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WVU's present meets its past

The Associated Press
WVU runs into an old friend when it plays against former coach John Beilein and Michigan on Saturday in New York.
The Associated Press Michigan head coach John Beilein watches from the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

MORGANTOWN -- There is a common perception that when West Virginia changed basketball coaches six years ago, it brought about a monumental shift in styles and strategies.

And, to a certain extent, that was oh so true.

After all, John Beilein has long been viewed in a cerebral sort of way as far as basketball coaches are concerned. His Princeton offense nudged the thinking that way, as did his odd tendency to use a 1-3-1 zone as his primary defense. The type of players he recruited - largely student-athletes rather than athlete-students - also helped.

Bob Huggins?

Well, his teams at Cincinnati tended to be a cross between more mainstream and down-and-dirty. That's not a knock, just a style. His teams have always tended to play somewhat conventionally on offense and make their real mark with gritty defense. And while that might be smart, it's not seen as cerebral in a broad sense. Huggins also tended sometimes to take chances that he could turn players into students and not always the other way around.

The bottom line, of course, is that there's really no right way or wrong way to coach and play the game. West Virginia was incredibly successful in five years under Beilein. The Mountaineers have been just as successful, and perhaps more so, in five years under Huggins.

Saturday night in the odd setting of the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, WVU's immediate past and present meet. Huggins and the Mountaineers face Beilein and his No. 3 Michigan team there in a made-for-TV game that will air on ESPN.

A clash of styles? Well, sure, to an extent.

But as both coaches point out, it's not exactly a clash of two polar opposite coaches. They actually have a lot in common, not the least of which is an ability generally to coax everything they can out of their players, no matter the level.

"I think when you're the coach at Walsh and Akron [as Huggins was to start his career] or when you're the coach at LeMoyne and Canisius [Beilein's initial stops], you have to do that or you're not going to win,'' Beilein said Wednesday. "And as a result, we took that same philosophy when we did have opportunities at Cincinnati and West Virginia and at West Virginia and Michigan.

"That's why I think we're very similar. How we do that may be different. I don't know. I've never seen Bobby's team practice. But I do know that we get the most . . . I hope we'd both agree that we get the most out of our teams.''

He'll get no argument from Huggins.

"I think when you start at places like where John started - and, to a degree, where I started - you've got to be a good coach to continue to win at every level,'' Huggins said. "He gets the most out of his guys. I don't think there's any doubt about that. They play to their fullest potential.''

Beilein has been gone from West Virginia five full seasons now and his sixth team at Michigan appears to be, by far, his best. The Wolverines are 10-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country.

They aren't doing it with smoke and mirrors, though. There were times at West Virginia when that might have seemed to be the case. He took a group of players who were generally well down on the recruiting lists of others - if they were on those lists at all - and made them into teams that went to a pair of Sweet 16s, came within an overtime of a Final Four and won an NIT.

He seems to have a higher level of talent now at Michigan, although he refuses to make comparisons. He's also gotten away from a strict Princeton offense, although he still loves to throw out that 1-3-1.

But when push comes to shove, he said, "I think our teams [at Michigan] are very similar to what we had [at West Virginia].''

Well, maybe in some instances.

For example, Beilein said he finds himself confusing his Michigan players with his former ones. He couldn't count the times he compared to Michigan's now-graduated Zack Novak to Scott Unger (Richmond) or Johannes Herber or Alex Ruoff (WVU). He compares current point guard Trey Burke with J.D. Collins and Darris Nichols. He compares the long forwards he tends to put at the top of his 1-3-1 zone to Tyrone Sally and Da'Sean Butler.

And every time he thinks about Kevin Pittsnogle . . . well, OK, that's where the comparisons tend to end.

"I don't know if I'll ever find another Pittsnogle,'' Beilein said. "He was so unique.''

The bottom line, though, is that while Beilein still coaches some things just the way he did at West Virginia, he didn't simply take his same act to a new auditorium at Michigan.

"I've changed, but I've changed every year for 37 years,'' Beilein said "Maybe that's why I'm still coaching. Because if you don't embrace that part of it, you're not going to be coaching very long.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

 


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