ANN ARBOR — Life never has been better for John Beilein.
The Michigan basketball coach is coming off another Final Four, another Big Ten tournament championship, and another season that left basketball mavens scratching their heads at his tutorial genius. Beilein’s coaching acumen and universal respect led to a prolonged offseason flirtation with the Detroit Pistons, ultimately resulting in a sweetened contract with Michigan.
But all of that is only a bit player in why Beilein’s optimism is soaring.
“This has been as unique a nine months that anybody could have in their life,” Beilein said.
When life began settling back into place after Michigan’s torrid March and after the Pistons rendezvous, Beilein did what most 65-year-olds do: He went to the doctor. Undergoing a battery of tests is a nuisance for senior citizens. It also can be lifesaving, as Beilein discovered in August.
A normally routine stress test, which occurred after its originally scheduled date so Beilein could recruit, found blockage in multiple heart arteries, leading to an unexpected double-bypass operation at Michigan’s Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center.
“I actually wasn’t going to do it because it’s no fun,” Beilein said of the stress test. “They get you on a treadmill and they run you and lay you down. It’s no fun.
“I’m blessed that we caught it earlier so you’re not doing a bypass after a heart attack. Everybody get a stress test. Just get one at some point because who knows what would’ve happened.”
Two months post-surgery, Beilein looks, talks, and acts like the straight-laced, grandfatherly coach the nation has grown to appreciate. He was walking five miles not more than a week after leaving the hospital and made some recruiting trips against doctors orders.
Beilein will occupy his usual perch on the Michigan bench Tuesday in the Wolverines’ 2018-19 season opener against Norfolk State.
“For a guy who doesn’t feel old — I hope I don’t look old — I continue to learn like crazy,” said Beilein, whose next win will be the 800th of his decorated career.
Assistant Saddi Washington was Michigan’s interim coach during the team’s 10-day trip to Spain in August. Beilein’s absence gave Washington, Luke Yaklich, and DeAndre Haynes added responsibility, earning additional respect from the guy in charge.
Michigan, ranked No. 19 in the preseason Associated Press poll, lost Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and Duncan Robinson, three of the team’s four leading scorers. Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers, and true freshman Ignas Brazdeikis are the top scoring options this season.
But the Wolverines forged a new identity last season, one that Beilein-coached teams weren’t accustomed to. Yaklich, a defensive maestro, changed Michigan’s fortunes.
With Lima Senior graduate Zavier Simpson as the ringleader, Michigan will continue exerting effort and playing a brand basketball that’s heavy on gritty defense.
“We need that pit bull mentality,” Simpson said.
Alarm bells might sound in November and December if Michigan starts slow — the Wolverines have a difficult schedule — but everyone who’s witnessed the past two seasons would be wise to ignore them. All it takes is a little Beilein pixie dust and all of a sudden, by March, youth turns to experience and defense creates offense.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Beilein said. “Hopefully by the Big Ten season we know what we have. I don’t think we’re going to know much until then.”
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