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KNOCK, KNOCK: Why the Michigan men's basketball team is at the doorstep of the nation's elite and how it got there

Max Collins/Daily
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BY NICOLE AUERBACH
Daily Sports Editor
Published November 11, 2009

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.