Michigan now No. 1 for a reason

Michigan now No. 1 for a reason

January 29th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

Mack McCarthy

Mack McCarthy

John Beilein wasn't always the basketball coach of newly No. 1 Michigan. On Dec. 29, 1996, he orchestrated a 63-49 Canisius victory over the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the final of that year's Dr Pepper Classic.

That was the UTC team that wound up in the Sweet 16 of that year's NCAA tournament, the greatest run in Mocs history.

"At first, I couldn't figure out how they beat us, because I felt like we were better at every spot on the floor," then-UTC coach Mack McCarthy recalled Monday. "So I watched the film over and over, which I almost never did.

"The more I watched, the more I realized what sophisticated things John was doing. It looked like Princeton's offense, but it wasn't and we were completely unprepared for it."

The Beilein resume shows most coaches have been completely unprepared to top his X's and O's everywhere he's been, be it Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia or the Wolverines. His career Division I record now stands at 403-253, and he's taken all four of those programs to the NCAA tournament.

"And he's doing the same stuff only better at Michigan, because he's always changing, always improving," McCarthy added. "John's always one step ahead of the competition."

The Wolverines have been at least five points better than the competition all season except against Ohio State, where they lost 56-53. They're 19-1 overall and 6-1 within the Big Ten heading into Wednesday night's visit from Northwestern.

But despite earning their first No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll since 1992, when the Maize and Blue's Fab Five owned the heart of college basketball, Beilein wasn't overwhelmed by Monday's news.

"I've been absorbed in Northwestern tape," he said.

Until he arrived in the fall of 2007, the basketball program had been absorbed mostly in regret and remorse. Thanks to NCAA violations, that 1992-93 season no longer exists, the school forced to vacate all its victories from that year -- including a second straight run to the NCAA title game, where Chris Webber calling a timeout the Wolverines didn't have cemented a North Carolina championship.

Michigan hasn't returned to a Final Four since then and hadn't been to an NCAA tourney in nine years when Beilein arrived from West Virginia.

Nor was the rebuilding job easy. The Wolverines posted losing records two of his first three seasons. Running a sophisticated offense is one thing. Running it with Big Ten-caliber athletes is another.

But Tennessee fans may recall being crushed by 30 in their opening game of the 2011 NCAA Tournament one round before Michigan nearly shocked Duke in the round of 32.

A year ago, with superb point guard Trey Burke hitting campus, Michigan tied for the Big Ten title.

Now Burke, who averages 17.9 points and 7.1 assists a game, is a mature sophomore given to saying things like, "It just starts with defense. That's what's going to take us where we want to go."

Defense may usually win championships, and McCarthy is quick to point out that even Beilein's 1-3-1 zone "is just different than everybody else's."

Yet most everyone believes that it's Michigan's offense that ultimately could deliver the school its first NCAA title since 1989.

The Wolverines not only shoot 51 percent from the floor, but they hit 41 percent of their 3-pointers and over 70 percent from the foul line. Given that they also out-rebound opponents by nearly eight a game, it's easy to see why most believe them the most dangerous offensive team in the country.

"John's offense is all about isolation," McCarthy said, "just like the NBA. But while the pros are one-on-one, John's more two-on-two. There's a lot of misdirection. You think he's setting up a play for one side of the floor, but it's really for the other side. He's tremendous at getting his kids shots that they're capable of making."

Because their top four -- Tim Hardaway Jr. (15.9 ppg, 5.2 rebounds), Nik Staukas (12.7 ppg, 49 percent on 3s), Glenn Robinson III (12.1. 6.0 rpg) and Burke -- also play big minutes, Michigan also needs to stay healthy to reach the Final Four.

Nor have the Wolverines faced their toughest competition yet. Beginning this weekend, they face Big Ten co-leader Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State in succession.

But 20 games into the season, Beilein likes his team's poise and purpose.

"Our coaches and players remain focused on our goals of improving daily," he said. "The only number one that matters is at the end of the year. That's the number one you want down the line."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com