By Cam Huffman
The last time John Beilein was on the court for a West Virginia University basketball game, he was coaching the Mountaineers to an National Invitation Tournament championship over Clemson.
Saturday, he’ll be on the opposite sideline when his No. 3 Michigan team takes on the Mountaineers at 8 p.m. as part of the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival at Barclays Center in New York.
It will be a unique experience for the veteran coach, who said he’s faced off against a former team very few times in his career.
“This is a bit unique, so it’s different in that regard,” said Beilein, who went 104-60 in five seasons at WVU from 2002 through 2007. He took the Mountaineers as far as the Elite Eight in 2005 and won the NIT title in his final season in 2007. “Certainly we wouldn’t be playing this game if I hadn’t approved of this game. But because of the respect I have for West Virginia, Bob Huggins and their program, we’re playing this game.”
Beilein said the decision to leave Morgantown and WVU to go to Michigan, where he’s gone 100-77 over five-plus seasons, was mostly about a chance to rebuild another program, but he said he looks back fondly on his time with the Mountaineers.
“You don’t know how many times I tell (Michigan point guard) Trey Burke what a tough son-of-a-gun J.D. Collins was or some of the things from how Darris Nichols used to play,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever find another (Kevin) Pittsnogle, because he was so unique in his talent.
“We’ve got a guy on the top of our zone right now, a couple guys that play very much like Tyrone Salley and Da’Sean Butler.”
Beilein said he enjoyed watching WVU’s run to the Final Four in 2010, aided by players, like Butler, that he brought to Morgantown.
“I was very happy for West Virginia, for those young men on that team, for the program, the university and the state of West Virginia,” said Beilein. “We had so many friends and so many people who were so good to me and my family during that time, and I was very happy for them. I know the passion there is for that basketball team in that state.
“They made the Beilein family very happy during our five years. There you are coaching your son (Patrick, a guard for the Mountaineers), and he’s out there playing — a walk-on at one time — and they’re embracing your whole family. You can’t help but be happy for them.”
Beilein hopes his own Final Four trip might be just around the corner. His Elite Eight run with WVU was his deepest trip, and he’s never been past the Sweet 16 with the Wolverines. But with one of the nation’s top-ranked teams, currently 9-0 on the year, that could be the year the 59-year-old finally reaches the top of the college basketball mountain.
For once, the underdog Beilein is finally a favorite.
“It’s a difference,” he said of being the hunted instead of the hunter. “I’ve always been very comfortable in the underdog role. But I don’t think I’m uncomfortable with any of the preseason, pre-conference type gossip about who is the best. That’s got to be determined down the road.
“We’re trying every day to get them to understand prosperity and continue to get better.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.