During what could have been his final pre-game press conference this season, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein told reporters yesterday the story of when he thought he was calling sophomore Ekpe Udoh for the first time.
Unbeknownst to the first-year coach, he’d already called and talked to Udoh – thinking he was another player.
“After about five minutes, he said, ‘Coach, you know you just called me five minutes ago?’ ” Beilein said. “And that’s how it all started.”
The mistake early in his tenure was just a sign of how long it would take before Beilein became fully acclimated to the program.
But since then, Beilein has formed a unique relationship with all of his players, one that has kept the Wolverines from losing all hope during a woeful 9-21 season.
“We’re playing for him,” sophomore DeShawn Sims said. “We’re playing for the team, (but) mostly coach Beilein because he put a lot of work and gave up a lot to come over here to Michigan.”
The mood around the team is a far cry from last season, when the tension was palpable enough to make the players, coaches and the media tread lightly during the final weeks of the season.
And that squad won 11 more regular season games than this year’s.
One year later, the stakes aren’t quite as high, which might explain the calmer tone.
If Michigan makes a run to the Big Ten championship, it becomes a feel-good story for the program and something to build on next year.
If the Wolverines lose against Iowa this afternoon, then their uninspiring season comes to an end.
Either way, the team’s mood is one less thing for Beilein to worry about heading into the offseason.
The first-year coach already has enough to handle this summer.
Poor shooting, turnovers and bad decision-making plagued Michigan just as much during Sunday’s regular season finale (the season’s 30th game) as in its first game of the year – a sign the program needs more than positive thinking to turn things around.
“It’s not on (Beilein), it’s totally on us,” Sims said. “He did everything in his power. I’ve never seen a man work so (much) individually with 15 guys. . He taught us a lot and we didn’t do a good job showing him how we appreciate how much time and effort he invested in us. We know that and we tell him sorry for that.”
A win over Iowa today would be much better than apologizing.
Both teams split the season series, with Iowa winning in Ann Arbor and Michigan coming from behind to win in Iowa City.
Neither team comes into the tournament on a roll. Michigan has lost three straight, while the Hawkeyes have dropped three of their last four games.
For the Wolverines to keep their season alive, they must rely on their top two scorers – Sims and freshman Manny Harris.
They are arguably the two best athletes on the court any given night, but problems with consistency, especially for Sims, have prevented the Wolverines from being more competitive in conference play.
If Michigan passes the first round, it will square off against Wisconsin Friday. The Badgers needed every last second to defeat the Wolverines in their last meeting in Madison, and could have similar problems dealing with Michigan on a neutral court.
“There’s got to be a sense of urgency out there now,” Beilein said. “They know their season ends with being out, so you have to blend that sense of urgency with that sense of toughness that we need to win this game.”
Regardless of the final outcome, the only thing that matters for Beilein and his players is that they see signs of improvement.
“Coach Beilein is good for the program and he’s having a lot of success in the building stages of it,” Sims said. “People may not see it down the road, but he’s building it from the floor up.”
Iowa vs. Michigan
Matchup: Iowa 13-18; Michigan 9-21
Where: Conseco Fieldhouse
TV/Radio: Big Ten Network