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Wojo: Beilein can keep raising the ceiling at Michigan

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
"I want to finish this decade and beyond, of having this really good program that’s always in the hunt for Big Ten championships,” says Michigan head coach John Beilein, here with Jordan Poole.

Ann Arbor — It was flattering, enlightening, even invigorating. And now that it’s over, in many ways, John Beilein is just getting started.

On the day before summer practice began, with his most-heralded freshman class on campus, with a new contract coming any day, Beilein isn’t spending much time looking back. Yes, the NBA was intriguing, and if the Pistons had offered him the job, he said the decision would’ve been “a tough one.”

When it became public a few weeks ago, it seemed like an odd courtship, a college basketball lifer exploring the NBA at 65. But after assessing the possibility of what he could build, Beilein recognized what he’s already built, and has no plans to go anywhere else.

So, what if the NBA called again?

“I think I ran that race, and you can’t run that race too many times,” Beilein said Tuesday. “I’ll be rooting for (the Pistons), but where I am right now in my life, this decade of Michigan basketball has been pretty good. I want to finish this decade and beyond, of having this really good program that’s always in the hunt for Big Ten championships.”

Perhaps the interest from the NBA was the final affirmation that Michigan indeed is a talent-producing power under Beilein. The low-profile coach with the pleasant, steady demeanor keeps raising his profile, whether he wants to or not.

The Wolverines have won back-to-back Big Ten tournaments and reached the national championship game twice in six seasons. The program is the healthiest it has been in, well, maybe forever. Beilein consistently develops players, wins games with modest recruiting classes and now is competing on a par with Tom Izzo’s towering program at Michigan State.

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But no matter how much he wins, basketball is not football at Michigan, and you wonder sometimes if people truly appreciate the remarkable job he’s done. Athletic director Warde Manuel does, and is finalizing a contract that will roll over every year, essentially keeping Beilein here until he retires. The NBA has noticed, as the league continues to trend toward offensive creativity and 3-point shooting.


A traditional NBA guy, Dwane Casey, got the Pistons job, the right outcome for all parties. But without moving, Beilein and his program got a boost. That wasn’t the intent, but with so many players trying to get to the NBA as quickly as possible, connections matter. Moe Wagner just become the seventh Michigan player drafted in the first round since 2013, and virtually none were highly ranked recruits.

Beilein says he isn’t enamored with the attention and accolades, but acknowledges the benefit.

“The hope is, it’ll assist us in a lot of ways — recruiting will be better, the credibility when kids come to our program will be better, the coaching staff will continue to grow,” Beilein said. “For the most part, I’m not comfortable with praise if it comes my way, but I’ll keep working on it.”

From a competitive standpoint, Michigan and Michigan State currently are equals, and the long-debated theory has been confirmed — they can be elite at the same time. The Wolverines and Spartans might be the two highest-rated Big Ten teams heading into next season.

Both return three starters and bring in top-15 recruiting classes. Some have Michigan’s ranked higher, led by Canadian Ignas Brazdeikis and Brandon Johns from East Lansing. It’s easily the best class Beilein has landed, and you can see the effect of Michigan’s growing NBA pipeline, with first-rounders Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Caris LeVert, D.J. Wilson and now Wagner.

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Izzo also sent two prominent players to the first round, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges, and still has plenty of talent. But the once-imposing gap has closed, and it’s been a daunting climb for Beilein in his 11 seasons. It won’t necessarily be easy next season either, with only three upperclassmen — senior Charles Matthews and juniors Xavier Simpson and Jon Teske — on the roster.

“Whatever you want to call it, remodeling, rebuilding, but we’ve lost a bushel load of talent the last two years,” Beilein said. “While there’s alluring things about just coaching basketball (at the pro level), I like being around young kids that are developing. That’s the primary reason I believe this is a great fit for me at Michigan.”

Hearing their pitch

The mutual interest was genuine, but for a Pistons team with little roster flexibility, it was impossible not to hire the reigning Coach of the Year, Casey. Pistons senior adviser Ed Stefanski had been fascinated by Beilein since Stefanski was an executive with the Memphis Grizzlies.

John Beilein

“Coach Beilein is an offensive genius, in my mind,” Stefanski, said. “I was mesmerized by how good he is on the offensive end. Obviously, he’s been a fantastic coach at Michigan. When looking for a coach a couple years ago, he was a guy we kept saying we probably should interview, but we couldn’t get him to think about Memphis.”

Beilein legitimately thought about the Pistons, after years of unexpectedly losing players early to the NBA. That was part of the appeal, avoiding the recruiting game, and he quietly explored NBA jobs in the past.

The exploration is over, although the curiosity still exists. That’s how Beilein has evolved, trying new things, bringing in assistants such as Saddi Washington, Luke Yaklich and DeAndre Haynes to focus on defense. And part of Beilein’s new deal will be raises for the young assistants, whose profiles also were raised.

Beilein met with Tom Gores, Stefanski and others, and his interest was piqued the more he watched the NBA playoffs.

“I love coaching basketball, and you’re watching the NBA playoffs and you’re seeing what guys are doing — and they’re running stuff we run,” Beilein said. “I don’t know if they watched us or I watched them, but you can see, if you have really skilled players. … (Celtics coach) Brad Stevens kept telling me, ‘I’m having a blast,’ and when you heard those words, and your season is over, that’s appealing.”

It motivated him, too, that others said he couldn’t make the leap, or wouldn’t make the leap. All his stops up the college basketball ladder have been turnaround projects, and that can be invigorating. Beilein thought he might need a new challenge, and now he has one. Keeping the Wolverines at this high level could be just as impressive as getting them here.