Michigan basketball is young and inexperienced, but John Beilein has been there before
AnnArbor.com file photo
It’s all part of the growing process.
For the first time since he arrived at Michigan, fourth-year head coach John Beilein will have a team comprised solely of his recruits. That they are as young as they are wasn’t necessarily part of his plan, but this is his team. For better or worse.
“I like the process that you go through in developing a team and this is part of that process,” Beilein said earlier this month. “I have loved every team that I have coached in different ways.
“But it will be interesting to see how fast they will develop because there will be some very challenging moments this year with a young team. We can start three freshmen. That could possibly happen. You start three freshmen, anything can happen.”
Five players from last season’s team are gone. So are all three assistant coaches.
In their place, Beilein has two new assistant coaches, Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan, and a promoted administrative specialist in Jeff Meyer. He has four freshmen, two redshirt freshmen and no seniors on his roster.
Twice before, Beilein had teams this young and this inexperienced: His 1992-93 Canisius College team and his 2002-03 West Virginia team. Both ended up with losing records, but set up successful teams in the future.
In 1992, Beilein inherited a roster with one senior and two juniors at Canisius, his first Division I head coaching job. The rest of the team was made up of freshmen and sophomores. Those underclassmen were also the guys who played the majority of minutes.
“I think he did that because he knew we would come back for the next two or three years, because no one was going straight to the NBA or anything like that,” said Darrell Barley, who was a freshman guard at Canisius that year. “If he started with younger guys, he could put his system in and do things his way and then we could be successful in the future years.”
That team finished 10-18, but showed glimmers of hope. In the season-ending MAAC tournament, Canisius upset Iona on a last-second shot. The next year, the Golden Griffins won the league. The year after, they made the NIT semifinals and in Beilein’s fourth year went to the NCAA tournament.
“I remember the next year (Beilein’s second), we were picked second, up there,” former Canisius assistant Mike MacDonald said. “John was saying ‘Jeez, we had a terrible February but hit one shot against Iona and the whole perception of the program changed, that we’re a program on the rise.’
“I think our guys bought into it, too.”
Typically, former players and assistant coaches say it takes two years for players to fully grasp Beilein’s two-guard offense, with its intricacies and the reads he wants players to be able to make.
At Canisius, it took the majority of the first season. At West Virginia, it took a couple of years. Both times, though, he was working with a young group he could mold into his own instead of taking another coach’s upperclassmen recruits and making it work.
Beilein’s first year at West Virginia was a struggle. The freshman class, including Kevin Pittsnogle, revamped the culture as it went 14-15 overall and 5-11 in the Big East. As they learned, they bought in to Beilein’s system and grasped it -- even if they didn’t run it very well.
By their second year, they reached the NIT. The third year, they went to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. Much of it was because of the foundation they built in the first year.
It was in that year, both former Mountaineers player Patrick Beilein and former West Virginia assistant Matt Brown said, the Mountaineers understood exactly how to play.
“When the kids figure out how to play, it’s really, really good,” said Brown, now the head coach at Missouri-Kansas City. “It’s hard to guard, hard to prepare for, especially when you have short windows in league play. It’s very, very difficult because few teams play that way.
“It could also make you look really, really bad, too, as kids learn it. So there’s obviously a big learning curve.”
There are similarities between those two teams and Michigan’s current group. First, the Wolverines are going to rely on youth, especially in the frontcourt, where two players who have never played a college basketball game are likely to start.
Second, this might be the deepest and most skilled group Beilein has had in Ann Arbor. At some point or another, Beilein has praised the basketball savvy of every player on his current team, something that often leads to success in his system.
Third, those previous players in their year of struggle built a foundation for the future years. That is perhaps one area where Michigan is ahead of those Canisius and West Virginia teams. The Wolverines have experienced players in Stu Douglass, Zack Novak and Darius Morris that have already fully bought in to Beilein’s system.
“They have a good core of guys with that same type of attitude,” said Patrick Beilein, a freshman on the 02-03 WVU team, a former graduate manager at Michigan and now an assistant coach at Dartmouth. “No one expects them to be anything this year after losing DeShawn (Sims) and Manny (Harris).
“Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, Darius Morris have that chip on their shoulder, 'Just because Manny and DeShawn are gone doesn’t mean we can’t play.'
“They have that attitude.”
Fourth, much like those Canisius and West Virginia teams, many of Michigan’s current players weren’t superstar recruits. But they are players who understand team concepts.
“He was a guy that bred confidence in all of us,” Barley said. “We all were confident and tough. He doesn’t have to say it now because he’s at Michigan, but his favorite saying was ‘Those guys are McDonald’s All-Americans. You guys eat at McDonald’s.’
“That was his favorite line.”
He doesn’t need to go there now -- even though none of his current players were McDonald’s All-Americans -- but at both West Virginia and Michigan, Beilein has had a habit of taking under-the-radar recruits and molding them into a successful team by developing skill and shooting.
So, like those first two teams, they feel the need to show they can be good, too.
“I think those teams were very hungry to prove themselves,” John Beilein said. “They played with a chip on their shoulder. This team may have a little bit of that, as well.”