Los Angeles — Jordan Poole was bracing for advanced calculus. What he got instead was basic arithmetic. Ditto Isaiah Livers, his freshman teammate who arrived on campus in Ann Arbor as Michigan’s Mr. Basketball, ready to learn something new in college.
Each of them thought they knew what to expect from the Wolverines’ head coach, John Beilein, widely regarded as one of college basketball’s best offensive minds.
“But then we come in and we’re learning middle-school drills, and I’m just like, ‘Wow,’” Livers said, shaking his head Friday after practice before tonight’s clash with Florida State for a berth in the Final Four.
It’s something he and Poole were joking about before a practice just last week, remembering those first few days of drills last fall, when all Beilein had his players do was practice the basics of delivering and receiving a pass.
“And we were looking at each other like, ‘What are we doing?’” Livers said.
Nearby, assistant coach Luke Yaklich, in his first season on Beilein’s staff, had to stifle his own laughter, “because I was doing the same thing.”
Michigan assistant coach Luke Yaklich on the development of the team's defense Robin Buckson / The Detroit News
He, too, was a bit taken aback by those initial workouts. Thirty minutes of passing and pivoting, with Beilein interrupting again and again.
“To look at how the ball was spinning,” Yaklich said. “And how you’re gonna catch it. And how you pivot. And then the names of the pivots.”
He said he’d turn and look at DeAndre Haynes, who, like Yaklich, had just left a job at Illinois State to join Beilein’s staff, and each knew what the other was thinking: Is it going to be like this every day?
“I thought I was a detail-oriented person,” Yaklich said, “but he’s taught me to go to another level.”
Yaklich is a fastidious note-taker — “I write everything down,” he says — and after the first couple practices, he took the pages he’d written home to study.
“It looked like a foreign language,” he said. “I showed my wife, and she’s looking at all these terms like ‘Pancake’ and ‘Archie’ and she’s like, ‘What’s going on?’”
But here’s the thing: It makes sense now. All of it, from Beilein’s goofy terminology to his relentless focus on the fundamentals.
“You watch it as an assistant coach sometimes and you’re like, ‘Man, that drill really paid off!’” Yaklich said. “They’re doing it just naturally in games.”
Naturally, it takes some time, and some players struggle more than others “to figure out how to play within this system,” said Jon Sanderson, Michigan’s strength and conditioning coach. “It’s different. And how to play for a head coach that really, really emphasizes the details, more than most coaches, that’s all part of the process.”
The details can be devilish, all right. Everything has to be done on two feet, as a jump-stop allows either foot to become a pivot foot, or a “hot” foot. Ball’s in the air, feet are in the air. Catch on two, pass on two. You pass with the seams and with backspin, to facilitate the shot on the receiving end. The pass gets delivered toward the outside hand of a teammate to avoid the defender. This gets repeated over and over in two- and four-man drills, 10 perfect passes in 30 seconds. Misfire on one, and it’s time to run.
Michigan forward Isaiah Livers on importance of defense and how teammates feed off each other. Robin Buckson / The Detroit News
Or as Livers and Poole have heard more times than they care to count, “Both of you, take a trip!” And up the Crisler Center stairs they go.
Beilein’s teams have been doing this for more than 40 years now, and to him, the reason is self-explanatory.
“It’s a game of possessions,” Beilein said. “All those fundamentals keep you from turning the ball over.”
And perhaps no team in college basketball has done that better over the last decade than Michigan, which this season boasts the third-lowest turnover percentage in the country out of 351 Division I teams, and the best among major-conference schools. They’ve ranked in the top five each of the last three seasons, and in the top 15 six years in a row. And it’s probably no coincidence that the last Michigan team to reach a Final Four – in 2013 – led the nation in that category.
Thursday night, Beilein’s team put on a clinic in that regard, racing out to a 52-28 halftime lead on Texas A&M while committing just one turnover — against 14 assists — in 35 possessions. The Aggies had 10 turnovers in the same number of possessions.
And lest his players miss that correlation, Beilein was quick with a reminder. Less than 2 minutes into the second half, Livers got trapped by Texas A&M’s full-court defense, made a bad pivot and threw the ball away, leading to an Aggies layup.
Beilein yanked him immediately — never mind that his team was still up 23 points — and “he said, ‘Remember, go back to Day 1,’” Livers recalled. Given another chance later in the half, the freshman forward did exactly that to set up an easy transition basket for the Wolverines.
Charles Matthews can tell similar stories. Back in December and January, Beilein described the athletic swingman as “Bambi on ice” due to his struggles with footwork and balance. Essentially, he kept making plays on one foot, not two.
“But Coach Beilein worked with him every day after practice and (Matthews) was hungry to improve,” junior Moritz Wagner said. “And that’s exactly what he’s doing out there now. So it works.”
Not all the time. Matthews’ committed a pair of costly turnovers with one-handed catches in the near-loss to Houston a week ago. But Matthews has been Michigan’s leading scorer and rebounder in the NCAA tournament, and Beilein was raving about his fundamentally-solid play Thursday night in the win over Texas A&M.
“I’m just telling you, catching the ball with two hands and two feet is the difference in basketball,” Beilein said. “That’s the first thing I would teach kids right away: two hands, two feet. It’s amazing as I watch it more, how a one-hand catch keeps you off-balance and a one-foot catch keeps you off-balance.
“Something like that, we probably spend far too much time on it. But when we get it right …”
Well, then, it can look like this. Which is why when the Wolverines gathered for practice Friday at the Staples Center, Beilein began by going back to the basics for the first 10 minutes of practice.
“We’re about to prepare for the Elite Eight and the dude is talking about catching the ball on two, stepping on two, passing on two,” Wagner said “That’s the stuff he does. It’s incredible. When you’re around at first you’re like, ‘What are we doing here?’ But now as a third-year guy, you understand this is all part of it. …
“I still struggle with it sometimes. But that’s literally the definition of ‘There’s beauty in the struggle.’”
And right now, though “it hurts sometimes to admit that the coach is right,” Wagner said, smiling, it’s pretty easy to see how it all adds up.
Michigan vs. Florida State
Tip-off: 8:49 p.m. Saturday, Staples Center, Los Angeles
TV/radio: TBS/950 AM
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 31-7; No. 9 seed Florida State 23-11
Up next: Winner advances to Final Four vs. Loyola Chicago-Kansas State winner.