Ann Arbor — Michigan's basketball team might be too young to take it all in right now. But John Beilein is old enough to know better. And by now, the rest of us should be smart enough to understand that as well.
If we've learned anything watching the Wolverines the past few years it's that youth isn't necessarily wasted on the young — not with Beilein coaching, anyway.
Beilein's team won a share of the Big Ten title in 2011-12 with a freshman point guard (Trey Burke) and a sophomore wing man (Tim Hardaway Jr.) leading the way. The next year, those two were joined by three freshmen starters — and a couple more "Fresh Five" newcomers in the regular rotation — that made it all the way to a Final Four and the national title game. Last year's Elite Eight squad again relied on a freshman point guard and three sophomore starters.
So when you hear Beilein in early November publicly fretting about his team's progress, or stressing about his offense — one that led the nation in efficiency each of the last two seasons — it's best to take that with a grain of salt.
Even the 61-year-old Beilein, one of six active Division I coaches with more than 700 career wins, will tell you that.
"I probably over-analyze it," he admits.
But still, he worries. And waits, impatiently.
"We don't have a really big package in, and I'm trying to figure out how that's happened," Beilein said after Monday's 86-43 exhibition win against Wayne State. "We're just creeping along. … We're moving in the right direction, but it's really slow."
He used that word — slow — more than once in his postgame comments, wondering aloud about his team's progress.
Bonding over bruschetta
Sure, that summer trip to Italy helped the Wolverines get acquainted as a team, and helped the freshman get acclimated to the demands of a major-college program. But lately Beilein finds himself wondering where all the time went, with the regular season tipping off Saturday against Hillsdale at Crisler Center.
"It's my biggest quandary every day, 'OK, should I move forward faster?'" said Beilein, whose team will host Bucknell and Detroit next week before heading to New York to face Oregon and either No. 12 Villanova or No. 15 VCU in the Legends Classic. "It's hard to believe we went to Europe and we're still not further along. But I'm not moving as quickly as maybe I would've in past years."
Beilein jokes he got spoiled last year, having to "teach college basketball" to only a couple fresh faces. This year, there are a half-dozen freshmen, at least a few of which are expected see significant playing time, thanks to the early departures of Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary to the NBA, as well as Jordan Morgan's graduation and Jon Horford's transfer.
"They're a lot like our class, the 2012 class that came in," said Caris LeVert, one of the least-heralded members of that group who's now a preseason All-Big Ten guard and NBA first-round prospect. "They have a lot of talent, they learn things very fast, and they're very aggressive. … They're ready to play."
How much they'll play — and how well and how soon — remains to be seen. The Wolverines will lean heavily on LeVert, and they're banking on breakout seasons from sophomores Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin. But just as they did two years ago, they'll rely on the rookies, too.
So while Michigan's coaching staff works on teaching the finer points of hedging ball screens or finding open jumpers in transition, Beilein's also drilling them on the fundamentals he can't live without — catching the ball with two hands, pivoting properly, and so on.
Beilein was encouraged by his team's defensive effort in Monday's exhibition game, and of the freshman, 6-foot-7 lefty Kameron Chatman looks more than ready to fill a starter's role. The big-man tandem of redshirt freshman Mark Donnal and true frosh Ricky Doyle is a bigger concern, but another bright spot Monday was the play of versatile 6-9 forward D.J. Wilson. He's a raw talent, but certainly one worth watching.
All the young players are, really. Except if you ask the coach, he'll tell you he doesn't have any of those.
"We refer to them as growing players," Beilein says.
And while growing players mean growing pains — "I just don't think we're there yet," Beilein says — if recent history is any guide, that probably won't last long.