Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Michigan Hires John Beilein -- Great Tacticion but the Wrong Choice?

The University of Michigan Men's Basketball coaching search is over. After firing Tommy Amaker two weeks ago, Michigan, led by Athletic Director Bill Martin, undertook a methodical coaching search which focused primarily on one candidate, the man they hired today, John Beilein, formerly of West Virginia. And while there are plenty of reasons to like the move, I have serious questions as well.

I hate to be so negative because, well, I have been negative throughout this process and I don't want to continue to be that way. The years of losing has made me completely apathetic towards the basketball team and that angers me most of all, because I would have loved nothing more than for my seven years here to be filled with memorable trips to Crisler Arena. Instead, while we did have one big win over Michigan State which I attended a few years back, my undergraduate and law school time on campus has been spent mainly ignoring the Michigan basketball team. I haven't missed a football game in six years (going on seven) and I even had season tickets to Michigan hockey my sophomore year of undergrad, but I can count the number of Men's Basketball games I attended on one hand. And that's really too bad.

Which is why I have spent a lot of time focusing (some would say obsessing) on the Michigan head coaching position this off-season, first arguing for Tommy Amaker's dismissal then becoming frustrated at the slow progress in naming a replacement (especially once Tubby Smith, a man I still contend would have been perfect for this job, signed up to coach Minnesota). I won't bring up my desire for Tom Crean again (oh, wait, I guess I just did) but I will talk a little bit about the man hired for the job, John Beilein.

There are a lot of reasons to like Beilein. First, the man can flat out coach. No matter what else is said about him, he is a skilled basketball tactician and gets the most of the talent which he has in front of him. He knows the game inside and out and is one of the more cerebral coaches around. He also has won before, and won at places where winning would seem to be difficult, like West Virginia. In recent years, Beilein has been to an Elite Eight, a Sweet Sixteen, and this season, won an NIT title with a team most thought would be a .500 team at best. He also has a sterling reputation as an upstanding citizen and community leader, who genuinely cares about his players and who won't take shortcuts in recruiting or any other facets of the game (in that way, admirably, he is just like Amaker who for all his faults on the court as a coach was about as perfect a program ambassador as you could want off of it).

Sounds like a lot of positives. And there are a lot of things to like about Beilein. Espeically given my complaint that Tommy Amaker was not a great on-the-court coach who never got the most out of his players and never helped them develop their games, taking their potential and turning it into talent. Beilein won't have that problem and if anything, will likely get more out of his players than people would otherwise think was possible. So, why am I so hesitant? One word. Recruiting.

In college basketball, you live and die, in large part by the players you recruit. And while Beilein is known as a coach that can get the most out of his players even if they aren't the most talented team on the floor, that kind of coach would not be first choice if I thought that he would be unable to recruit against the other powerhouse programs in the Big Ten. Beilein has no ties to the Big Ten or the Midwest, which is going to hurt him, at least at the start of his Michigan career. And he's never been known as a great recruiter to begin with, though, in his defense, recruiting players at West Virginia can't be an easy task. But look at the coaches in the Big Ten Beilein has to recruit against. Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Thad Matta at Ohio State. Tubby Smith at Minnesota. Todd Lickliter, new head coach of Iowa, formerly the very successful coach of Butler. Ralph Sampson at Indiana. Bo Ryan at Wisconsin. The list goes on. All competing for players in the same geographic area of the country, all gunning for one another. When you hire a coach who doesn't have a strong history recruiting, you better be sure he can coach on the floor, because fighting amongst those Big Ten coaches for players is not going to be easy.

Maybe Beilein will be the right fit. And given that Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin better focused in on Beilein seemingly to the exclusion of most everyone else tells me there is obviosly something about Beilein that really stood out for Martin. He surely will be able to improve Michigan's current players, and turn them into better players than they were under Tommy Amaker. The real question is going to be whether he'll be able to bring in new players in the future (and hold on to Amaker's great recruiting class coming in next season). As somebody who desperately wants to care about Michigan basketball again, I sincerely hope he can and he can turn the Michigan program around.

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