Michigan's 'baby steps' starting to add up

BY foxsports • March 14, 2012

John Beilein has never shown much interest in shortcuts.

His first Michigan team lost 22 games back in 2007-08 - a season not much different from Beilein's debuts at West Virginia and Canisius years before. In fact, the pattern has been similar throughout his career: Beilein's teams may struggle when he first takes over, but the improvement after that is steady.

He's now in his fifth season as the Wolverines' coach, and sure enough, they're entering their third NCAA tournament in four years - this time as a No. 4 seed. Beilein's response after the draw was typical of someone who seems as concerned about the process as the end result.

''We took baby steps to get where we are,'' Beilein said. ''If we're in that thing every year and we continue to improve what we're doing as a total program, those baby steps are going to lead us there. Sometimes you're going to get unlucky, but we just hang in there and stay the course.''

The Wolverines (24-9) haven't been this high a seed since they were a No. 3 in 1998, and they haven't reached the round of 16 since a run to the national quarterfinals in 1994. Expectations are high this year, but Michigan's approach isn't changing.

''I don't think we thought we were playing with house money last year, and I don't think we feel any pressure right now,'' Beilein said. ''We just do the same thing, no matter whether we're playing Concordia ... or we're playing Michigan State. We have the same approach every day.''

Beilein's methodical outlook is backed up by years of experience. Before coming to Michigan he spent five seasons each at Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia. Only at Richmond did he have a big season right away, reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1998. Elsewhere, he's needed a bit of time to point a program in the right direction.

Michigan recovered from that unimpressive first season under Beilein, making the NCAA tournament the following year. After a step back in 2010, the Wolverines surprised many by returning to the NCAAs last year and routing Tennessee in their opener.

This year Michigan made the tournament with room to spare, and with an impressive recruiting class expected next season, the Wolverines are clearly on an upward trend.

Beilein will occasionally talk about his team's goals in public. Michigan made no secret of the fact that it wanted to win the Big Ten regular-season title this year - the school's first since 1986. The Wolverines ended up sharing the championship with Michigan State and Ohio State.

But now that one loss would end their season, Beilein and his players aren't interested in discussing the big picture. Michigan faces 13th-seeded Ohio on Friday night and could then play Temple, California or South Florida in the round of 32.

''It's a mini-tournament,'' senior Zack Novak said of this first week. ''I think the Big Ten has prepared us for that. ... You had to come every night. It's the same way in the NCAA tournament. You've got to come every day. ... If you look past anybody, you're going to get popped.''

The Wolverines might be particularly wary of what a mid-major underdog can do, since their coach had so much success at Canisius and Richmond earlier in his career.

''He tells us, `This is their season, their chance to play Michigan,''' center Jordan Morgan said. ''Early on in our season he would tell us that, and he understands being a small school in this tournament, the mindset they have.''

Beilein, however, insists there are no secrets to winning in the NCAA tournament. In fact, he chuckled a bit when recalling his first game in college basketball's signature event. In 1996, Canisius lost 72-43 to Utah in Dallas.

''It was not pretty,'' Beilein said. ''A lot of people spent a lot of money to go down and watch a bad game, from Buffalo. I know that. But it was a big step in the Canisius program.''

Since then, Beilein has won five straight NCAA tournament openers, with three different schools.

''A lot of good fortune - let's just put it that way,'' he said. ''We just try and get ready the whole week and do the best that we can.''