By Starting Small, Beilein Hopes for Big Improvement at Michigan

In his second season at Michigan, Coach John Beilein has led the Wolverines to a 5-1 record, including a victory over then-No. 4 UCLA.
In his second season at Michigan, Coach John Beilein has led the Wolverines to a 5-1 record, including a victory over then-No. 4 UCLA. (By Tony Ding -- Associated Press)

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By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- A tiny, maize and blue storage shack stands directly adjacent to John Beilein's basketball court. Inside his office, Beilein, the Wolverines' second-year coach, beams as he shows off yet another of his innovative tools.

Next to the shack, a foldable miniature basketball court sits on top of a coffee table-turned-Lazy Susan. This, Beilein says, is where the master plan for how to revitalize Michigan's downtrodden basketball program undergoes constant construction.

The process -- one of Beilein's favorite words -- of fusing his system with the personnel he inherited a year and a half ago has been slow, but he remains confident that the vision he formulates on a surface slightly larger than a Monopoly board eventually will be carried out on courts of the life-size variety.

Maryland (4-2) will host Michigan (5-1), Beilein's latest rebuilding project, on Wednesday night as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Little was expected of either squad entering the season, yet the two teams have raised eyebrows across the country with recent wins over top-tier programs.

While their situations appear similar, the circumstances out of which Maryland's and Michigan's respective states were born are vastly different. Beilein said there are two areas that a coach, under most circumstances, can control completely: recruiting and personal conduct.

But Beilein's situation is complicated by the fact that Michigan's roster is populated with players recruited by his predecessor, Tommy Amaker, who was fired after failing to reach the NCAA tournament in six seasons at the helm. That group was ill suited for the 1-3-1 zone defense and transition-based offense reliant upon three-point shooting that Beilein favors.

The Wolverines shot a Big Ten-worst 31.2 percent from beyond the arc last season -- "I will never undervalue people that can shoot again," Beilein said -- and tied for ninth in the conference standings.

"Once you get sort of a philosophy of how you're going to play, you change and you tweak and you do what you have to do appropriate to your players the best you can," Beilein said. "But in the long run, you dance with the girl that brought you here."

Beilein's supreme confidence in his approach is fortified by the fact that in 33 years of coaching, he has never once been an assistant. From his earliest days at Newfane High School in Western New York to his first Division I job at Canisius to his rise to prominence at West Virginia, Beilein learned on his own and developed a system that has yet to founder.

Michigan players acknowledge Beilein's schemes were difficult to grasp at first, but have come around after witnessing the results those schemes can produce.

"It was kind of just being confused or not knowing what to expect, kind of like being out of your comfort zone a little bit," sophomore guard Manny Harris said. "But this year, everything is totally different."

Before the first practice of the Beilein era in the fall of 2007, Beilein required that each player make 50 three-pointers in five minutes. Harris said several did not make it and had to run every day while the rest of the team practiced until they could perform the task. This fall, Harris said, "everyone made it."


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