John Beilein discussed being back at the Final Four and Saturday’s upcoming matchup against Loyola.
COACH BEILEIN: On behalf of our university our athletic department, our basketball program we’re thrilled to be in San Antonio for the Final Four. This is an incredible environment. It’s funny, as I have been coming to the Final Four since, I think, 1984, that anytime it was in San Antonio, I said: Now I wish that they would just pick four sites, and San Antonio was always one of them you could look forward to. The environment’s great.
The Alamodome is tremendous and we’re just pleased to be here. We have a very difficult task ahead of us coming from the mid-major ranks, where whether it was Canisius or Richmond I value very much how good a team Loyola is. They’re as good as any team in this tournament. They’ve proven that. And we’re going to have to play better than we’ve played if we’re playing on Monday night.
We have some really good games. We have some games where we weren’t as efficient. And I have much respect for Porter Moser and that entire program.
Q. Defensively, how close are you with Loyola, if you match these two teams together?
COACH BEILEIN: I think there’s a lot of similarities. I think that Porter’s worked for a few coaches and he’s been a head coach at Loyola and before. So I see the Rick Majerus influence. I see just tremendous individual defenders. So they don’t have to give a lot of help.
And we would like to think that we’re similar in that way. I think there’s a lot of similarities in these two teams, and that’s why we’re both here. I think we play the game efficiently at both ends of the floor. But both of us start with our defense, I think. We really pride ourselves in playing good D.
Q. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was a kid who wasn’t a five-star recruit, wasn’t highly recruited out of the Lehigh Valley. Did you expect him to have the kind of career that he’s had? And can you just also comment on the progress he’s made over that time?
COACH BEILEIN: I think expectations of recruits are just — they’re crazy, because your kids are labeled as a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old, and the expectation of people that he couldn’t play at Michigan. We saw some intangibles there. We saw some athleticism there. And he got some great breaks which were not necessarily great for Michigan, is that we lost our back court, an NBA first-round draft choice two years in a row when he was a freshman and as a sophomore in Caris LeVert. And he was forced to play as a freshman.
One year he was so young we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. The next year we made it. But he was allowed to play through mistakes because we didn’t have anybody else. And that really helped him grow. And then last year we had a really good team. He was a complementary piece. Right now he has ascended far from being a complementary piece for us. Works hard, good kid, no maintenance, goes to class, just takes care of his business.
Q. Can you talk about Charles Matthews? And obviously sitting out and being able to kind of see what your program is all about in that year, sometimes transfers obviously come in as a grad transfer and play right away. But what was the value in that?
COACH BEILEIN: I think people transferring for the wrong reasons, you know, is probably a problem in college basketball. But there’s, sometimes it may be a better fit or a kid wants to take a year and just try and get better. He knew that that year was going to be an extremely difficult year for him, that he was not going to get to play in games.
But we had to find a way during that year to just get him stronger, get him healthy because he was injured when he came to us, worked at his shooting, his passing, his defense. And value the Michigan education as well. And I can’t tell you how — it’s been incredible how he’s bought in with everything about what the philosophy of our program.
He’s a student first. His work habits are incredible. And he knows his blind spots. And he wants to get better in those blind spots. And that’s been a great — he’s just been a great addition to the team. It’s amazing who his best friends are. And they’re just good people that you’d never think you’d be hanging out with. He just really embraced the Michigan culture. Reminds me of Tim Hardaway in many ways where they just want to work and get better even though they’re elite players.
Q. Loyola’s had four different leading scorers in its four tournament games, and the guy who scored 23 in the regional final had zero in the first game, but a really pretty stat line anyway. Are those the hardest teams, the ones —
COACH BEILEIN: You know, we guard ourselves every day the best way we can. But they’re a lot like us. If you watch Mo Wagner, he’d have a monster of a game and then somebody else does it.
They’re all hard games. If they’ve got a guy that can just — they’ve got one guy that can get to the foul line or shoot it and you’ve got to key on him, he sees everything, that’s hard. But you need five good defenders on the floor to guard these guys. Because they’ll find a weak guy.
And we’ve improved a lot in that area of having consistency with defense, one through eight. We still have some weaknesses here and there, but — and they’ll try and find them and we’ll try and find theirs.
But it is difficult. Because anybody can — you have to guard everybody with the same respect and the same game plan.
Q. Similar question I asked Porter, but you are looking at it from a different perspective. There’s a lot of talk about the transfers in college basketball and it tends to be talked about as a problem that needs to be fixed. And they’re looking at the idea of maybe giving kids a little more freedom, not necessarily free agency, but a little more freedom. What is your perspective on the idea of giving them a little more freedom, or is it a problem that needs to be fixed?
COACH BEILEIN: You know, I think it’s unique to each university. It’s unique to each individual that there are some kids that probably may need a change, and that we know it’s going to happen when they go to the second spot, the next coach is going to tell them the same thing the other coach: You don’t work hard enough in the weight room; you don’t practice enough; you don’t play the game the right way.
And sometimes people need to hear that. But there’s also situations where the grass is just greener somewhere else and it’s not. There’s a process that people have to go through to become a better basketball player, a better student-athlete. And we have to really work at finding — I don’t know the answer — but to make sure that kids really have, transfer for the right reasons. There’s got to be compelling reasons to transfer.
And sometimes it is just — I think if you look at any player anywhere. Guys averaging 18, probably thinks he should be averaging 24. And the guy averaging two probably thinks he should be getting eight. And it’s really hard to just regulate all that. I just think — I think it’s been pretty good and there’s nothing wrong with the transfer. But it shouldn’t be for the wrong reasons, and many times that’s what happens.
People are looking to get — they want to be a pro right away, and they’re not getting to be a pro so it must be the coach’s fault. So I gotta go somewhere else. And that’s the wrong reason. Embrace the process. See what happens.
Q. I know you’ve been talking about Luke a bit in the past couple of weeks, but could you just run through the hire of Luke — not hiring someone —
COACH BEILEIN: Took me about six weeks. We may be here for a long time.
Q. He was just telling us that. And you don’t normally hire someone you don’t know at all. So that process and then again to just give him the reins and be, like, hey, the defense, this is you, get us to a level that we’ll be happy with.
COACH BEILEIN: Yeah, I’ve changed — I’m always changing, but I changed in the last when Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan both left to take head coaching jobs, I decided: You know what, I want to do this right, and I need to hire somebody that just — that’s all I want them to think about is defense. We’ll work together to decide the schemes. I’m not going to just say, hey, you got the D. I don’t want to hear about it because 40 years of coaching tells you a lot of things.
But I want the voice. I changed my reseating, put the guy right next to us so I could hear it, what’s going on in the game.
And so we did that with Billy Donlon. I thought it worked really well. When I did it again it was a no-brainer. But I had to find that guy. And actually Dan called me from Illinois State and told me about Luke. I said no, I’m not going to hire somebody I don’t know. I want to research this.
And then when I heard about DeAndre Haynes as well, I can’t take two guys from the same school. I couldn’t do that to anybody. And Dan was such a champion through it, saying, Coach, these guys deserve this opportunity. They want to play in the Big Ten. Do not let me get in the way to that. Just an absolute champion about it.
So took me a long time. And then I just felt — I wanted a teacher, right? I wanted a guy that thought defense and knew defense, a relationship-builder. He’s a high school teacher and a brilliant one. And to bring that type of background, because that’s who I want to be known as, as a teacher and mentor, not the coach, the guy that taught. This guy, that’s what he does.
Q. When you have someone like an Eli Brooks who is not potentially playing big minutes right now, but you want to in this stage at some point in the future, what do you want him to get out of being here and being in this situation?
COACH BEILEIN: That’s a great question. We just had a 90-minute practice where he might have been the best player on the floor. And so we spend so much time with those guys that don’t get big minutes. If there’s 20 hours in a week, it may be Muhammad and Duncan are practicing 18, they’re going all 20. We want to maximize their potential.
It’s really a secret — not a secret. I think it’s something that’s been instrumental to our success. Why does D.J. Wilson go from a freshman that doesn’t play, a sophomore that rarely plays, to a first-round draft pick? It’s the work you do with the guys that aren’t playing that makes your scout team better, right?
And he was Custer today, and if Custer plays like he plays we’re going home. He was great today. So it’s really good to see him grow because he was a starter earlier in the year and then lost some confidence. All right. Go to the scout team and get better. He’s got a ton of confidence right now. You may see him tomorrow.
Q. You’ve said before after you win a big game and advance, you can’t really be happy; you’re more just relieved if anything. Have you been able to adjust that and change and soak it in a little bit more?
COACH BEILEIN: No, it’s not — relief for a moment, then it’s what’s next. Then it is obsessed with what’s next. I’ve got to plan. We have to get better. What’s the schedule? What are we going to do? How can we maximize this time?
So there’s no time to just sit back and smile and laugh with everybody. It’s time to go work. And that’s all we’ve been doing.
Tuesday, Sunday, who knows whenever our season ends, I can sit back then and I think I will enjoy whatever happens, that we either get the most out of this team or we went all the way and won a national championship, that’s the time when I’ll look back and say, you know what, that was a fun year.
Q. Has anyone had their high school coach call you as a reference before?
COACH BEILEIN: No, no I’ve never had anybody call me and the principal. And the kicker was, after I had already hired him, his wife, Amy, came up to me at an AAU tournament and gave him a good recommendation as well, told me he’s a really good guy.
And so I said, well, that does it. He’s the next coach. So we had everybody. It’s a great story. And I still can remember when I offered him the job, tears were in his eyes. And it was — it’s great.
You gotta pride yourself in finding the right fit as a coach and you just cannot — I think earlier in my career I was very fortunate that, okay, this guy, they say he’s a good coach. I like him, I know him, let’s hire them.
What do we need, what does this team need? Because my first loyalty is the University of Michigan, to find the best coaches to represent this university that can help us win. And then the second one is to my family, to make sure that Coach Beilein can keep his job. And so it’s really important that you get a good staff and we got one.
Q. You kind of grew up with the game and kind of worked your way up the ladder. Can you appreciate what this means to Loyola?
COACH BEILEIN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. They’ve worked very hard. And I think we’ve seen this with VCU. We saw it with George Mason. We saw it with Butler. These teams are good. And it’s just the counter to what happens in many power conferences is we have such young teams and then they have a transfer. They have a young kid who just like came right in, the big kid has done just a great job for them, as well as the kids who come off the bench.
But we’re going to see more of it. And it’s what makes college basketball great; that it’s not — talent is very important to winning. Culture is very important. And when you can have a mid-major, low-major with a great culture, you can beat anybody — and the talent grows through practice — you can win any basketball game.
And that’s what happens many times. What happens at that level, too, they don’t get, all of us and it was formerly me at the high level you play 18 home games, you play 11 away. These guys are playing as many away games as home games. It’s harder to win at that level because of that. With refs that you can’t call the guy, the supervisor of officials, and say, you know what, I didn’t like that ref. The refs are going to be — may be inconsistent as you travel around the country playing that schedule.
Q. John, on that subject, obviously you guys will travel well, but everyone in that stadium that’s not rooting for Michigan is going to be rooting for Loyola. It will be a little bit of a road game. Do you address the fact that you guys are kind of the, quote/unquote, villain here in this story?
COACH BEILEIN: You know, I don’t think it’s necessary. I think that they know that this is a great story, one that all of us should really admire what Loyola has been able to do. But you’ve seen us play at Michigan State and you’ve seen us play at Penn State and Maryland. People weren’t cheering for us there.
And we’ll have — now, Michigan, we probably had 20 people at those games that had Michigan stuff, maybe more. Maybe 50 people with Michigan gear on in that one. We’re going to have thousands and thousands. Michigan will be here strong today. And I don’t think that will bother us.
I think that this is going to be a great basketball game with two teams that really have moments where they play really good basketball.
Q. John, you’ve said a couple times for you personally winning the national title isn’t the goal, reaching the Final Four isn’t the goal. So how can you describe — what drives you?
COACH BEILEIN: The Big Ten Championship drives me. That’s what I think everybody in Michigan is — if you win a Big Ten Championship in any way, then you can win a national championship.
But after that, it’s about breaks and anything can happen. But that’s how I want to be judged at Michigan; did we compete for Big Ten championships? And that’s how I sort of term our success. And then when you’re all done with that, that you competed for the Big Ten Championship, did those kids grow, did they get better, are they better men on and off the court? That’s what drives me. That’s what drives me.
To see these kids — I see these freshmen right now — and the growth I’ve seen in six months is incredible. I can’t imagine what they’re going to be like when they’re Muhammad and Mo and Duncan’s age when they’re juniors and seniors, how good of young men and student-athletes they’re going to be.