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."
Much like his new coach, Harris served no apprenticeship during his first collegiate campaign. As a freshman last season, Harris averaged 33 minutes per game and led Michigan in scoring.
Harris continues to be the Wolverines' go-to scorer (22.3 points per game), though the play of junior forward DeShawn Sims (15.2 points per game) has helped ease the burden. The Wolverines' development was most evident on Nov. 20 when they upset then-No. 4 UCLA, 55-52, in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden. Michigan did not shoot particularly well that night, but its defensive effort forced the Bruins into poor shots and 17 turnovers.
"No one really expects us to come together," sophomore guard Kelvin Grady said. "No one expects us to make the system work, and that's just one other thing on our shoulder that makes us push and work harder to do the things we need to do to be successful."
On Saturday, just nine days removed from their momentous victory, the Wolverines needed a last-second shot in overtime to defeat Savannah State. Michigan is nowhere near where Beilein would like, but he believes he can get there. And he knows just where to start.
Inside the miniature storage shack next to the miniature court in Beilein's office are 10 quarter-size chips -- five maize, five blue. Beilein and his staff plan out each practice and draw up each play on that board, then spin it around so that each coach can take a look from a different angle.
"All great teachers have a lab, no matter what subject," associate head coach Jerry Dunn said. "They all have a lab which they create in and they become innovative and they come up with new ways to teach. That's where it all starts with him."
Note: Former Maryland football standout Shawne Merriman will host his sixth annual Lights On Foundation coat drive at Comcast Center on Wednesday night. Merriman, along with current Terrapins student-athletes, will be accepting donations of gently used coats, hats, scarves and other warm clothing as soon as doors open at 6 p.m. Drop-off areas are located inside Gates A and E. The collection will continue through halftime. All donations benefit the Creative Community for Non-Violence shelter in Washington.