SAN ANTONIO — When Michigan coach John Beilein evaluates whether to pursue a promising high school prospect, the statistic that matters most to him is never shooting percentage, wingspan or vertical leap.
Beilein first hunts for a potential recruit’s birthdate so he can assess whether the player is young or old for his grade and how much room for growth he has.
“I study birthdays like crazy,” Beilein said. “You’ll see a kid who’s about to turn 19 and somebody will rate him in a 17-under league. ‘Oh, he’s terrific.’ You see another kid that’s still 16 playing 17-under. ‘Oh, he’s not good enough.’ I mean, there’s three years difference. Anybody who has had children knows that’s a big difference.”
Beilein’s knack for identifying undervalued prospects with upside and developing them into pillars of his program might be the biggest reason Michigan is on the brink of its first national title since 1989. It’s allowed the Wolverines to advanced to Monday night’s championship game against Villanova without a single five-star recruit on their roster.
Among the stars of this year’s Michigan team are a forward who started his college career at a Division III school, a shooting guard who no other high-majors wanted and a big man who was playing for a second-division German club when Beilein found him. Sophomore Charles Matthews is the Wolverines’ lone former top 50 recruit, and he only transferred to Michigan after he couldn’t crack Kentucky’s rotation.
“[Beilein] is amazing at assessing what players can become,” said Michigan strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson, the longest-tenured member of Beilein’s staff. “We’ve been able to win with a lot of two-star and three-star prospects. They all have areas they have to get better, and he’s great at projecting and being patient. He doesn’t have this expectation that all these guys have to be complete right now. He loves the process of getting better.”
One of the keys to winning without heralded recruits is identifying the right under-the-radar prospects to pursue. Beilein seeks out high-character, high-upside players who aren’t finished products when they arrive at Michigan but possess the desire and work ethic to address their flaws.
When a player a player is an elite shooter, passer and ball handler but lacks the strength or explosiveness to thrive in the Big Ten, Beilein puts his faith in Sanderson’s strength and conditioning program. The former Ohio State basketball player has a long track record of helping prospects who aren’t physically developed when they arrive at Michigan get stronger and bouncier.
— Jon Sanderson (@CampSanderson) August 15, 2017
Sanderson puts players through extensive testing when they get to campus to identify their strengths and weaknesses and then develops a plan specifically tailored to their needs. For Nik Stauskas and Caris Levert, that meant adding muscle. For Trey Burke, it was explosiveness and hip flexibility. For unusually flexible forward D.J. Wilson, stability was the goal.
Among Michigan’s current players, nobody has come further under Sanderson’s tutelage than Moritz Wagner. Over the past three years, the 6-foot-11 Berlin native evolved from a finesse player too thin to play in the Big Ten as a freshman to the overpowering center who piled up 24 points and 15 rebounds against Loyola-Chicago on Saturday night.
“He was 205 pounds when he got here, and if you gave him a shove, he couldn’t hold his ground,” Sanderson said. “But you could see with his skill set that if he developed strength and power over time, he could be special.”
When Wagner arrived at Michigan, Sanderson’s grueling workouts were tough for him. Worse yet was the protein-heavy diet that Sanderson designed for Wagner.
“At the beginning of my freshman year summer, instead of working out, he put me in the corner and told me to eat,” Wagner said. “All types of stuff — cereal, protein shakes. I was like, ‘What? How am I going to eat all this stuff?'”
While Sanderson is in charge of transforming the bodies of Michigan players, Beilein takes responsibility for skill development. His approach emphasizes fundamentals like jump stops, chest passes and pivots so much that first-year assistant coach DeAndre Haynes remembers thinking at first, “Man, this is like you’re going back to high school.”
The effectiveness of the approach became clearer to Haynes as this season has unfolded. Not only does Michigan have the fourth lowest turnover percentage of any team in the nation, several key players on the Wolverines also have markedly improved because of Beilein’s back-to-basics style.
When Matthews threw the ball away as a member of the scout team last season, Beilein would stop practice and scream, “Turnover, Matthews! Turnover, Matthews!” Beilein also called Matthews “the MVP for UCLA” after an error-plagued performance against the Bruins early this season.
But as Matthews has learned to embrace Beilein’s philosophies, his play has improved. He was the MVP of the West Regional and his ability to attack the basket gave Loyola fits on Saturday night.
“As time has gone on, this young man has bought in,” Beilein said. “He’s just sort of had to learn the fundamentals of offense and defense that are just not drilled the way they used to be done.”
Beilein began his career as a teacher, and the court is still his classroom. Therefore he values having assistant coaches who teach the game as well as they scout opposing teams or recruit.
When Luke Yaklich emerged as a candidate for one of Michigan’s assistant coaching openings last summer, Beilein was understandably wary of hiring someone he didn’t know. As a result, Beilein asked the former Illinois State assistant coach to send video clips of himself instructing Redbirds players during practices.
“I don’t care what you know if you can’t teach it,” Beilein told Yaklich. “I want to hear your voice. I want to know who you are as a teacher.”
For years, the prevailing notion in college basketball has been that it’s difficult to contend for a national championship without recruiting at an elite level.
Thanks to his eye for undervalued talent, his knack for player development and his patience to allow prospects to blossom at their own pace, Beilein is proving that wrong.
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