ANN ARBOR, Mich. – John Beilein is heading into uncharted territory.
For the first time since he began climbing the Division I coaching ladder, Beilein is entering his sixth season with the same school. And what a campaign it could be. His Michigan Wolverines are coming off a Big Ten championship and start 2012-13 ranked fifth in the country.
"I think anybody building a program has to understand, it is difficult, because people weren't stepping back and saying, 'Hey, let's let Michigan have their turn.' It's hard to get there," Beilein said. "If you establish the culture and get the right breaks here and there, anything can happen."
The Wolverines are one of three Big Ten teams in the top five. The No. 5 ranking is Michigan's highest in the preseason since 1993, when the Wolverines were coming off back-to-back appearances in the NCAA title game.
After a nine-year run at LeMoyne, Beilein spent five seasons each at Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia before settling in at Michigan. Last season was his most successful yet with the Wolverines. They tied for the Big Ten championship and won 24 games — although they lost their NCAA tournament opener to Ohio.
Michigan then caught a break in the offseason when point guard Trey Burke decided to stay for his sophomore season instead of leaving for the NBA. When Burke arrived last season, the Wolverines were trying to replace another star point guard after Darius Morris turned pro. Michigan didn't miss a beat. Burke was the team's leading scorer and provided crucial 3-point shooting in Beilein's perimeter-oriented offense.
"Burke was able to step in and fill in so admirably as a freshman," Beilein said. "So having him back has been helpful because he's a good player, he is a winner, he's proved he's a winner and having talent is one thing, teaching winning is another thing. He's been through a year where he was so helpful in that Big Ten championship in games both at home and on the road."
Burke's role now includes mentoring Michigan's newcomers. The freshman class that includes forwards Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, along with guard Nik Stauskas, has Ann Arbor abuzz. It will be interesting to see how they meld together with holdovers Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jordan Morgan.
"I'm just trying to teach the freshmen at a faster pace," Burke said. "When we're off the court, I'll show them some film. I'll just try to show them little tips and things in the offense."
Beilein's offense often surrounds a single post player with four perimeter shooters. Now, the 6-foot-8 Morgan can expect more help inside. If the 6-10 McGary can contribute right away, the Wolverines may actually be a threat on the offensive boards, which isn't usually a staple of Beilein's teams.
It's Beilein's job to figure out how to use Michigan's newfound size while also setting Burke and the outside shooters up to succeed.
"We're basically trying to figure out what's the best way to use each guy rather than who are the five that are together," Beilein said. "We are just continuing to experiment with it."
Perhaps the biggest wild card on Michigan's roster continues to be Hardaway, an athletic wing who can drive to the basket and create problems for opponents with his length. But the 6-6 Hardaway looked frustrated at times last season, shooting only 42 percent from the field and 28 percent from 3-point range.
"When he plays the 3 or the 2, how much he has the ball off the dribble, off the pass, I think he's growing comfortable no matter what he's doing and learning about his strengths," Beilein said. "Love coaching him every day, intensity is incredible."