Nov. 8, 2007
by Jeff Smith
When John Beilein was lured to Ann Arbor to coach the Wolverines' men's basketball team, he knew leaving West Virginia most likely meant training his players all over again. And it wasn't the training such as learning his 1-3-1 defense or his unusual offensive system. These were the simple things, like how to catch the ball, pass it, and then shoot it.
Beilein is not the only first-year head coach in the Big Ten focused on fundamentals. He joins Iowa's Todd Lickliter and Minnesota's Tubby Smith as rookie mentors in a conference that boast six national coach of the year selections, more than any other league in the country. Both Lickliter and Smith have been honored with the distinction in the past, most recently in 2006-07 when Lickliter was applauded by the NABC for his efforts at Butler last season.
Lickliter, like Beilein and Smith, is anxious to get this season underway. He believes Iowa's most important first step is one in which the team moves "steadily in the right direction." At first glance, the former Butler coach appears to be a perfect fit for Iowa City. The reigning National Coach of the Year came to the Hawkeyes after posting a 131-61 (.682) record in six seasons with the Bulldogs. He guided Butler to four postseason berths, including a pair of trips to the Sweet 16.
"I'll be indebted to the guys at Butler forever," Lickliter said. "I don't think you're a true basketball fan if you didn't appreciate those players at Butler and the way they were able to overcome some of the things and play so well as a team. It had a lot more to do with their character and their basketball I.Q. than anything that we might have done as a staff. They were a great group of guys."
Lickliter's approach to his new team has seemed to be simple yet precise from the outside, but perhaps it is much more complex inside Carver Hawkeye Arena. Whether or not Lickliter has inherited fast learners is unknown, but clearly the new coach wants to explain things just once.
He is hoping his Hawkeyes are more than prepared Friday when they host Idaho State.
"There are things that you aren't going to speed up," he said. "What we have to do is utilize our time to the best of our ability. There could be some anxiousness as we're not just making adjustments. We're installing."
While Lickliter has been busy installing, Smith has been preparing his new team in Minneapolis for improvement. For that to happen, Smith says his team, who he feels has "some good players returning," must begin believing in each other and his system that has been put into place.
"I think their record last year was not indicative of their skill level," Smith said. "It's a matter of getting them some confidence."
Confidence stems from success, which is what Smith has brought to Minneapolis. Having spent the past 10 season at Kentucky, Smith led the Wildcats to the 1998 NCAA Championship, four appearances in the regional finals, six Sweet 16 finishes, five SEC championships and five conference tournament titles. During the past decade, Smith compiled a 263-83 (.760) record.
He inherits a Golden Gopher squad that was 9-22 overall and 3-13 in conference play last year. While focused on the future, Smith feels his first Minnesota team, which opens Saturday at home against Army, is determined to erase the past.
"I think they are anxious not necessarily to prove they are the best in the conference, but just to improve as a team and on last year's record," he said.
Of the three new coaches, Michigan State's Tom Izzo - the 13th-year dean of the Big Ten men's basketball coaching ranks - says he is most familiar with Smith. But that is not to say he doesn't know Beilein and Lickliter either. In fact, Izzo admits to headaches and heartburn when talking about the potential success each of the three new coaches can bring to the conference.
"It adds a little heartburn for me because I know all three of them and they're all really successful," Izzo said. "Not very often do you have three very good coaches that are three really great guys, and that's what we've done. It's a headache for me, but a plus for our conference because we're adding good coaches and good guys."
Perhaps the headache is from the thought of battling Beilein for the state's top recruits. A head coach in every stop that he has made, which is now up to seven including Michigan, Beilein has compiled 26 winning seasons and put together 14 20-win campaigns. In his most recent stop at West Virginia, Beilein compiled a 104-60 record over five years. In addition, he is the only active coach in the collegiate ranks to record a 20-win season at four different levels -- junior college, NAIA, NCAA Division II and NCAA Division I.
He has been around every type of kid it seems, which is maybe why he has become so good at teaching his players how to properly play the game. He enjoys teaching the fundamentals, such as the correct way of catching the ball, which is with both feet on the floor so you have two options for your pivot foot. In fact, he is so tactical when it comes to shooting, he even patented his own ball called the "Beilein Ball" which properly lines the shooter's hands up with the seems on the ball.
It is an approach that Beilein feels will vastly improve his ballclub.
"This will be a year where we are playing against ourselves," he said. "We are trying to get better as a team. We will do great scouting reports the day before the game, but right now we are not in practice saying, "This is how Wisconsin guards you and this is how Minnesota will play you." We are saying this is how you pass and catch the ball."
Beilein's other initiative this season is instilling the importance of "team" in his players. Michigan was 22-13 last season and 8-8 in conference play, but the Wolverines return just one of their five starters.
Beilein, however, is focused on team talent and not the talent of particular individuals. In their recent exhibition win over Ferris State, Michigan played 14 kids, 12 of which scored. Perhaps a defining statistic that Beilein's system is settling in was the fact that 14 of the team's 23 field goals came by way of an assist. Beilein will look for more teamwork when the Wolverines open their season Friday at home against Radford.
"I think people underestimate the talent of people who are good teammates, who are working hard everyday in practice," Beilein said. "People say you're not that talented. That isn't true. We have a tremendous talent to be a team."