'Don't cheat the grind:' Beilein, UM want freshmen to stay ready

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan coach John Beilein recently received an assist from another team: Alabama football.

Beilein showed his team a clip of coach Nick Saban talking about the Crimson Tide’s quarterback situation involving starter Tua Tagovailoa and backup Jalen Hurts, who spent most of the season on the sideline cheering on the guy who took his job.

Michigan freshman forward Brandon Johns Jr.

Hurts never pouted or griped. He continued to put in the work and prepare each week until he finally got the call in the Southeastern Conference championship game, where he rallied Alabama to a 35-28 victory over Georgia this past weekend.

It was a message Beilein hopes resonates with the younger Wolverines — particularly freshmen Brandon Johns Jr., David DeJulius, Adrien Nunez and Colin Castleton — who may not be seeing the court and making a major impact right away.

The work and wait will be worth it in the end.

“The kid (Hurts) waited all year and his name is forever a part of Alabama culture,” Beilein said. “Most young men are not going to walk on in their first year and have this immediate success…Even the stars, the LeBrons and Kobes that went to the pros their first year, those were not great years.

“So, it's all relative to them and we continually point out who was not on our scouting report two years ago, three years ago that's a star now.”

More: No. 5 Michigan embracing 'target on the back' challenge

In early December last year, Beilein was still trying to figure out his team and whittle down the rotation as he regularly shuffled through at least 10 players a game. Jordan Poole didn’t have his breakout performance against Indiana until roughly this time. Zavier Simpson and Isaiah Livers were both a month away from locking down starting jobs.

Fast forward to this season, Beilein already knows what he has and what works. It’s one reason why he has predominately relied on a seven-man rotation, with starters Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews, Jon Teske, Poole and Simpson and key reserves Eli Brooks and Livers all averaging at least 18 minutes per game.

It’s led to sparse playing time for Johns, DeJulius, Nunez and Castleton, who have all appeared in at least five games but haven’t been needed because the team has been healthy and rolling during its hot start. That doesn’t mean it will always be the case.

With only four nonconference games left before the real Big Ten grind begins, Beilein said the hope is to at least get DeJulius, a scoring point guard, and Johns, who has spent most of his minutes at the five, “as ready as fast as we can” for needed depth. DeJulius could spell Simpson for stints and allow Brooks to continue playing primarily off the ball, while Johns could provide another versatile frontcourt option.

"We'd love to get David and Brandon — they're the ones that are showing things in practice — ready for Big Ten play,” Beilein said recently. “If we need them in foul trouble, if we need if there's ever an injury…that's the goal to have them ready.

“You have a seven- or eight-man rotation, that's not the end of the world, either. That's really good. You’ve got to stay healthy, but you can't just say, 'Hey, we're good. We got a good seven,' and forget about your other guys. We got to work them so that they're really ready when that time comes.”

Livers, a former Michigan Mr. Basketball winner, isn’t far removed from being in his freshmen teammates’ shoes. He knows what it’s like to go from being a stud in high school to receiving spotty minutes early on in one's college career.

Yet, he also understands what it takes to stay the course because the better they get, the better the team is going to get. That’s why Livers spoke with each freshman and let them know that while minutes might come and go, there’s always time to watch, learn and ask questions, like he did when he was playing behind Duncan Robinson last season.

“It's a matter of if you want to be a great teammate or a poor teammate,” Livers said when asked about the key to staying engaged. “Do you want to win or do you want to lose the next game? Do you want to have a great season or do you want to have a bad season?

“It's not like they're being left out, but they're still engaged, and we keep them encouraged that they are the future of the Michigan Wolverines.”

And as long as they keep grinding, who knows what could happen. Maybe one could even become the next Hurts.

“One main thing we never do is we never cheat. We don't cheat ourselves, we don't cheat the grind,” Livers said. “They need to work out, get better, take some time after practice to get some extra shots up…I just tell them every day to stay humble and your time will come.”


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins