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5 Keys to Turnaround Your Team: Discover How Michigan Men's Basketball Made the NCAA Tourney After a 1-6 Conference Start

Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

Imagine starting off your conference season with a disastrous 1-6 record...

Your fans and supporters are disgruntled and restless. Some question whether you can really coach and get the job done. The internet and talk radio self-proclaimed "experts" are ready to bury you and your program. You would think your team would be ready to implode or disintegrate and totally give up on the rest of the season.

This was the dire case the Michigan men's basketball program was faced with in late January. To make matters even worse, the Wolverines needed to play their arch-rival and #25-ranked Michigan State on the road where they had lost to the Spartans the last 13 tries, with the daunting prospects of dropping to 1-7 in the highly challenging Big Ten Conference.

I stopped by Michigan's practice that week as part of my regular Michigan Leadership Academy visit, fully expecting to see a deflated team and coaching staff with forlorn looks on their faces going through the grueling grind of practice with little emotion and energy.

Surprisingly and thankfully, I found the complete opposite. High energy abounded in Crisler Arena. The coaches were upbeat and positive while the players were enthusiastically giving their all in drills. There was a lot of positive communication going on and an intensity that belied the lopsided conference win-loss record. Despite the potentially calamitous situation that most people thought the team would be in, Michigan stuck together and believed.


Why did this young team, a team without any seniors, turn things around when so many other teams would have packed it in?


How did this team that was 1-6 in the Big Ten standings, a team that most prognosticators predicted would finish at or near the bottom of the conference, put things together and win 8 out of the next 11 regular season games to shock their naysayers, excite their fans, finish tied for fourth in the Big Ten, and get selected as a #8 seed in the NCAA tournament?

How did this team then blow out an athletic Tennessee team by 30 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament?

And, finally, how did this team then take the defending national champion Duke Blue Devils to the wire and have a chance to tie or win the game at the final buzzer - after being down to the Devils by 15 points in the second half?

With Michigan's blessing, I'd like to share with you the key turning points to their season as a case study. My hope is to use the lessons of the Michigan men's basketball team to provide you with some insights and ideas should you ever find yourself and team in a seemingly similar desperate situation.

What were the keys to Michigan's surprising turnaround?


1. Coaches Modeling the Way
Despite the external pervasive pessimism surrounding the program after the 1-6 conference start, the Michigan coaching staff of John Beilein, Jeff Meyer, Bacari Alexander, and LaVall Jordan trusted themselves and their system. With no seniors on the team, they stayed optimistic and upbeat because they knew how fragile a young team could be in terms of confidence. Assistant coach Jeff Meyer explained, "With young kids, we felt like we needed to model the positive energy to make progress... we needed to stay the course and stay true to our values."

Said player Josh Bartelstein, "Some around the team acted like the world was going to come to an end, but those in the locker room just kept working, even harder than ever. The coaches came to work every day with a smile on their face and you would never know we were 1-6."

Are you modeling the way you want your kids to respond when your team is facing adversity?

2. Back to Basic Core Values
On an international trip to Belgium and Amsterdam the previous summer, the Michigan coaching staff invested the time to explore and document their core values. They determined exactly what they wanted the program to stand for and be about. After much soul searching and discussion, the staff came up with five core values that they wanted to be the foundation of their program. They were:

  1. Integrity: Do what's right because it is the right thing to do.
  2. Unity: Team first, Lead by giving, Make teammates better.
  3. Passion: Commit to excellence with positive energy and relentless persistence
  4. Diligence: Pursue excellence with 100% effort and efficiency everyday
  5. Appreciation: An attitude of gratitude, grow in both victory and defeat

The coaches affectionately refer to this values clarification exercise as the "Summit in Amsterdam." They felt this preseason undertaking provided them with the solid framework they needed to weather the storms of adversity they later faced during the early part of the Big Ten season.

In their early season practices, the coaches then emphasized each one of the five core values on a weekly basis. It was their way to discuss and teach the culture of what they wanted Michigan Basketball to be all about. They placed prominent signs of the values around the locker room and harkened back to them throughout the season. These core values served as a solid foundation and helped the team grow in both victory and defeat.

What are the core values of the team? How do you teach them to your players? How do they guide you and your team throughout the season?

3. Don't Stop Believing
Despite the rough conference start, the team stuck together and continued to believe. After a very difficult loss on the road to Northwestern, sophomore point guard Darius Morris publicly predicted the team would still win at least 20 games, which would be necessary to give them a chance at an NCAA tournament bid. (Michigan ended up 21-13 overall.)

Coach Beilein told the team, "This group of players will play in the NCAA tournament, it might not be this year, but you all will." These two professions of faith in the team by two of the key leaders, despite the losing record, kept the team together and fighting through the adversity. As Napoleon once said, "Leaders are purveyors of hope." Along with the captains, Coach Beilein and Darius Morris proclamations kept the team's hope alive.

Can you and your players remain optimistic and keep hope alive despite solid evidence to the contrary?

4. Keeping It Green
As part of the Michigan Leadership Academy for my late January visit, we really emphasized the importance of leaders being focused and poised under pressure. I shared with the emerging leaders from each of the Michigan teams a traffic light analogy (originated by Ken Ravizza) to help the leaders better monitor and maintain their composure. Basketball players Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway Jr. took the lessons to heart and immediately began applying them on the court.

Whenever one of them wasn't playing well or the opposing team went on a run, Darius and Tim would remind each other to stay in the "Green Light" - meaning to stay calm, confident, composed, and in control - and not let the situation get the best of them. This traffic light analogy seemed to connect with the young players so they could manage their own, each others', and the team's emotions during the various momentum changes that occur throughout the game.

As a highly talented freshman who had tremendous potential, Hardaway Jr.'s play especially accelerated with the encouragement of co-captain Zack Novak. When the team would get in a tight spot, Novak would tell Hardaway, "Tim, you've got to make a play. You're the only one who can make a play right now. You've got to do it. Go make a play." And Tim's green light mindset and play-making abilities would rise to the occasion and be a key to Michigan getting the win.

Can your athletes, and especially your leaders, keep their composure and effectively weather the inevitable storms of adversity?

5. Leaders Stepping Up Big
A final key to the turnaround was the ability for key leaders to step up and make some big plays under pressure. As I mentioned earlier, at 1-6 in conference, Michigan went on the road to play #25 Michigan State in the raucous Breslin Center. That week junior co-captain Zack Novak told the team, "This is our chance right here. We're 1-6 but if we go in and win at Michigan State the season changes just like that. It's an immediate change. Trust me. Everyone's back with us, the fans will love us, and we'll feel so much better about ourselves. We've got to get this win."

Novak himself led the charge against the Spartans making six three pointers and ended up with 19 points to lead Michigan. Sophomore point guard Darius Morris added 17 points and dished out eight assists.

And with Michigan clinging to a two-point lead late in the game and the shot clock running down, junior co-captain Stu Douglass hit a huge three-pointer with 22 seconds remaining to seal the win for the Wolverines. These key leaders put the team on their backs and stepped up big throughout the game to led Michigan to a "backs against the wall" win in the Breslin Center. This emotional and pivotal road win proved to the team that their belief was justified. And was a key turning point in salvaging the Big Ten season.

Can you and your team lean on your leaders to put the team on their backs and carry the team through the tough times?

Michigan successfully battled back from the brink of a disastrous season to finish tied for fourth in the highly competitive Big Ten conference, earn a #8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and barely lost to NCAA defending national champion Duke in the third round of the tournament.

While we all hope you don't find yourself in such dire straits of a 1-6 conference start, hopefully the lessons of the Michigan men's basketball team's transformation and turnaround will help you get your team back on track.

Thanks again to the Michigan coaches and players for letting me share their story...

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