losing,” fifth-year senior David Merritt said yesterday. “He’s concerned about getting better, and if you get better, you know, improve your fundamentals, eventually the wins will come.”
Beilein, who employed the same strategy during his inaugural 22-loss season in Ann Arbor, must be doing something right. During his stint at West Virginia, he took teams lacking top-level talent to the Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen. And there’s no denying that he’s already turning the Michigan program around in his sophomore campaign.
But his “get better first” strategy came under heavy criticism when the Wolverines dropped an overtime game at Iowa on Feb. 22 — during which first-team All-Big Ten selection Manny Harris sat out the extra period. Beilein felt he needed to send his star player a message.
“I didn’t think (Harris) was really playing well,” Beilein said after the loss to the Ann Arbor News. “He didn’t look fresh, he wasn’t himself, and so we decided to go in another direction.”
At the time, it looked like the loss would officially knock the Wolverines out of the running for an NCAA Tournament bid. But lo and behold, Harris has looked like a whole new player and Michigan has looked like a whole new team since that loss, upsetting Purdue and stealing a road game from Minnesota to get right back in the tournament hunt.
Losing the Iowa game wasn’t the end of the world. Sitting Harris for overtime and sending the all-star sophomore a poignant message was about the bigger picture.
“If we lose a game, we lose a game, but did we get better?” Merritt said. “How did we learn from that game? That’s always been (Beilein’s) focus and that’s what I love about him.”
Now, after a 31 regular-season games to focus on getting better, the Wolverines (19-12) will get a shot at revenge against that same Iowa team today in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Beilein, with four full days to prepare for the Hawkeyes, is focusing his attention on Iowa coach Todd Lickliter’s defensive style, which he brought with him from Butler and features a game-changing big man in the middle with senior Cyrus Tate.
The Hawkeyes held Michigan to just 9-of-37 shooting after the break in the Wolverines’ loss in February.
“You hear about the Purdue defense, Michigan State and the Ohio State zone, but this Iowa team is very good,” Beilein said. “It is like (Lickliter’s) Butler defenses — you think they aren’t guarding you, but they are guarding you like crazy.”
Although most men’s basketball pundits have Michigan in their latest NCAA Tournament mock brackets, the Wolverines will breath much easier with a win this afternoon.
And Beilein knows you can’t take anything for granted this time of year.
“You have to go in to these games with that same idea,” Beilein said. “You cannot count on anything. You have to go in there and say ‘Listen, all these games are very important,’ but at the same time you don’t want to be in there fearful. Go in there and play to win.
“You are the only one that can control you destiny right now. There are so many other things that are going on that are out of you control. A win over Iowa would be great for us.”