By Chris Mahr
When I first started paying attention to college basketball in the early 1990s, Michigan was one of the sport’s “it” teams. Steve Fisher’s Fab Five recruiting class took hoops by storm en route to consecutive national title game appearances in 1992 and 1993, and I just assumed that Wolverines hoops was predestined to be perennially good.
But save for an appearance in the 1994 Elite Eight, the program hasn’t come anywhere close to those early 1990s levels of success. The Ed Martin scandal, in fact, expunged those two Final Fours and Fisher’s final two seasons (1995–1997) from the record books while also sending the program to more than a decade’s worth of mediocrity and zero Big Dance appearances.
Enter John Beilein, the architect behind an unlikely hoops renaissance at West Virginia in the mid-2000s that included a Cinderella run to the 2005 Elite Eight. In Year Six of his tenure in Ann Arbor, Beilein doesn’t just have Michigan competitive again. He has them firmly in the early-season discussion for potential Final Four teams.
The Wolverines are 11–0 and ranked No. 2 in the AP. They’re scoring 78.2 PPG on 51.1% shooting, including a sparkling 40.1% from three-point range. On the other end of the floor, opponents are averaging just 57.5 PPG on 40% shooting, including a paltry 31% from distance.
And while Michigan has faced some cupcakes thus far, five of its first 11 opponents have been power conference teams: Pittsburgh, Kansas State, NC State, Arkansas and West Virginia. It will be more than ready for the start of Big Ten play against Northwestern on Jan. 3, by which point it should still be undefeated.
Perhaps the most satisfying thing for Beilein and for the program he has breathed new life into is that this success didn’t come overnight. It was earned, in more ways than one. And it all comes down to mutual patience.
For starters, let’s give credit to the Wolverines administration for making the hire and sticking with it. They could have easily pushed the panic button or turned up the heat after either Beilein’s 10–22 debut season in 2007–2008 — the most losses ever in a single Michigan season — or his disappointing 15–17 campaign in 2009–2010, which came on the heels of a Big Dance berth the year before.
Just as Michigan stuck with Beilein, Beilein stuck with Michigan. Prior to taking the Wolverines job, the longest Beilein had ever been head coach of one team was nine years spent at Division II Le Moyne (NY). But pushing 60, he made the choice to put down stakes in Ann Arbor.
Even if that meant enduring two losing seasons and the final year of scholarship reductions stemming from the Ed Martin scandal. But each lump Michigan took was later rewarded with a breakthrough. Wins over two Top 4 teams within 17 days of one another in 2008. A 2011 win at rival Michigan State, the program’s first since 1997. Michigan’s first Big Ten regular season title since 1986.
Beilein had a reputation of maximizing his players’ potential at West Virginia, and that has continued at Michigan. His first two Wolverine tourney teams put up worthy, second round challenges against a No. 2 seed in ’09 (Oklahoma) and a No. 1 seed in ’11 (Duke).
More recently, he’s recognized the star potential in the likes of Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jordan Morgan, Glenn Robinson III and Nick Stauskas before they earned their lofty recruiting rankings. And his inking of Mitch McGary — one of the nation’s top power forwards — last November proved to be a harbinger for his impressive Class of 2013 haul.
The caliber of players Beilein is getting is on the uptick, yet they all seem to fit his offensive and defensive philosophies. As a result, Beilein is coaching the most stacked team of his career and quite possibly the most stacked Michigan team since the Fab Five.
Basketball is back in Ann Arbor, home to an “it” team in college basketball once more.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski/USA Today Sports