Michigan head coach John Beilein was on the podium along with Moe Wagner, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
Q. Duncan, you guys had a close game against Houston. Is that good at this time that you guys got tested and you had to get through a tough game like that heading into this one?
DUNCAN ROBINSON: Yeah, I think playing in a close game like that certainly helps, but on top of that I think we feel like we didn’t play our best really that entire weekend.
So I think we had some confidence going there, and hopefully we can start to play better moving forward.
Q. Mo, if you could take us through the challenge that the big men for A&M presents, Robert Williams and Tyler Davis?
MORITZ WAGNER: Yeah, obviously, like you said, that’s a really good front court. They throw the ball in a lot. They’re very physical and obviously very talented as well. Yeah, they’re trying to beat you on the boards, and they do a great job inside. So it’s a great challenge coming up for us.
Q. You mentioned their big men kind of jump off the film when you watch them. But when you look at the film of A&M, what else poses a challenge when you see them play?
MORITZ WAGNER: I mean, they’re coming out of the SEC, a very athletic, fast conference. So they run the floor very well. They’re a very talented team led by a very talented freshman point guard. They’re not scared of anything, you know? They just run the break, and then they have a great balance between inside and outside game. Obviously they do a tremendous job on the boards. So, yeah, they looked really good against North Carolina.
Q. Duncan, why do you feel like you all didn’t play your best last weekend? What are some areas you all can improve in?
DUNCAN ROBINSON: Specifically offensively I thought we could have been a little bit sharper with our execution. You know, credit to Houston and Montana. I think they both did some different stuff to mix it up.
But I think looking back on the weekend and looking back at the film, I think we collectively as a group realized that we could have played a lot better as well, though.
JOHN BEILEIN: We’re thrilled to be here. A long trip from Ann Arbor yesterday, and we arrived late last night and got a good night’s sleep, though.
We feel blessed to be in this situation, playing in a great arena against a tremendous Texas A&M team. We had a good practice yesterday. Looking forward to about 90 minutes today. We’ve already watched film for 30. Did a walk-through for 30, and we’re going to be as ready as we can be, given that we don’t know — we didn’t know much about Texas A&M until after their win against — their great win against North Carolina on Sunday.
Q. There’s been a lot of talk before you came in about how vital the play of the bigs of the two teams is going to be. What about the guard play? You’ve had some good guard play and so have they. How important of a role do you think that will play in the outcome tomorrow?
JOHN BEILEIN: I think at this time of the year it’s really important to have good guard play if you’re going to win. The big men are obviously important. But I always thought there was some championships, some games that over time that have been absolutely determined by the guard play.
So we — I think all sets of guards on both teams may be underrated a little bit. It’s going to be a great match-up. We have the one senior on our team who has really been shown this incredible growth. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has just been incredible at growing, and Zavier Simpson hardly played last year, while he continued to grow as a player. He’s really been a very big asset for us, our defense.
But Texas A&M guards are really good now. They’re really good.
Q. John, if you could take us through what you have been able to learn about A&M on tape, especially their twin towers and two bigs inside with Rob Williams and Tyler David.
JOHN BEILEIN: They’re very talented, they’re skilled. They pass the ball well. They’re obviously a tremendous offensive rebounding team. The 12 offensive rebounds they’re getting is as high a number as we’ve seen this year. The rebounding game, I don’t know if I’m different on it, but we were really consumed with how many offensive rebounds we can keep a team from getting. The rebounds don’t win the game. Offensive rebounds win games.
So that concerns us a great deal. They have really good guard play and change defenses. They play — a lot of teams have been playing a hundred percent man. They play a really good zone defense as well. They have a lot of talent, and they have a terrific coach.
Q. Just to kind of illustrate the evolution of a team throughout this season, I have a strangely specific question. What do you remember about that first closed scrimmage at Toledo and what it maybe told you about how far you guys have to go this year?
JOHN BEILEIN: Can I speak about that? I don’t think I can speak about the closed scrimmage.
Q. Well, I guess from around that time.
JOHN BEILEIN: From around that time. I think with a good basketball team there is growth every day, and we started in September. Anybody would have told me in September, October, you’re going to win 30 games, I would have said you obviously haven’t seen us practice yet. We’re a long way from winning any games.
We really have some good, young talent on this team, developing talent. They just really want to get better, and that’s a key. We’ve had a lot of breaks this year now. UCLA, we’ve got a freshman at the line. If he makes both foul shots, we go into overtime. If he misses, it’s a loss to UCLA at home. That wouldn’t have been good. We had a game with Maryland where we had to go to the foul line with one second left, and we won that game.
You saw the game the other day. We’ve had a lot of good breaks this year, and that’s what I know about this team. I’ve been with teams that were really good teams that had a lot of bad breaks.
That does not answer your question one bit, but that’s the best I can do.
Q. You mentioned there is A&M zone. Why does that zone give teams such fits?
JOHN BEILEIN: Exact same thing as Syracuse, it’s big. It’s really big. You think, okay, I’ve been open all year here, but all of a sudden you’ve got a guy like D.J. coming out on you, right, and he’s 6’9″ on a wing. They’ve got the other wing is going to be 6’10” or 6’11”, and that can present problems for teams, just shooting over that length.
That’s what Syracuse is. Syracuse has a great package in their zone. I remember when I was at West Virginia we were playing and we had these really good looks to get open the zone. We got a guy wide open, and Hakim Warrick blocked that shot into the 10th row, and that was the end of our night. I mean, our kids lost all confidence because of that length. And Texas A&M can do the exact same thing.
Q. You mentioned Zavier Simpson, who is playing well. From the outside it seemed like he really turned the corner right at the Big Ten tournament. He played all, year like you mentioned, but he really made a difference. Is that something you saw coming?
JOHN BEILEIN: There were different pockets in the UCLA game I just spoke about. We were down four, five points late, like with less than a minute to go. Four points, I think, we were down. He flat-out stole the ball from one of their guys. Went down, laid it in.
He’s just — for him, it was a couple steps forward and then maybe a step backwards on some things. Then there’s more steps forward. And just lateral steps. He’s growing. He and I have sort of established a trust level with each other, and he knows that I trust that he’s going to do — I know he’s going to make mistakes, and he knows I’m going to make mistakes, but we’re going to continuing to through it.
He’s just evolving. I’m really looking forward to seeing him over these next two years how much he continues to evolve. But right now he’s — defensively and in many ways offensively he can play with any guard in the country.
Q. Going back one question, because we’ve seen that happen, what you talked about players losing confidence with the 6’9″ guys coming out and blocking three pointers almost from the paint. What do you do to keep your players’ confidence up when that happens? Because it’s probably going to happen at one point or another.
JOHN BEILEIN: Yeah, that is something we try to be real with them what’s happening. Like another thing that happens, somebody gets dunked on, oh, my God, it’s like the end of the world. No, it’s two points. Go down and hit a three and we’re ahead by one. Right? So we try to be real with them. They block the shot, hey, it’s our ball. What’s the big deal?
You just be real with them and try to get them down. Because life today for these kids is so much about highlights and not about substance. We’re just — what is really happening here? We have the ball back. So what if he blocked it? So what if he’s talking smack? Just do the next right thing and don’t worry about your feelings being hurt or your ego changing a little bit. Just play through it.
I think that’s the biggest challenge with all of us right now, whether we’re fathers and mothers, is handling that type of hype that goes to the kids. They do not necessarily — it’s the end of the world on any little thing. No, it’s not. Just continue on. Persistence. Time is a friend of truth, and just keep going through it and keep being persistent, and things will work out.
Q. Two years ago A&M played UNI and had that miracle comeback. And they’ve kind of admitted a little bit that they let that hang with them when they went to the Sweet Sixteen. Do you see a problem with that with these shots, so to speak?
JOHN BEILEIN: What are you referring to? The comeback —
Q. Like where you just don’t forget that or you haven’t focused to the next thing.
JOHN BEILEIN: No, we’ve been through quite a thing here where we won four games in four days and then had a big layoff and went and won two games against Montana and Houston, who are really two good defensive teams.
I see us just going to play on. We were fortunate to be here, and we played the best basketball we could play. It wasn’t as good as some of our other games, but that just happens. Everybody is always asking for reasons why. There is no reason why. It just happens. They’re 19-year-old kids. It just happens.
Q. What do you need specifically from Mo Wagner going into this match-up tomorrow?
JOHN BEILEIN: Stay on the court as much as he can. It’s not like he will foul sometimes and he doesn’t even need to foul, right? So he’s really working at that very hard, but trying to stay on the court a little bit more.
But at the same time, when he was off the court, Jon Teske did an incredible job defensively for us. But better have him out there for 30 than 23 like we’ve had him in the last couple games.
And he’s done that. He’s played against some really big players, been a problem. But sometimes he’s just getting used to the officials. He speaks English really well, but when things are coming rapid to him very quickly, sometimes he’ll just misunderstand what a ref’s telling him.
But he’s a great kid, and I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in the world.
Q. Along that same line of thinking, how important is it for you all to have your front court play very well and have the depth just in case Mo gets in foul trouble or you have that situation come up?
JOHN BEILEIN: Yeah, we’re used to this over the last couple of years, as a matter of fact. So I think we’re pretty versatile that if we call it sudden change at Michigan after Bo Schembechler. When things don’t go right, it’s sudden change. Let’s change and still find a way, next-man-up type mentality, and we’ve had that all year long.
Jon Teske in our win against Purdue against arguably one of the best big men in the country in Isaac Haas, he was like, all right, who is Mo Wagner, right? This kid’s good too.
So he certainly doesn’t have the ammo coming in like a Tyler Davis or somebody like that, but he holds his own against some pretty good players this year.
Q. Knowing the rigors of your profession and what you do, can you speak to the respect you have for Billy Kennedy and obviously dealing with Parkinson’s and still doing what you guys do?
JOHN BEILEIN: Yeah, Billy and I played against each other, I think it was at Richmond in the Arkansas-Little Rock tournament, and we played them. I think they had just maybe gone Division I. He was getting that program going. I got to know him then, and huge respect over time. We sat together. If I’m going up and I go to an AAU tournament, I usually sit by myself. If I see Billy Kennedy sitting by himself, I’ll go sit by him. I don’t do that many times.
I just respect who he is. He’s genuine and authentic in every way. He’s in a tough conference at a university that expects nothing but excellence, and he is really a great coach, great human being. Everything that I know about him is authentic and genuine.