April 7, 2013

Wolverines ready for fast-paced fun

Many in the media made prominent mention of John Beilein's 0-9 record against Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim going into the national semifinal showdown. That's one streak down, and another deficit (1-3 versus Rick Pitino) up next.

Of course, Boeheim enjoyed a significant advantage over Beilein in previous years, having been entrenched forever at Syracuse. Certainly, Beilein never went into a showdown against his old Big East coaching rival with as much ammunition as he brought to the fight at the Georgia Dome.

Similarly, Beilein's record against Pitino is based on scales considerably weighted to the state of Kentucky coaching legend. Beilein lost the first showdown when he was at Canisius and Pitino in Kentucky in 1997.

Pitino took Louisville squads to a pair of victories over Beilein's West Virginia squads, including the notable 93-85 victory in the West Regional final of the 2005 NCAA Tournament. In that one, Louisville overcame a 20-point deficit to win in overtime, despite the fact that Beilein's Mountaineers nailed no less than 18 three-pointers in the game.

That game sent Louisville to the Final Four, denying Beilein a trip to college basketball's Promised Land - until now. Beilein earned his only win over Pitino in 2006, a 68-64 victory over Louisville in Morgantown.

Again, while Beilein operated with some talent in those days, he didn't feature the national player of the year in sophomore point guard Trey Burke, or as deep an array of weapons as he possesses now. If the Wolverines manage to climb the last step on this ladder, Beilein would become only the 22nd coach to win the championship in his first Final Four appearance.

Only eight have accomplished that feat in the last 30 years, including Jim Valvano (1983), Rollie Massimino (1985), Steve Fisher (1989), Jim Harrick (1995), Tubby Smith (1998), Jim Calhoun (1999) and Bill Self (2008).

Pitino, as expected, expressed nothing but respect for Michigan and its head coach entering the national title showdown.

"Michigan is an unbelievable school," he said. "Great academic institution. Great tradition. I happen to have a little contact with them. To be a Michigan man, it means a lot to them.

"They could have no greater leader than John Beilein. He's what college basketball is all about. This has been a journey for me that's built on this NCAA Tournament with respect of the people we prepare for."

Beilein returns that in kind, noting he's about Pitino's age. Pitino's 47-16 record in the NCAA Tournament speaks for itself, but Beilein added his take.

"I've watched his teams for a long time, bought his tapes back in the day when he was first putting out all those great tapes," Beilein said. "He's a guy I admire for the way he has always coached. He's been a guy that's not afraid to take on challenges.

"It's going to be thrilling to play on this night with these guys, putting Michigan back in this Final Four environment. Louisville happens to be an opponent and a darned good one."

Michigan's biggest concern involves Louisville's constant pressure on defense, along with the Cardinals' talented tandem at guard, junior Ross Smith and senior Peyton Siva. The Wolverines have to be ready for an up-tempo, pressurized atmosphere, they acknowledged the day before the game.

Bring it on, noted sophomore guard Trey Burke.

"It's going to be a hard-fought 40 minutes," he insisted. "There's going to be skill involved in the match-up but a lot of it is going to be desire and going to be a challenge for Tim [Hardaway, Jr.] and I - a challenge we probably haven't seen all year, with their pressure and their capability of penetrating. We just have to do a good job of preparing for them today and early on tomorrow, go out there and try to attack them, try to get them in foul trouble early and just do certain things to throw their rhythm off."

It's not like the Wolverines haven't faced pressure in the tournament, having taken apart VCU and it's "havoc" press on the way to a 78-53 win. But No. 1 overall seed Louisville is working with a much more loaded roster.

"This game is similar to the VCU game as far as Louisville's pressure," Burke said. "They do a really good job of turning guys over. It's our job - Tim and my job - to take care of the ball and try to attack them as much as possible, and limit the turnovers they force us into…

"We know this is a championship game and we may not be as successful as we were against VCU. If we see that early on in the game, then we're going to have to make adjustments. I definitely feel like it's going to be a tough 40 minutes. It's the national championship, so we're expecting their best shot and I'm sure they're expecting ours."

For his part, Hardaway believes the VCU game and getting raked around by Big Ten defenders should put Michigan in a state of readiness for what's ahead.

"It helps when you have guards and wings in the Big Ten that play defense like they do," Hardaway said. "Aaron Craft and Victor Oladipo, for example, do a great job just getting to you and trying to make you turn the ball over. I think we are prepared very well and we'll just have to go out there and take care of the ball."

Meanwhile, the Wolverines stopping the laser-quick Smith in transition stood out in freshman forward Glenn Robinson III's mind.

"He's a very quick, fast guard," Robinson said. "You just have to try to stop him and get in front of him as soon as he crosses half court, because if you don't, you can almost count that bucket. It will be hard to stop him in transition, but we just have to make a team effort to all try to get back and stop all five of their players."

Pitino - just like he did when Michigan hired Beilein - noted the U-M coach is "one of the best offensive minds in basketball."

"John is a great teacher," Pitino said. Their players are great. Mitch McGary has improved so much in a short period of time to be one of the better players in the country right now."

And the Wolverines as a whole? Well, Pitino has at least enjoyed the prep time.

"A lot of teams, when you watch them, you get nervous a little bit because they do so many things well," Pitino said. "You have fun watching Michigan play basketball. The way they pass, cut, shoot, it's a John Beilein team. They're fun to watch. As a coach going to play them, I really enjoy watching them on film."

Beilein couldn't quite return that pleasantry.

"'Fun' is not the word I would use there," he said, with a wry grin. "I think the game is fun and winning is a lot of fun. I'm more looking at it from a standpoint of what they do, how we can stop it, just taking in as much information as I can in a brief amount of time…

"[Pitino] continues to change. That's what I'm trying to measure right now, is what he's doing best right now. And he does everything well."

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