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WVU basketball: Beilein draws parallels from time with Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN - There will be people in the Barclays Center or watching on ESPN on Saturday night who haven't seen or closely followed John Beilein since he left West Virginia in April 2007.

Those folks cheered the NIT championship and Beilein's big farewell that year before shifting their attention to Bob Huggins and the five NCAA Tournament teams that followed.

The reunion of the past and the present in the Winter Festival (8 p.m.) in Brooklyn, N.Y., will be the first time many WVU fans have gotten a good look at the brand of basketball Beilein brought to Michigan.

Beilein said they won't notice much of a difference. Even he can blend the two experiences. When Beilein coached shooting guard Zack Novak at Michigan, he'd slip and call him Johannes because Novak reminded Beilein so much of former WVU guard Johannes Herber.

"With our point guard play, you don't know how many times I tell Trey Burke what a tough son-of-a-gun J.D. Collins was or how Darris Nichols used to play for us," Beilein said. "I don't know if we'll ever find another Kevin Pittsnogle because he was so unique in his talent, but we've got guys at the top of our zone right now who play very much like a Tyrone Sally or a Da'Sean Butler."

The resemblances are inevitable because the same coach who led WVU to 104 wins and was a play away from the 2005 Final Four is now powering a Michigan team that's 10-0 and ranked No. 3 nationally.

He has won 101 games in six seasons and the Wolverines are off to their best start since winning the 1989 national title.

Yet while the style and success of Beilein's teams are similar, they're not identical.

Patrick Beilein played for his father at WVU from 2002-06, was a graduate assistant at Michigan and emulates his dad as the first-year coach at West Virginia Wesleyan. Don't expect a wave of backdoor passes, 7-footers snapping off 3-pointers, a 1-3-1 zone defense and crippling rebounding deficiencies.

These are not his father's Mountaineers.

"I'd say the biggest change is the type of player that he is recruiting, in the sense they still have the same skill set and they can still pass and shoot, but he has bigger guys and more of a low-post presence," the younger Beilein said. "Our West Virginia teams, the (center) could really shoot it with Pittsnogle and (Jamie) Smalligan. Now he has more (centers) who play on the block and go offensive rebound.

"He's adapted to the style of the Big 10 and he needed to do that. I think West Virginia fans will be shocked to see how big his team is, especially the wing and center positions, and how long and athletic they are, but with the same skill set."

John Beilein was 10-22 his first Michigan season, 21-14 in his second with a NCAA Tournament appearance, and 15-17 in the third year.

Since then, he's 55-24 overall and 22-14 in the Big 10, with a share of the conference title last season.

The style of play in the Big Ten is different than what it was in the Big East with stubborn defense, methodical offenses and low-scoring games. Beilein wasn't unfamiliar with that, and he was often criticized at WVU for those very traits.  He needed a few trips through the league and a few thumpings from Michigan State and Wisconsin and Ohio State to understand and adapt.

"I have changed, yes, but I have changed every year for 35 years," he said. "I began coaching 37 years ago, so I guess it's longer than that, but I've changed every year. Maybe that's why I'm still coaching.

"If you don't embrace that part of it, you're not coaching very long."

To win, Beilein had to fit in and has actually become quite fond of man-to-man defense. He still leans on the 1-3-1 zone and in last month's win against Pitt, a switch to the zone changed the game in Michigan's favor.

The array of Big Ten post scorers and the emphasis on guarding screens and rebounding missed shots forced Beilein to alter his approach.

"I went to a workout early in the preseason and he was doing more defensive teaching and coaching than I'd ever seen," Patrick said. "But he realizes great defense leads to offense and he's had guys buy in, especially with the talent and the length he has. I think you'll still see some 2-3 and a little 1-3-1 here and there, but they're really a big man-to-man team, which I think is fun for him. He always wanted to play that way."

John Beilein also had to crack the Big Ten defenses he was trying to mimic. Those teams sag off the perimeter and crowd the lane, not unlike what Pitt used to do with great success against Beilein's WVU teams. He was 3-7 against the Panthers.

"In the Big East, we were more pass-the-ball-around-the-perimeter players," Patrick Beilein said.

"We weren't really good off ball screens. He has a set of guys who are really good off of ball screens, which you have to be in the Big Ten because they pack the paint.

"The basic foundation of the offense and the cuts are still there, but it's more ball screen and off-the-dribble oriented. That's the biggest change and it all goes back to the conference. He tried passing it around the perimeter in the Big Ten, but the Big Ten sinks in and guards you and makes you shoot. It wasn't successful at the very beginning, so he went to the ball screen."

At WVU, players would catch a pass, reverse the ball and set a screen. At Michigan, players dribble behind screens for jumpers and around screens for drives. John Beilein's Mountaineers were institutional. His Wolverines are, at times, more individual.

"I think that as he's gotten so-called better talent, he realizes the game is always changing and he's giving these guys, I want to say, a little more freedom because he trusts them," Patrick Beilein said. "They've earned the trust. In practice, they listen to him talk and know what he's about and he watches them practice and knows what they're about.

"He's still in control with the offense, but this time around he has some players who make it a little dangerous."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at or 304-319-1142. His blog is at


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