By Andrew Kahn
On the eve of the Final Four, John Beilein's most important player was a mess. Practicing against teammates imitating Syracuse's famed zone defense, Mitch McGary's footwork was awful. If Beilein couldn't correct the problem, Michigan had no chance of playing for a national title.
Beilein wanted his 6-foot-10 freshman center to operate around the foul line and distribute the ball. The coaching staff spent all week trying to get him to pivot a certain way. Most of the time, he traveled or threw the ball away. "He couldn't read the zone because he couldn't see it, and he couldn't see it because he didn't have the right balance and leverage," Beilein said. Frustrated, he brought McGary, along with a few managers and players, back to the court after Friday's practice and said, "OK, Mitch, one more time: This is how we're going to do it." He told McGary to slow down and trust his instincts. He finally executed.
The next night in the Georgia Dome, McGary, who had a total of 18 assists all season unitl then, sliced up the 2-3 zone, recording a team-high six assists, while also scoring 10 points and grabbing five offensive rebounds in a 61-56 win. "It was a week of work getting him to figure it out," Beilein said. "His assists won us the game."
* * *
There was a time when people thought John Beilein was a bad tournament coach. He had been at Canisius, his first Division I job, for three years and never made the NCAA tournament. His teams kept losing in the semifinals of the conference tournament, a day Beilein referred to as "Black Sunday." The next year, 1996, Canisius went 7-7 in the league and lost its best player before the tournament. The Golden Griffins won three games in three days to capture the crown.
Beilein would spend one more season at Canisius before moving to Richmond, a small climb up the coaching ladder. He inherited a senior-laden squad and took them to the Big Dance, where the No. 14 seed Spiders upset the third-seeded South Carolina 62-61. Beilein said his team came out with so much confidence, that his players walked into the arena expecting to win. That doesn't just happen automatically.
His players are drilled on the fundamentals from their first practice. His two-guard offense, which he honed during his 10 seasons at Division II Le Moyne College, is based on spacing and cutting and is difficult to prepare for. He installs it piece by piece, and by the end of the season his teams are executing at their best. He watches more film than most head coaches -- entire games as opposed to clips, and at least an hour of every practice -- so he can show players their mistakes, not just tell them. When he was at Le Moyne and, before that, the D-III and community college levels, he didn't have large enough staffs to delegate film duties, so he'd break it down himself on a VCR.
While the 1-3-1 zone defense was a staple of Beilein's West Virginia tenure, he has all but abandoned it in Ann Arbor, deploying it after timeouts for a possession or two to disrupt the opponent's rhythm. The two-guard offense is still alive, but as Beilein got his hands on talented point guards Darius Morris and last year's national player of the year Trey Burke, ball screens became the focal point. "That's what good coaches do," said Michigan State's Tom Izzo, who has been to six Final Fours. "They adapt to personnel or situations."
Last year's Michigan team was first in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. This year's team lost Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA and still ranks third. Seven of Beilein's last 10 teams finished in the top 15 in turnover percentage; the last two have been in the top three in opponents' free-throw rate. In other words, they don't beat themselves.
Winning regular season games is important, but college basketball is dominated by a single tournament. Beilein arrived at West Virginia with a respectable 2-2 record in the NCAA tournament. He took the Mountaineers to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 and has won six tournament games in four appearances at Michigan, with seeds ranging from four to 10.
According to Peter Tiernan at Bracket Science, in terms of performance against seed expectations (PASE), Beilein is the most overachieving NCAA tournament coach in the country. A one seed is expected to advance slightly further in the tournament than a two seed, a two seed further than a three, and so on. Beilein has won more games per tournament than expected based on his seed than any active coach with more than three appearances.
Luck plays a big role in the one-and-done nature of the NCAA tournament. Matchups, which are just as important as seeding, are out of your control. But it helps if you're the bad matchup.
* * *
Michigan beat South Dakota State 71-56 in the opening round of the 2013 NCAA tournament. From there, the matchups were toss-ups: Michigan was a small favorite against VCU and Syracuse and a small underdog against Kansas, Florida and Louisville. The Wolverines beat South Dakota State on a Thursday night and played VCU on Saturday at noon. The Rams, just two years removed from their Final Four run, forced 21 turnovers in an 88-42 first-round blowout. They led the nation in defensive turnover percentage thanks to their full-court press, known as Havoc. Michigan didn't see that style of play in the Big Ten and had just one full day to prepare.
In a tournament setting, Beilein likes to watch the opponent in person for five minutes -- VCU played after Michigan on the same court -- so when he studies film he has a better feel for the team. Then he brings in his assistants, who he says are terrific at scouting opponents, to gather more information before putting together the game plan. Beilein believed Havoc stemmed from the early Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan presses. "There's a lineage of coaching you sort of follow," he said.
Beilein recognized that trying to break the press quickly played right into VCU's game plan. Instead, Michigan held the ball for a few seconds before inbounding it, allowing everyone to get to their spots. One ball handler (usually Burke) would receive the pass and hold it for another couple of seconds before bringing it up the court. Beilein called this process "setting the table." Michigan led 38-23 at half. But when Burke started the second half with three straight turnovers, Beilein reminded his team to slow down and attack once it had the advantage. Michigan went on a 12-2 run and won by 25.
No. 1 seed Kansas loomed in the Sweet 16. If there was a bad matchup for Michigan, this was it. The Jayhawks played great defense inside and out without relying on turnovers. They matched Michigan's future NBA talent and had a size advantage at nearly every position. The Wolverines were down 10 with just over two minutes left, but a missed free throw opened the door for a miracle: Trey Burke's game-tying three from well beyond the line with four seconds left. Slow-motion video shows Beilein grimacing as Burke releases the shot. Michigan won by two in overtime.
Two days later, Michigan faced No. 2 seed Florida in the regional final. The turnaround was too quick for the Gators. "You've got to talk in terms of concepts maybe more so than in terms of plays," Donovan said about preparing for Beilein's offense. "Different things look the same. They're disguised and there are a lot of counters." Nik Stauskas hit five three-pointers in the first half as Michigan built a 17-point halftime lead and won by 20, setting up the Final Four showdown with Syracuse.
* * *
"John is like the KGB as far as giving up secrets," said Le Moyne coach Steve Evans, who scouted Beilein's Canisius teams while an assistant at Siena and has kept in touch over the years. Beilein, reluctantly describing his offense, said, "If we're calling some action, it could morph into anything. If the other team blows it up, it becomes a different action somewhere else. There are times when I have no idea what they're going to do. We say, 'The ball is going to talk.'"
Senior Jordan Morgan had trouble estimating how many plays Michigan has in its arsenal. "It's pretty much endless, the possibilities of sets we can run," he said in a recent interview with ESPN. Beilein's actions have unique names to help his players remember them. After some prodding, he is willing to share one: The Jungle, which he compares to the Tex Winter triangle offense. Within it, players can make a lion cut, a tiger cut, or a bear cut. Players adjust based on which cut a teammate makes. "We say 'get to The Jungle' and they know it's lions, tigers and bears. Just like The Wizard of Oz." Opposing coaches may think of Beilein as the man behind the curtain.
Having never been an assistant coach, Beilein, 61, didn't have a traditional mentor. But in his nearly 40 years as a head coach at every level from high school to the Big Ten, he's had time to work out his mistakes. He doesn't get a chance to do it much anymore, but he used to love attending high school practices. "A lot of my ideas were born by going to clinics or watching high school coaches," he said.
"He's an offensive mastermind," last year's captain Josh Bartelstein said of Beilein. "You give him a week to prepare and each day he puts in more of the game plan. By the end of the week he has a masterpiece." So as not to overload his young team before Syracuse, Beilein's new actions were variations from the base offense. Still, there was the McGary issue. Beilein knew his team needed to get the ball in the middle of the zone to be effective, and the tall, skilled McGary was the one to do it -- though it took every minute of available preparation time to be sure.
Two nights after beating Syracuse, Michigan faced the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, Louisville, in the national championship. When Burke got in foul trouble, Beilein turned to Spike Albrecht, who shocked everyone with 17 first-half points. But Michigan's defense showed cracks; despite shooting 52 percent from the field and 44 percent from three, Michigan lost 82-76.
That Michigan team entered the tournament hungry after going 6-6 in its final pre-tournament games, but it never lost the support of its coach.
"As a player, you felt he had confidence in you and that's a great feeling," said Patrick Beilein, who played for dad at West Virginia. "It goes a long way, longer than people think."
This year's squad is the Big Ten's regular season champion and lost to Michigan State in the league tournament final, and it opens the NCAA tournament on Thursday night as a No. 2 seed against Wofford. Beilein, the Big Ten's coach of the year, will have to find a way to keep the momentum going. Perhaps he'll remind them of how close they came last year. Maybe he'll tweak his scheme at precisely the right moment. Michigan fans can be confident he'll think of something, even if it's as crazy as handing over the offense to a freshman center.
* * *
Andrew Kahn is a freelance writer in New York who has written for The Wall Street Journal and ESPN the Magazine and is a regular contributor to CBS Local and Newsday. He writes about all sports at http://andrewjkahn.com/ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AndrewKahn.