How Michigan coach John Beilein became NCAA Tournament’s silent assassin

WICHITA, Kan. — David Bowie hopped from Ziggy Stardust to plastic soul. John Beilein went from Derrick Walton Jr. to Zavier Simpson, from shootout to shutdown, and didn’t miss a beat. Survivors don’t sit still.

“He’s done something that a lot of guys don’t have the self-confidence to do,” Big Ten Network analyst Shon Morris said of the venerated Michigan basketball coach, whose Wolverines make their 2018 NCAA Tournament debut late Thursday night against Montana.

“[He said], ‘Hey, I’m a really good overall basketball coach, a great basketball coach … I want to have control, and the final say, but I’m going to bring people in who can take control of the defensive end.’ A lot of guys don’t have the confidence to do that.”

It’s a rare coach who can win four games in four days in back-to-back postseasons. Rarer still are those who feel they’ve slayed enough dragons to tweak what they do at age 65.

After the Wolverines went from plane scares and practice jerseys to a Big Ten tourney title and a Sweet 16 last March, Beilein put his dice in the cup and shook up the narrative, hiring former Illinois State assistant Luke Yaklich to essentially serve as his defensive coordinator.

Like the before-and-after pictures in a weight-loss program commercial, the Wolverines transformed themselves. Michigan evolved from a unit that scored its way out of trouble (a Big Ten-best .483 shooting percentage last winter, along with a league-worst .465 field-goal percentage defense) to one that protects its rim the way a mama bear protects her cubs (63.5 points allowed per game this season, tops in the loop).

Two seasons. Two styles. Two mantras. Two conference tournament championships.

“He just loves the Xs and Os,” Simpson, the Wolverines’ sophomore point guard and defensive mood-setter, said of Beilein. “I feel that’s important. He’s a great person and a great coach as well.”

‘He’s one of the best’

One of the greats still dancing, come to think of it, even as his peers get the pixels and the praise.

Just seven coaches in the 2018 NCAA Tournament field have been to more regional semifinals this decade than Beilein’s three, and they’re the seven you’d suspect: John Calipari (seven), Mike Krzyzewski (six), Roy Williams (six), Bill Self (six), Sean Miller (six), Tom Izzo (six) and Jim Boeheim (five). Izzo is the only Big Ten coach with more Sweet 16 berths since 2009 than Beilein’s three.

Over his last eight seasons, the man’s taken seven Michigan teams to the Big Dance, reached the Elite Eight twice and the national title game in 2013 — a championship loss to Louisville that the NCAA revoked from the Cardinals last month. Before Beilein, no Big Ten coach had ever won four games in four days in consecutive years to win consecutive league tourney crowns.

While the big shots in your office pool automatically plop Michigan State in the Sweet 16 and shout Izzo’s praises to the cubicle tops, Beilein is March’s silent assassin, the guy knocking on the door of the next tier. Quietly.

“I would certainly hope that’s not the case, but I think you’re probably right,” Morris said. “I think that anyone who follows the game, especially closely in the league, would tell you that he’s one of the best — not just within the Big Ten Conference, but the nation.”

‘He’s a guru’

Beilein doesn’t throw chairs. He doesn’t tower over officials. He doesn’t rock a track suit. He doesn’t have a catchy nickname. He doesn’t make a spectacle just for the sake of it.

And yet, since 2008-09, Beilein owns a .650 winning percentage in Bracketville contests. His .633 career clip in the Big Dance ranks No. 9 among active coaches.

If you miss the boat, that’s fine. Because it’s March, and this baby is sailing with or with you.

“For sure,” Michigan forward Isaiah Livers laughed. “He’s a guru. Like, literally, he’ll say something that I don’t even see, and I may argue with him and be like, ‘What?’ But at the end of the day, he’s going to be right.

“Because, obviously, he knows what he was talking about. He’s been doing this for a long time. Once you got back and looked at it, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s what he was talking about.’ You just have to take a second, listen, take it in, and do it right the next time.”

That’s experience.

That’s confidence.

That’s a vision.

“It starts in June, I think,” Michigan forward Moe Wagner offered. “The first couple months of the season, he focuses on the basics. He tries to get everyone on a certain level and build from that level. He doesn’t lose anyone that way. He waits until everyone is on that level, and we keep going.

“So he always looks for the long-term, so whether we win or lose, the film session is similar. And we try to learn from every game. We always try to look ahead to March — that’s when we try to be good.”

The Wolverines are 10-1 in their last 11 win-or-go-home games in March under Beilein. Over the course of a decade, Michigan has gone from a Bracketville team you move on in pencil to one you mark with ink.

“He’s done it wherever he’s been: Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia,” Morris said. “I think he’s one of the best, and the results bear that out. When you can win four games in four days, and do it in back to back years, and do it in various circumstances, that’s pretty good.”

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