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March 31, 2013

2013 Wolverines continue Beilein's journey with class, flash

They hugged each other, and then they hugged their parents. Michigan's kids took their turns cutting down the nets following a 79-59 blowout of Florida, and when they were finished, they hugged whoever they could find with their Final Four hats securely fastened.

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And head coach John Beilein?

Appropriately, he wandered, not quite sure how to celebrate. The self-described coaching nomad eventually found his family, posing for photos and (literally) kissing babies, including four-month old grandson Johnny.

For 35 years, Beilein had been looking for a place to call home. He'd been a builder, not a finisher, but when the Michigan job opened, he took the job sight unseen.

Like the great Cazzie Russell several years earlier, who never saw Yost Fieldhouse when then head coach Dave Strack pretended to lose the keys, Beilein went in blind. He never saw Crisler Arena, taking the job without knowing its neglect.

"I got there and looked at the facilities and maybe wondered what I'd signed up for," Beilein quipped.

But he never made excuses. He recruited as though Michigan hadn't gone through lean years the decade before, an inexplicable 10-year absence from the NCAA Tournament. He suffered through a 10-win season in his first year, after which only several dozen people - mostly family members - attended the annual basketball bust.

"Just wait," former assistant Jerry Dunn said then. "I've seen it before. You will be thrilled with what he builds here."

Six years later, the April bust will be held on the Crisler Arena floor instead of a room in the Junge center. The facilities are as impressive as the team that houses it, and Michigan basketball is a household name nationwide again.

More importantly to the fan base, Beilein is proof that a Michigan man doesn't have to start a Michigan man. He learned the traditions, knows them as well as anyone and embraces what the university stands for. There is no one - read it, no one - who does it more cleanly or with more class than Beilein and his staff, and the proof is in his players.

One arena official standing watch outside the locker room marveled at the Michigan kids as the most high character groups of kids he'd ever seen.

When it comes time to play, though, they play with an edge that allows them to hang with the best. Freshman Glenn Robinson III proved it literally with a one-handed alley-oop finish of sophomore Trey Burke's pass that seemed headed for the third row before Robinson finished it with authority.

Freshman Mitch McGary threw his weight around for eight points, six rebounds and two blocked shots in the first five minutes, playing with the "I told you so" chip on his shoulder he's carried for since the tournament started.

He carried it to the locker room.

"There were people [during recruiting] who would say, 'Michigan's a good school, but you can't win there,'" he said with a smile. "Here we are."

Only one school on his list of finalists - the one he chose - is in the Final Four in his freshman year, and McGary's a big reason why.

Michigan State's Russell Byrd, a little used reserve, once said it would take a leap of faith to choose Michigan over established MSU a few years back. It wasn't as big a leap for McGary, but some still considered it a gamble with the likes of Duke (and yes, Florida) having offered.

It was too big a risk for the Gators' Casey Prather, perhaps U-M's No. 1 wing target a few years ago. He has yet to get there with Florida, while Tim Hardaway Jr. - next in line for his offer after Prather - is headed to Atlanta.

"It means the world," Hardaway said. "Twenty years has passed and we haven't been on the stage yet. We just want to make sure we do a great job of coming out and playing very, very hard, every possession, every minute you're out there. It's a young team, but everybody buys on the Coach Beilein system."

So young that three freshmen start, while one in freshman point guard Spike Albrecht (who might have been bound for Appalachian State had John Beilein not needed a back-up point guard) provided critical and outstanding minutes with Burke hurting and Florida seemingly primed to make a run.

Each game, it seems, one of them steps up. With Hardaway struggling (nine points, 3-for-13 shooting), it was Nik Stauskas' turn. He hit a triple from the corner - and then another, and another. He'd made all six by the time he was done, a day after vowing he was due for a breakout night.

"A freshman may have an off night and he may talk about I'm not getting the shots, I'm not getting the looks," Beilein said. "That's not Nik. Nik works at his game to be ready because his teammates can pass, and they know where he is all the time and have a lot of confidence.

"Once they got him going in the huddle, they're talking to each other saying, 'Nik, get open on this one. I'm going to be looking for you.' That's great teammates."

It's great teammates that make a great team, Beliein has always said. He believes it so much that he included former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler's "the team, the team, the team" on the mission statement in U-M's new player development center.

He also proved he has some Brady Hoke in him when he lamented the fact that it was red Gatorade that ruined one of his nicer white shirts in the postgame locker room, deeming it unsalvageable.

"You know I'm not going to wear red," he said with a laugh. "I'm usually wearing my shirt and tie anyway, but today I think I'm going to travel in my sweatsuit."

Comfortable, but not too comfortable. He'll take a day to soak it in, he said, before he concentrates on Syracuse and Jim Boeheim, a coach who has had his number over the years. Come Monday, though, he'll be the first to say they're going to Atlanta to win.

'Why not us'? has been his mantra all year, and his kids are in full step.

"We're not done," McGary said before starting to head to the locker room to celebrate.

He stopped, turned around and came back.

"I mean it," he said. "We're not done."

And as he galloped away, you couldn't help but believe him.


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