Defying doubters, John Beilein reaches the pinnacle

ATLANTA -- Zack Novak sat in the stands, after being granted a few days off from his professional team in the Netherlands, watching his former coach and teammates advance to the national championship game.

"We wish you were still playing," one Michigan fan said to Novak, who graduated a year ago.

"No, you don't," he replied. "Because now you're seeing what happens when that man has talent."

That man is John Beilein -- and he wasn't supposed to be here. Not now, not ever. Maybe at the Division III national title game or playing for the Division II title. But not going up against Hall of Famer Rick Pitino on Monday night for the ultimate prize.

"It's crazy," Pat Beilein told moments after watching his father knock off Syracuse 61-56 in the national semifinals.

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Pitino is the salesman, the fast-talker from New York who is a walking quote machine. He's the ideal blend of coach and a recruiter. Beilein? Not so much. He's always been regarded as a straight X's and O's guy, someone who would milk as much talent as possible out of his players but couldn't recruit at the highest level. That was always the knock on him. Could coach but couldn't get enough talent. He took West Virginia to the Elite Eight in 2005 and the Sweet 16 the following season, but that was the ceiling for Beilein. He'd never get to the Final Four, never mind vie for a national title.

"But he's got big-time players nowadays," said former West Virginia star Mike Gansey. "Combine his coaching with the talent he's got, and now you see what happens."

"We weren't good," added Pat Beilein, a teammate of Gansey's on the West Virginia teams. "But we worked at it, and he made us better."

National Player of the Year Trey Burke struggled on Saturday night. His backcourt mate, freshman Nik Stauskas, couldn't buy a bucket. But Beilein has assembled so much talent now in Ann Arbor that he can afford to have his best player and top shooter both struggle mightily and still beat a Big East power such as Syracuse. Freshman big man Mitch McGary was tremendous, making one quality decision after another while operating out of the high post. The Big Dog's kid, Glenn Robinson III, finished with 10 points and six boards and Tim Hardaway's son, Tim Jr., added 13 points and five assists.

Give Beilein NBA players and see what happens.

"You can't win without pros," said senior Josh Bartelstein.

A year ago, Beilein bid farewell to Novak and Stu Douglass, a pair of typical "Beilein recruits." The definition of a Beilein recruit, at least leading up to this year's team, was an overachiever, someone who steadily improved and got the most out of his God-given talent. Novak was a 6-foot-4 power forward who was tough as nails but is now playing in the Netherlands. Douglass was primarily a mid-major recruit who is now also playing overseas when few anticipated he'd make money playing the game.

Burke has come from an unknown former Penn State commit and developed into a lottery pick. McGary's NBA draft stock has soared more than anyone else in the nation over the last few weeks, and one NBA general manager told there was no way he'd get out of the first round if he chose to leave after this season. Robinson III could also be a mid-first rounder. Hardaway Jr. and Stauskas could have futures in the league, too.

All the talk leading up to game against Syracuse was about how this young Wolverines club, the youngest and least experienced of all the true Final Four contenders, would be able to score against an Orange defense that had shut down everyone in the NCAA tournament. Burke and Stauskas needed to make shots from beyond the arc, or there was no shot for the Wolverines to advance.

Neither one made shots, yet Michigan won, anyway.

Beilein hadn't beaten Jim Boeheim in nine tries entering the national semifinal contest, but he was never competing on an even playing field. Whether it was at West Virginia or his first five seasons in Ann Arbor, he never had comparable talent to the Orange. This year, though, he had as much pure talent as almost any team in the country -- including Pitino's Louisville Cardinals.

When he left Morgantown for Michigan, there was a common theme among those evaluating the move. The Wolverines program was in a state of mediocrity under Tommy Amaker at the time, hadn't gone to the NCAA tournament in nearly a decade and would remain that way after bringing in a coach who wouldn't be able to recruit inner-city kids from the state.

But Beilein has done it and done it the right way. He's an old-school coach who has steadily climbed the ladder -- and could be heading to the final rung on Monday night. 

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