Niyo: Beilein, Michigan take high road to Final Four
Los Angeles — Before his team took the stage, and before John Beilein climbed the ladder for a symbolic snip of nylon – with Michigan bound for the Final Four once more – the Wolverines’ coach first turned and shared a hug with his bosses.
There was Warde Manuel, his athletic director, and Mark Schlissel, the university president. All of them wore big grins, and Schlissel, who wasn’t around the last time Michigan’s basketball team made it this far in 2013, already was wearing some fresh Final Four memorabilia – “Turns out that presidents get hats!” – amid a sea of maize-and-blue confetti.
This was a moment of celebration, but also one of thanks. And not just because Michigan had found a way to grind out a school-record 32nd victory on a night when the shots simply wouldn’t fall, escaping with a 58-54 win over ninth-seeded Florida State in the West Regional final.
No, there was also the backdrop for all this March Madness, with college basketball facing a moment of reckoning as an FBI investigation casts a shadow over the game and its treasured postseason tournament.
In that sense, Saturday night offered a reprieve, of sorts, while the on-court drama unfolded in Atlanta and Los Angeles. First came Sister Jean and the Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago, everyone’s Cinderella story, punching their ticket to the ball. And then it was Beilein – dubbed the “cleanest coach” in the game by a poll of his peers last fall – coaxing another date to the dance, securing his second Final Four berth in six years, something only a handful of others can say.
“And I always say to people, I sleep well at night with John Beilein and the coaches that I have at Michigan,” Manuel said. “We work at it, we talk about it, we make sure that we’re doing the right things at all times. And so it makes me proud, given what the conversation has been about this year around basketball. But it’s something that John has done throughout his career.”
Through more than 40 years of coaching, he has done it, mostly without fanfare or blue-chip recruits. And he’ll do his best to downplay it all now, starting with the “Sister Jean vs. Mr. Clean” matchup looming Saturday in San Antonio. Of the recruiting scandals threatening the sport, Beilein says, “let’s wait until that all works its way out.” And to those who point his program as a model, “that’s up to them,” he adds. “There’s no, ‘We’re gonna show people.’ We’re just gonna try to do the next right thing.”
But that’s a thing a university president certainly can appreciate. And as Schlissel stood to the side recording the award ceremony Saturday night, his phone raised high above the crowd like a teenager, it was a sentiment he didn’t mind sharing.
“It’s nice to have one less thing to worry about in the world,” Schlissel said. “And having a guy like Coach Beilein responsible for such a high-profile (program) at our university, it gives me great reassurance. He’s a great mentor, classy guy, high integrity – he’s the best.”
As for this team of his, well, they’re pretty good, too. The Wolverines didn’t play their best Saturday night. Not even close, really, shooting 38 percent from the field and 4-for-22 from three-point range – Moritz Wagner went 0-for-7 – less than 48 hours after the Wolverines had put on a clinic in a rout of Texas A&M.
But there they were when it was all over, a bunch of kids playing with scissors again. Three weeks ago, they cut down the nets at fabled Madison Square Garden, celebrating a Big Ten tournament title in front of a Sunday mass of Michigan fans in New York. Saturday, they did the same on the other coast, in front of a Staples Center crowd that felt just like the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, only louder.
“It felt like a home game, that’s for sure,” said Duncan Robinson, the senior who’d helped seal the deal, burying a crucial 3-pointer late and then draining two free throws and grabbing the final rebound at the end.
“Pretty special,” he said, with a weary sigh. “For a senior, stepping in in that moment, after everything this team has done for me and to be in the situation I’m in, I knew I couldn’t let those guys down.”
A week ago, Robinson was sitting on the bench in the final minutes, feeling something entirely different. He’d fouled out of that second-round game against Houston in Wichita, and watched helplessly from the bench as it appeared Michigan’s season – and his career – was about to end. Right up until freshman Jordan Poole’s 30-footer at the buzzer sent the Wolverines into a delirious celebration, and on to Los Angeles.
“We got a little lucky last weekend,” Wagner said, grinning. “But without luck, you can’t win.”
And as Robinson looked around the locker room Saturday, taking stock of the eclectic mix of lightly recruited players and small-school transfers – the quiet captain from Allentown and the emotional sparkplug from Berlin – he couldn’t help but shake his head.
“I mean, it’s just ridiculous, quite honestly,” said Robinson, who four years ago was playing for a Division III title with the Williams College Ephs – a school with a purple cow for a mascot. “I don’t want to sound surprised, because I know we’re a capable team and we’re playing really well right now. But to look back at this with some perspective and to see how far we’ve come as a team … it’s incredible.”
They’re talking now
Outside the locker room, Beilein was asked about that, too. His first trip to a Final Four was a thrill, but it wasn’t a shock: That 2013 team was loaded with future NBA talent, including national player of the year Trey Burke, started the season 20-1 and was ranked No. 1 in the nation at one point.
This team, on the other hand, looked nothing like a Final Four team back in December and January. But the coaches kept hammering away at the skill development – a staple of Beilein’s programs – and kept drilling the defensive principles, day after day.
“And when you watch his teams,” noted Schlissel, an avid basketball fan, “they get better during the season. And they get better at halftime. What’s that? That’s coaching.”
And this team – this program – is now wholly a reflection of its coach, finally getting its due, the sum clearly greater than the parts.
“Nobody has talked about us all year, and we like that,” Wagner said. “We don’t care. We just play.”
And now they’ll play on. As favorites, perhaps. But not the team everyone’s talking about. Not when they face Loyola-Chicago in San Antonio, another under-seeded underdog in a national semifinal.
Beilein knows plenty about the Jesuits, given his own background, but very little about the Ramblers at this point. So he asked first-year assistant Luke Yaklich, who used to coach against them in the Missouri Valley Conference at Illinois State.
“He said, ‘You know what, Coach? They're a lot like us. They have a bunch of good kids. They play together. They play defense. They have a bunch of guys that can shoot,’" Beilein said. "The only difference is they have a wonderful nun on the sidelines rooting them on with some prayers. But we have some prayers on our (side), too. We have some people behind us.’”
Beilein, the buttoned-up coach, wasn’t wearing his usual button-down shirt as he said this. He’d had to make an impromptu wardrobe change – donning a blue polo shirt – before heading to the postgame news conference. In Houston, he’d surprised his players by barging into the locker room for the traditional postgame water fight wearing a Michigan rain poncho.
“I went in there unarmed this time,” he said, smiling. “I thought I was going to get water. Instead, I got a cooler over my head.”
But no worries. It felt good, especially for a 65-year-old who jokes that he’s “no spring chicken,” and a coaching lifer who admits he’s been aching to get back to a Final Four. And the way Beilein’s team is playing right now – not to mention the way this season has gone in college basketball, or the way this upset-laden tournament has unfolded – who's to say he won't get another chance to celebrate in San Antonio?
That’s what Michigan’s coach told the crowd, anyway – and his team – from the top of that ladder Saturday night, twirling a freshly-shorn souvenir.
“I just said, ‘One more,’” Beilein said. “I’d love to cut down one more net.”
Michigan vs. Loyola Chicago
Tip-off: Saturday, 6:09 p.m., Alamodome, San Antonio
TV/radio: TBS/950 AM
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 32-7; No. 11 seed Loyola Chicago 32-5
Up next: Winner advances to Monday’s national championship game against Villanova-Kansas winner.