KNOCK, KNOCK: Why the Michigan men's basketball team is at the doorstep of the nation's elite and how it got there
It’s easy to let your guard down when talking to John Beilein.
In many ways, he doesn’t seem like the face of the revived Michigan men’s basketball program.
The way he learns your name, the sometimes-crooked smile, the storytelling ability — it’s almost more paternal than anything. He’s at ease, and he makes those around him feel comfortable. It’s not hard to understand why Beilein, 56, enjoyed teaching high school history classes more than 30 years ago.
On the court, the lesson plan is strictly basketball. That’s where Beilein’s intensity and Midas Touch appear. That’s where — for four different programs that he has coached — unexpected runs to the NCAA Tournament have become realities.
Last season, it was the Wolverines’ turn, when they earned a tournament bid for the first time in more than a decade.
It’s easy to trust Beilein when he sits you down and tells you he’s turning around a program.
“The first time I talked to (him), I could hear it in his voice — the confidence of how he was going to turn this team around,” freshman forward Blake McLimans said.
That confidence — and the comfort — in Beilein’s words is one of the oft-overlooked parts of his magic.
And it’s a huge reason why Beilein’s Wolverines are ready to step into the limelight, stand up to the expectations and redefine themselves as one of the nation’s top basketball programs.
The tipping point
Everyone’s got a different answer to the same question: When did the Michigan basketball program really turn the corner?
The media and nationwide fanbase went crazy after the Wolverines upset No. 4 UCLA and No. 4 Duke last fall — signature wins that put Michigan in the 2009 NCAA Tournament picture.
But junior guard Manny Harris said the seeds of the turnaround were planted in another contest against the Bruins, one with a different result. On Dec. 22, 2007, Michigan suffered a 15-point loss to then-No. 8 UCLA at home in the midst of a rough first season under Beilein.
“Even though we lost, that’s a game that kind of had me like, ‘This team is going to be good in a few years to come,’ ” Harris said. “That’s one game that people look past, but I thought we played real well. … That’s kind of when it all clicked for me.”
Harris wasn't alone. Former Fab Fiver and current Michigan radio broadcaster Jimmy King also saw signs of progress scattered throughout Beilein's first season — one where the Wolverines finished a program-worst 10-22.
“I saw it the first year when you saw injuries, you had transfers, you had guys getting used to a new coach,” King said. “How he interacted with the team, how he coached the team, what he was instilling in the team. Even though it didn’t resonate in wins, I knew that he was going to build a great program like he has in a short amount of time.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, in his 15th year at the helm in East Lansing, thinks it was even earlier.
“I’ll be honest with you — I saw it coming when (former Michigan coach) Tommy Amaker was there,” Izzo said at last month’s Big Ten Media Day. “John Beilein has done a great job bringing his system in, incorporating everything. It has constantly been growing. … I (have seen) it emerging the last four or five years, and John has put frosting on the cake.”
Izzo pointed to some of the high-profile recruits that Amaker brought to Ann Arbor — like Harris and senior forward DeShawn Sims, whom Izzo called “two bona fide pros.”
“I thought he made some serious progress, and I think John has elevated it one more level,” Izzo said.
That’s the part nobody can deny — Beilein is a major piece of the puzzle of Michigan’s re-emergence on the national stage. And he has done this sort of thing everywhere he has been.
Beilein’s first Division I coaching gig was at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., where he took a team that went 8-22 in his first season to the NCAA Tournament once and the NIT twice in his five-year tenure.
He moved to Richmond for another five-year stint, leading the small school to the tournament once and two NIT appearances, too.
Then came West Virginia, yet another repeat of the Beilein pattern: A five-year stretch with two NCAA Tournament appearances (including an Elite Eight finish in his third season) and an NIT championship.
Really, what’s going on at Michigan is more of the same — except he’s finding success a little quicker than normal.
“Coach Beilein talks about building up a program, that’s what he loves to do,” said freshman guard Matt Vogrich, who committed to Michigan before the Wolverines earned their NCAA Tournament bid last season. “In West Virginia, he did it. And Richmond, he did it. Everywhere he’s been, he did it. So I thought it was awesome that I listened to him and I believed in him and I knew that he could do it, but I didn’t know it would be so quick. So quickly the team evolved.”
Isolate and ignore
Dealing with hype is a good problem to have. But for a program that, for the first time in more than a decade, is now dealing with expectations higher than making the NIT, it can be overwhelming.
Instead of being distracted by thoughts of where the Wolverines will be in March, the players have decided to focus on this week’s practice. And then their first game. And then the practices after that.
“We can’t hang on to last year much longer,” Beilein said. “Hopefully, we get used to that type of image that there are high expectations here. No one has higher expectations than I do.”
Some of those expectations center around in-conference performance, and others on a potential seed in the NCAA Tournament. And for the first time since the Fab Five in the early 1990s, reaching the tournament is more than just a reasonable goal. It’s an expectation. There’s an excitement around the team that’s hard to deny. Student season ticket sales skyrocketed from 480 last year to 2,537 sold for this season.
“We love that,” sophomore guard Zack Novak said. “It’s fun to play in front of your friends and the kids you go to school with. If they’re excited about it, that just makes us more excited about it.”
It’s not just the fanbase, either. It’s the national media and the country’s top coaches. Michigan came in at No. 15 in both the writers’ and coaches’ preseason polls, the first time that the Wolverines have been ranked in a preseason poll in 12 years.
When asked about addressing preseason rankings during team meetings or at any point before the season, Beilein was adamant.
“I probably won't say one word about it,” he said. “I’ll just say, ‘All right, we just do what we always do and try to.’ If I see them playing like they think they're better than they really are, then they'll hear about it. I don't expect to even address it.”
The upperclassman leaders have addressed the rankings. Well, kind of.
“They just said to play hard, and we’ll see what happens,” said Vogrich, the freshman. “Don’t look at the rankings. Don’t read about yourself. Don’t read about the team. Don’t read about what everybody else is saying. All that matters is how we end up at the end of the year and how the team plays together and develops.”
Before his players started classes this fall, Beilein sent them a letter. He couldn’t wait to call a team meeting in person, and he couldn’t sit around and wait through the waning days of August — the message was too important. He didn’t want his team to be content with last season’s surprising success.
“Last year was last year,” Beilein said, describing the content of the note. “Now, let’s keep hunting wins. … As long as I’m coaching here, we’re always hunting, no matter who the opponent is.”
That message has already taken hold of the program in the weeks and months since the letter was delivered.
The players bring up the note often, and they keep the same refrain: be the hunter, get hungry, stay focused.
“The whole message was about being focused,” Sims said. “Don’t let nothing get us off our initial goal, which is to become a better team.”
And when that goal is something players can visualize on a daily basis, it makes it easier to reach. A sampling of success — but not all of it — can do that, too.
“We hungry, we definitely hungry,” Harris said. “By losing that last game, making it to the tournament, seeing what it was like, that makes us even more hungry.”
Off-season workouts and body transformation seem to validate that claim. Players like Novak and redshirt sophomore Laval Lucas-Perry are noticeably thinner than they were last season, and many players have talked at length about adding muscle.
“If I worked a little harder, it could only equal more success and opportunities for me and my team,” Sims said. “A lot of guys took that mindset because they’re hungry for more.”
Beilein phrases it like this: Last season, the players whetted their appetites.
Now, it’s time for the main course.
Fans would love to fast-forward to the Sweet Sixteen, or some part of the NCAA Tournament. The tournament is the testing ground where expectations are met or exceeded.
But for 11 teams, that’s not where they’ll define their success this season.
Welcome to the Big Ten.
How tough is it? Just this week, ESPN’s Andy Katz pegged it as the nation’s top conference.
Michigan was the seventh-place team in the Big Ten last season and made the NCAA Tournament. This year, some Big Ten coaches think there could be as many as eight or nine bids to teams in the conference.
From the cornfields of Iowa to the happy valley of Penn State, the Wolverines know their proving ground — and what they need to achieve to reach the next level.
“(If) they get a break or two, they can win the league,” Izzo said. “Where I think you evaluate a program is ‘Are they contenders?’ In February, do they have a chance to win the league?”
Izzo said it doesn’t necessarily matter if a team actually wins a conference title or not.
“You should be evaluated on whether or not are you in a position, have you put your team in a position to be knocking on the door,” Izzo said. “If you’re knocking enough, somebody’s going to answer. That’s where I think Michigan is. They’ve put their team in a position where they’re knocking on the door and they have a chance.”
And there’s a reason opposing coaches and those close to the program see the Wolverines reaching the doorstep of the Big Ten’s upper echelon.
“What I’ve witnessed,” said King, “is it doesn’t matter who scores, doesn’t matter who rebounds, doesn’t matter who gets a blocked shot, who gets the winning bucket — they just want to win. That’s what’s going to take them from the middle of the pack to the front.”
King predicts a top-three Big Ten finish for Michigan, would likely translate into a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would in turn give the Wolverines an opportunity to play deep into March.
Fab Five attitude
They wore baggy shorts, black socks and their mouths on their sleeves.
And for two years, the phrase “Fab Five” was synonymous with the Michigan basketball program. While the most noticeable aspects of the quintet were the quirky uniforms that turned into nationwide trends, they weren’t the most important. What mattered most was the attitude.
“We didn’t use the word ‘swagger’ back then, but we had a hell of a swagger,” Chris Webber said in Fox Sports Net’s program “Beyond the Glory — the Fab Five.”
The Fab Five was more cocky than confident, to say the least. Though that’s a far cry from the Michigan basketball team under Beilein, it certainly has some parallels in that area.
“Watching these kids from afar, the biggest thing that they remind me of that was similar to us is their attitudes,” King said. “(The current players) go into a game believing they can win regardless of who they’re playing. Like last year, when they played UConn, nobody gave them a chance that they were going to play hard or even hang with UConn. They go into their place and almost win.”
King pointed to a few games during Beilein’s first year, matchups that Michigan ended up losing after the team shrank 10- or 20-point deficits in the game’s final moments. The fight, that it-ain’t-over-til-it’s-over attitude, was perfectly clear. According to Beilein, it’s a “believe you can beat any opponent” mentality.
And that’s what brings former players like King back to the early 1990s. Sure, the Fab Five was known more for its trash talking than its confidence. But when five freshmen tell the national media that they expect to win a national championship, it’s hard to ignore that attitude.
Nobody on the Michigan roster this year predicts a national title. But that doesn’t mean the goals aren’t lofty and the pressure isn’t cooking.
“If they were to ask me what to expect this year, I would just say, ‘You guys won’t be a surprise this year — you’re on the radar,’ ” King said. “Now, when you go into a Wisconsin, or a Michigan State or a Penn State or wherever you go on the road, the crowd is gonna know, they’re gonna know who you are and they’re gonna be gunning for you.”
Where Michigan belongs
Back to the present, though, for just a moment.
“Right now, we’re 0-0, and so is every team in the country,” freshman walk-on Josh Bartelstein said, echoing a mantra other players have used. “We know we have a lot of work to do. Nothing’s going to be given to us easy, that’s for sure.”
Beilein has instilled that kind of attitude in his players. It’s why when he sends a letter telling each athlete to “be a hunter,” the team takes it to heart. It’s also why the players exude confidence when they take the court.
And for all of those reasons, Beilein finds himself in the center of another program revival. It’s certainly started, but it’s nowhere near finished.
“Until we can get Michigan to point where they’re in the NCAA Tournament — this is normal to be in the NCAA Tournament — we haven’t turned anything around yet,” Beilein said. “I think that’s where Michigan belongs. If you’re in the tournament every year, dang it, you’ve got a chance of winning it. That’s where we want to go, sustain the program.”