A MOVABLE BEAST
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When everything clicks, when John Beilein’s 1-3-1 zone defense makes finding an open shot more difficult than finding a replacement bulb on Christmas Eve, when his motion offense traces figure eights across the floor with slick ball-handling guards who throw 10 passes in 35 seconds to constantly cutting teammates, basketball is a beautiful game to watch and his is an ornery team to play against.
For two years in a row, Ben Howland’s UCLA teams have fallen victim to Beilein’s West Virginia teams. The eighth-ranked Bruins (10-1) get another chance against Beilein today. This time Beilein is coaching Michigan.
Two years ago, West Virginia came into Pauley Pavilion, put the Bruins into a 20-point hole and then held on. At the end, frustrated UCLA guard Jordan Farmar had the ball stolen by Mike Gansey and UCLA lost, 60-56.
Last year West Virginia was struggling. It had lost all the stars from a team that had gone to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in back-to-back years.
But second-ranked UCLA went to Morgantown, looked befuddled, and lost to the unranked Mountaineers, 70-65. Starting point guard Darren Collison was sidelined because of a shoulder injury and center Lorenzo Mata-Real played only 11 minutes after complaining about a sore hip, but it was a dispiriting trip.
Beilein left West Virginia last spring. His intricate ideas haven’t clicked yet for a group of Michigan players recruited for a more conventional style of basketball by former coach Tommy Amaker. The Wolverines (4-7) have lost to Amaker’s Harvard team and to Central Michigan, coached by former Howland assistant Ernie Zeigler.
Collison, who will play this time, said he and his teammates are aware of what they are up against. “It’s all different,” Collison said. “Two years ago they had that big guy (6-11 Kevin Pittsnogle) who could shoot from anywhere and a bunch of good guards. Last year it just seemed like a blur. It kind of got away from us.”
The Wolverines start two freshmen and two sophomores, but everyone has felt like a rookie while learning Beilein’s signature systems.
Beilein calls it “the million-dollar question,” the matter of when Michigan will make all the connections.
“You just have to keep doing it,” Beilein said. “When it’s going to happen? I couldn’t tell you that in a million years.”
“Two years ago West Virginia was a really good team, having gone to the Elite Eight,” Howland said. “That Gansey kid had 24 points (on seven-for-eight shooting), lit us up and made the big steal. Last year, obviously it hurt not having our starting point guard, but we did not play well.
“The key for us is being aggressive with our passing, catching and dribbling. It’s a good experience for our team.”
Russell Westbrook had the worst experience last year. Collison had tried to warm up, but when it was clear his shoulder was too sore, Westbrook, then a freshman, was given the emergency starting role. The nervous rookie was one for 11 from the field and struggled to untangle the Bruins’ offense from the web of Beilein’s zone.
“That was just one game,” Westbrook said. “It wasn’t my best and I learned from it.”
Westbrook is not the kind of player who stews over bad moments. He said he can’t remember his statistics from a year ago and that his confidence wasn’t bruised by one day of struggle.
Earlier this year, Beilein compared the team that Michigan is now to the team he hopes Michigan becomes. “Hopefully we’ll be a beautiful painting one day,” he said. “Right now we’re finger painting out there.”
In his first three seasons at West Virginia, Beilein was 48-43, then went 46-22 while making the Elite Eight and Sweet 16. Last year’s young Mountaineers went on to win the NIT.
“It’s hard for guys to learn a new system,” Collison said, “so it’s no surprise Michigan is struggling. But it shouldn’t matter to us. We’ve got to go out and attack.”
One weapon UCLA didn’t have in its first two looks at that 1-3-1 zone was a center like Kevin Love, the Bruins freshman Collison called a key to the offensive attack against Beilein. “That’s our twist,” he said.
Howland said that Mata-Real, who was treated for a bruised shoulder after Tuesday’s win over Western Illinois, participated in a full practice Friday and is expected to play his normal minutes. Howland also said this would be the last game of UCLA’s six-game home-and-home series against Michigan.
at Michigan, 11 a.m. PST, Channel 2
Radio -- 570
Site -- Crisler Arena, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Records -- UCLA 10-1, Michigan 4-7.
Update -- The star for the young Wolverines has been 6-foot-5, 180-pound freshman guard Manny Harris, who leads Michigan in scoring (16.1 points per game), rebounding (4.9), steals (1.7), minutes (31.0) and free-throw percentage (79.7%). UCLA Coach Ben Howland said it would mostly be up to sophomore Russell Westbrook to guard Harris. Harris has scored in double figures in 10 of the first 11 games. Michigan also has a freshman point guard, 5-11 Kelvin Grady, who had a career-high eight assists in his last game and he has made 14 of 28 three-point shots. Sophomore forward DeShawn Sims averages 13.6 points a game and, at 6-8 and 235 pounds, provides some muscle.