CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The unspoken secret about the sudden revival of Michigan basketball was John Beilein's bold move to make major changes on his coaching staff in the offseason.
The semantics of whether Jerry Dunn and John Mahoney were forced out or left on their own volition is debatable. Beilein said they chose to pursue other opportunities when they left last season. Multiple sources will tell you otherwise. But the reasoning is now irrelevant -- along with why Mike Jackson made the decision to leave Michigan for rival Purdue.
Beilein has always been lauded for his attention to detail in his coaching and his ability to continue to grow as a coach and make adjustments in style of play, from experimenting with a 1-3-1, to designing more offensive sets for 3-pointers, to various looks at his myriad of stops from LeMoyne College to Canisius to Richmond to West Virginia to Michigan.
But the staff change may have been his boldest and brightest. The decision to promote Jeff Meyer from an administrative position to an assistant, and, more importantly, adding Michigan natives Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan as assistants helped changed the direction of the program. The impact of freshmen Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jon Horford and even more reps for sophomore Darius Morris and redshirt freshman Jordan Morgan also contributed.
“The best way to describe what happened is that it’s the dawn of new era,’’ Alexander said. “The elevation of coach Meyer and the addition of me and coach Jordan with the new players, it was like we all got to Ann Arbor together. This isn’t a knock against the previous regime, but there was a natural transition with two guys from the state of Michigan and players that I had recruited [at Western Michigan] and we’ve all embraced this as a partnership.’’
In his second season, Beilein got the Wolverines to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. But then Michigan went south. In the fall of 2009, the Wolverines were a top-20 preseason pick but floundered and finished 15-17, 7-11 in the Big Ten.
Beilein had to do something to redirect the program. He might not have known how successful these moves were going to be at the time, but they have proven to be invaluable. After a 1-6 start in Big Ten play, the Wolverines hit a hot streak that not only led to an improbable tourney appearance but also a No. 8 seed. On Friday, they beat Tennessee by 30 points to set up a game against top-ranked Duke on Sunday in Charlotte for a berth in the Sweet 16.
It’s not just the in-state connections of Alexander and Jordan that have benefited UM. The more important aspect is that they were both undersized players during their time at Detroit and Butler, respectively.
“Coach Jordan and coach Bacari did a great job with the guards and bigs,’’ said junior guard Stu Douglass. “Coach [Beilein] knew we needed help in those areas. We’re very fortunate to have assistant coaches like that and to have Beilein as our coach.’’
Wholesale changes on a staff only three years into a tenure is rather unheard of, especially for a coach as established as Beilein. But the veteran coach is quick to say that he has constantly made adjustments to his style of play at both ends, too.
“I’ve prided myself on different approaches,’’ Beilein said. “In my 35 years of coaching, I’ve changed things, like the 1-3-1, I just said ‘let’s do something differently defensively.’ We’ve now added great stuff from Perry Watson at Detroit [where Alexander played] and added a lot of the Butler ideas [where Jordan played].
“It’s been a great blend here. We feed off each other’s strength.’’
Jordan said the different voices have had a positive effect on the Michigan players. That’s his read on the situation and it’s hard to argue.
“A different voice can help,’’ Jordan said. “Coach Beilein is very accepting. That [preseason] trip to Belgium really helped us too. It allowed our staff to connect with the players and to hang with them apart from the game. We grew to trust each other and the credibility with each other was there. It really has worked out.’’
Whether Michigan beats Duke or not, there is a fresh vibe with the Wolverines. Alexander said the new motto is “Team Wolverine.’’ Call it whatever you want, but the staff changes and the influx of new players, can’t be just a coincidence. Beilein didn’t script it exactly this way, but it has revitalized his program in a way he probably never imagined.