3/12/2018 6:04:24 PM
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Michigan is roaring into the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.
A big reason why is the continued evolution of John Beilein, who has been coaching since the mid-1970s, but remains a student of the game.
""I have changed like the wind,"" the 65-year-old Beilein said in an interview with The Associated Press. ""And, maybe that"s why I"m still coaching.""
Beilein will lead third-seeded Wolverines against 14th-seeded Montana on Thursday night in Wichita, Kansas, in the West Region.
The Wolverines are a matchup nightmare because they can run their offense through Moe Wagner, who tries to play like his idol and fellow German Dirk Nowitzki. Unlike most college centers, the 6-foot-11 Wagner can pick and pop or roll to basket like an NBA player.
Michigan also has the ability to spread the floor with multiple 3-point shooters, a Beilein staple. And it puts pressure on teams with penetrating guards Zavier Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
Winning the Big Ten Tournament extended the team"s win streak to nine and generated excitement about the possibilities for another NCAA run. The Wolverines lost to Oregon in the Sweet 16 a year ago.
But the biggest reason Michigan has a shot to win its second national championship is its improved defense, a part of the game Beilein acknowledges he has ignored for much of his career.
""My eye draws to offense all the time,"" he told the AP. ""Even if we have our first team practicing against our second team, I look at offense both ways. I don"t see certain things.""
Sensing a weakness in his coaching style, Beilein began delegating defensive responsibilities to his staff in recent years. First-year assistant Luke Yaklich has made an instant impact serving essentially as a defensive coordinator, helping Michigan rank among the nation"s best by giving up just 63.5 points a game.
The Wolverines are No. 8 in points allowed after faring no better than 33rd and as low as 145 under Beilein.
""It"s the personnel and he"s got defensive-minded guys with Zavier Simpson leading the charge and that is contagious,"" said Spike Albrecht, who played for Beilein from 2012-16. ""When I was there we were talented, but we didn"t take pride in defense.""
Quick to deflect credit, Beilein praised his players for the turnaround.
""What"s helped us the most is we have guys who are better defenders,"" he said.
Humility is one of Beilein"s hallmarks, a trait that perhaps can be tied to extended family members who helped to inspire the Oscar-winning Steven Spielberg film ""Saving Private Ryan."" Beilein, who is from Burt, New York, has said one of his regrets is not following his many family members into military service.
Beilein has his expectations for the team, but he also wants his players to be themselves. When the Wolverines dunk, dish or drive for a big play, they are free to celebrate by sticking out their tongue as Wagner does regularly. Postgame speeches may be preceded by Beilein soaking his players with water or dancing in the locker room after a big win.
Beilein, though, insisted allowing his players to be loose on the court isn"t one of the many changes he has made over his career.
""I"ve done stuff in the past, but no one outside of the team knew about it because it was before social media,"" he said. ""I really don"t think I"m doing things any differently in that regard. We"ve always prided ourselves on relating to players and keeping up with the times.""
Jon Sanderson, the team"s strength and conditioning coach, has witnessed Beilein"s adjustment to the latest hoops technology.
When the former Ohio State and Ohio University player left a similar position at Clemson to work for Beilein nearly a decade ago, he started tracking how hard the Wolverines were exerting themselves in practices and workouts.
""When I first presented him with data back then, Coach didn"t receive it very well and was irritated when I offered an idea to make a change,"" Sanderson recalled. ""Now in 2018, he uses the data I present to him 100 percent to make decisions such as how hard to practice. He has evolved as a coach.
""And even though he"s in his 60s, he listens to us and trusts us like he"s a young coach. His humility is what separates him. He doesn"t approach anything like he has all the answers. He"s the reason I"m still here. I"ve had many opportunities to leave for different jobs - some at the NBA level - but I"m not going anywhere as long as he"s here.""
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