April 10, 2013 at 5:14 pm

John Niyo

John Beilein's bond with Michigan players grows deep in special season

Atlanta — They went around the room in September, not long after the fall semester began, and told their stories. It was a team-building exercise suggested by Greg Harden, Michigan's director of athletic counseling, and it was a players-only affair.

The task was for each player, new and old, to share the toughest thing they'd dealt with in their lives the last couple years. And as the stories began to spill out, according to senior captain Josh Bartelstein, "It was as deep as you could get, and the room was in tears — everyone was crying."

Monday night inside the Georgia Dome, they were crying again, taking turns speaking behind closed doors before facing the media after a crushing 82-76 loss to Louisville in the national championship game. They'd gone deep again — nearly as deep as you can go — but this time it was their coach, John Beilein, who got them started.

"It was emotional," Beilein said later, acknowledging he'd broken down a few times. "And I think that's why it's so special. Because they were able to sort of understand this thing, that the team thing was really important. And that's really hard in today's world, to get people to understand the intangibles you have to have to have a great team. It's a lot of sacrifice. But these kids were beautiful at it."

They certainly played a beautiful game — both teams did in an NCAA final that was immediately hailed as a classic — marred only by some ugly officiating, a coaching gaffe or two, and the harsh reminder that only one team can walk off the court as champion.

"The 'didn't win it' part doesn't bother me," said Beilein, who was making his first Final Four trip in 35 years of coaching. "And I'm a bad loser, you need to know that. But knowing the win-win situation we were in, knowing the type of college basketball game that was, knowing the way these guys represent (Michigan), there's so many good things there.

"Yeah, it would've been nice to get it. And I'll think a lot about all the things I could've done as a coach to change that. But in the long run, there's so many positives, you can't get hung up on just the score."

Beilein did take the blame for squandering 15-20 seconds in the final minute, saying he was unaware Michigan — trailing by 4 — still had a foul to give before sending Louisville to the line.

"That falls right on me as a coach," he said.

Adapting his way

But so does this: Somehow, Beilein and his staff managed to take a team with five freshmen in the regular rotation and lead it to 31 wins and within a few shots of a national title.

"It's an experience I know I will never forget," he said.

So much for the worries about Beilein not being able to recruit NBA talent. He's going to spend the next week fretting about four-fifths of his starting five declaring for the draft. And so much for the worries about Beilein's system being a non-starter when it came to big-time success.

He has shown an ability to adapt without compromising his principles, and over time, that's something his players grow to respect.

"When I first came in here, I didn't understand some of his philosophies," said Burke, the All-America point guard who'd had to learn to do things Beilein's way before he could do his own thing — and do it so well.

Now?

"I'll respect him for the rest of my life," Burke added.

Burke's likely moving on with his life — he's projected as a lottery pick in the draft — but Beilein insists the program will do the same, even without the national player of the year. Standing against a wall outside Michigan's locker room, the coach talked Monday night and into Tuesday morning about "making steps in the right direction." He talked about the Fab Five's appearance in Atlanta, as well, noting, "There's still some healing to be done in this program, but I think that was a huge step."

Do it again

And then he talked about the future, at least in the abstract. What did this Final Four run — 20 years after the Wolverines' last — mean?

Well, it sets a new standard for the program. But playing on this stage — "A lot of TV sets," Beilein noted with a smile — also raises the profile.

"I know as a basketball coach, when you're recruiting or speaking to boosters, what this game means to the university," he said.

But as a basketball coach, Beilein also knows this goes beyond recruiting and fundraising.

"Yes, we had talent," he said. "But talent is never enough."

It takes a little luck, of course. But it takes something else — "There's a love in there that's incredible," Beilein said — to build the kind of team that this one became, bonding in the fall and blossoming in the spring.

The challenge now for Beilein is to go find a way to build another one.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Michigan's John Beilein was making his first appearance in the Final Four in 35 years as a coach. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News
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