On the surface, the resume is impressive by sheer numbers alone. John Beilein guided a team that won just 10 games the previous season to their first NCAA Tournament since 1998, and he didn't exactly do it against cupcake competition. The Wolverines won 21 games despite playing the 11th toughest schedule in the country, and playing in a conference that placed seven teams in the NCAA Tournament. All but one of their losses were to opponents in the RPI top 100, with nine of them coming to the RPI top 40. But the numbers alone don't tell the whole story.
It's hard to tell who commanded a more rag-tag bunch—Admiral Adama or John Beilein. There aren't too many teams in the Big Ten or the NCAA Tournament that would've traded rosters with Michigan, given its unorthodox allotment of players. Granted, Manny Harris is probably a future first round NBA draft pick and DeShawn Sims will make a good living playing professionally somewhere someday, but beyond that there's just not much that would fit the mold of most other successful teams.
To say the Wolverines lack size is like saying Scarlet Johansson is mildly attractive. Michigan utilized a variation of a four-guard offense throughout much of this season, and in case you've never coached a basketball team you should know that in a sport that cherishes height that's not exactly ideal. Hence Michigan's negative rebounding numbers. Numbers that normally doom teams to a season without hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.
Legendary former Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall used to say his job was "70% recruiting." Obviously, he wasn't being prophetic about this Michigan basketball team that gave regular minutes to two walk-ons.
Beyond Sims and Harris, there's virtually no one on this team that was highly coveted by programs the Wolverines aspire to overtake in the college basketball hierarchy. True, because of the uniqueness of Beilein's system we're probably not going to have recruiting classes prized by the experts because Beilein is recruiting to a system. Sort of like Nebraska football under Tom Osborne, when they won three national titles in the 1990s and not a single one of their recruiting classes were in the top 10.
But when your power forward is a shooting guard at this level, your center is really a small forward at the next level, and you play in a physical league like the Big Ten where the officials go by the axiom "one must maim to foul," the average basketball coach isn't going to squeeze an NCAA Tournament bid out of that roster. That, though, is exactly what Beilein did. After that kind of accomplishmnet it's surprising that he wasn't even mentioned for Big Ten Coach of the Year. Can you show me another coach in this league that would've written a better script with this cast of characters?
That's what I thought.
So why did it work? The success can be explained with a comment made by former Wolverine and current Big Ten Network analyst Tim McCormick. When Beilein was hired, McCormick predicted that the new Maize & Blue headman would be the greatest teacher Michigan has ever had as a basketball. McCormick was right. There have been far more talented Michigan squads I can remember that never played as consistently hard or together as this group did this season, and instead just got by largely on overwhelming talent alone. And I'm not just speaking of Beilein's predecessor, but instead all of his predecessors in the 25 years I've been a Michigan basketball fan.
Those sorts of intangibles are rare to duplicate most of the time, so one may consider that a bad omen for next year's team, which will likely look largely like this year's team up front. Except those intangibles are Beilein's system, they have followed him everywhere he's gone. What you saw at Michigan this winter is what you saw everywhere else he's gone, and in case you've forgotten NBA rosters aren't littered with Beilein recruits.
When I was growing up, the dominant coaches in the Big Ten were Bob Knight and Gene Keady. Knight had one tremendous recruiting class at Indiana during this time. It was the 1989 class that was supposed to be "the greatest class ever" in the Big Ten until the Fab Five arrived. It included players like Greg Graham and Calbert Cheaney. Other than that, Knight got by on having one or two star players (i.e. Isiah Thomas, Steve Alford, or Jay Edwards) and other guys who played their roles (i.e. the rebounder, the slasher, the distributor, the screener, etc.) and played together.
Keady was cut from the same cloth. He only signed five McDonald's All-Americans over his long and successful career, and his best one (Glenn Robinson) almost went to Michigan. Yet, like Knight, he was one of those coaches who could beat your players with his and take your players and beat his with yours.
Year in and year out, we all knew back in the day it didn't matter who Purdue and Indiana had coming back because we also knew they were going to be good as long as those two guys were on the sidelines (perhaps no sport gives coaches more of a role in the outcome than college basketball does). We also knew that Michigan had to out-recruit them because they were never going to out-coach them. And we knew that despite the fact that we'd rarely trade rosters with them, they would both likely finish ahead of us in the league standings.
That's exactly what I believe we'll see over the course of Beilein's tenure at Michigan. No more teams of Parade All-Americans getting swept by the fighting Scott Skiles. No more near losses to Farleigh Dickinson in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. No more head-scratchers against Alaska-Anchorage. No more gutless efforts like we saw against 10th-seeded Minnesota in the first round of the 2006 Big Ten Tournament.
While I remain skeptical that Beilein's system will help Michigan win its first regular season title since 1986 in a physical league that plays a rugged 18-game schedule with officials that let more go than the U.N. Security Council, I have complete faith that regardless of the win total year in and year we're going to proud to be Michigan basketball fans again. We're going to be a factor again. Winters around here are going to matter again. NCAA Tournament droughts aren't going to happen again. And if the administration follows through on its mandate to upgrade the program's facilities and the Big Ten actually shows its officials how to blow into their whistles and call fouls, my skepticism won't be necessary because Michigan will be an elite program again.
It's no coincidence that Tom Izzo's program at Michigan State ascended right at the time Ed Martin became a household name. As a result, right now the Spartans have the name cache, the facilities, the charismatic coach, and the instate recruiting advantage. They've earned it, and become one of the top 5-7 programs in the sport over the last decade. With Beilein's system and his early proven success in Ann Arbor, Michigan fans have something they haven't had in quite a while around here. A real head coach that will make Tom Izzo at least work to hold onto what he's got.