Dienhart: How the Michigan Wolverines found their NCAA tourney mission
There has been no better story this March then the improbable run of the Michigan Wolverines.
It began down the stretch of the regular season, when Michigan finished on a roll. A big turning point in the season was after a 16-point loss to Illinois. That’s when Illini big man Maverick Morgan uttered a quote that seems destined to go down in Wolverine lore.
“They are more of a white-collar team traditionally and at Illinois we’re about toughness and together,” Morgan told reporters after the 85-69 Illinois win in Champaign. “Not that they’re not but we kind of pride ourselves on defense and that’s something we’ve been working to get better at.”
The connotation: The Wolverines were soft. At that point on Jan. 11, the Wolverines stood at a crossroads of sorts with an 11-6 overall record and a 1-3 Big Ten mark. Soon thereafter, a team meeting was called. But that didn’t get the team all the way back.
More humility was needed. And, Ohio State provided it.
The rival Buckeyes came to Ann Arbor on Feb. 4 and whipped Michigan, 70-66. That made the Wolverines 14-9 overall and 4-6 in the Big Ten. It was Michigan’s second loss in a row. The Wolverines’ finesse image seemed to be reinforced in this game, as Michigan’s rep for being soft on defense and around the basket was underscored.
This was a game Michigan was favored to win — against an opponent that didn’t shoot well. Bottom line: The Wolverines lost because they were outworked on the glass and couldn’t deal with the Buckeyes’ size and athletic ability.
“Sometimes, it was about the bounce of the ball,” D.J. Walton said after the OSU defeat. “Sometimes, it was just those guys keeping the ball alive with just great effort. I wouldn’t say our effort wasn’t there. I would just say that maybe their effort was a little bit more at times.”
A lack of effort? Unacceptable.
So, the white collar label was followed by a brutal home loss vs. a less-than-great Ohio State. Those events set Michigan on a new trajectory that changed the course of what is becoming a magical season.
“Our guys have had quite a wild ride here in the last six weeks, [after] we lost to Ohio State at home,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “It was lower than low at that point for us, to lose a home game to a rival.”
After the Ohio State loss, the Wolverines finished strong—winning six of eight games to close the season. And they looked to make some noise in the Big Ten tourney, while solidifying an NCAA bid. Entering the postseason event, Michigan was projected by most to be a No. 10 seed. The bubble? It wasn’t far away. The Wolverines needed to play well in the Big Ten tourney. Go one-and-down, and the Wolverines possibly may not go to the Big Dance.
That’s when the team’s season took an unexpected turn that served as an even more galvanizing force than a disparaging quote and ugly home loss, a unifying experience more powerful than anything that could take place on the court: The team endured its plane careening off the runway on an aborted takeoff on the way to the league tourney in Washington, D.C.
Afterward, Beilein had his team vote on if it wanted to fly out the next day or just stay home and forfeit. The team voted to go. Arriving just hours before its opening game vs. Illinois, Michigan was a force in the victory. And, the team just kept on winning—all the way to the league tourney title in taking four games in four days.
Nope. This was a team on a mission.
“Ever since then our kids sort of put their backs to the wall and have played really good basketball,” Beilein said. “There’s been two losses, one in overtime at Minnesota and one on a heroic great play by Northwestern, and other than that we’ve played really good basketball for those six weeks and couldn’t be prouder of our group of young men.”
No. 7 seed Michigan will take on No. 3 Oregon tonight in the Sweet 16 in Kansas City. And, at this point, you almost expect the Wolverines to win. The already have knocked off No. 11 Oklahoma State and No. 2 Louisville in the NCAA tourney.
If Michigan tops the Ducks, it will take on the winner of No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 1 Kansas. Anything seems possible for the Wolverines, who are 12-2 in their last 14 games.
“It’s a matter of finding a way to win,” said Beilein. “The difference isn’t much, guys, but if you all give a little bit more, right? We have to will stuff to happen. You have to work hard. I really stressed the outlier things, too, and all our staff did. When you have great kids to work with, they’ll believe and you they trust you.”
Maybe all the way to the Final Four.
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