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The Wolverines' Big Ten comeback was stunning, but can they capitalize on it in March Madness?

John U. Bacon

The Michigan men’s basketball team just finished one of the craziest seasons in program history.

After a sluggish start, the Wolverines were in danger of not only missing the NCAA tournament, but even the second-rate National Invitational Tournament.

When Michigan dropped three of its first four Big Ten games in January, senior Derrick Walton Jr. called a players’ only meeting. He told his teammates that if they didn’t start playing serious basketball now, it would be too late.

They dug in on defense, and their offense – led by Walton – caught fire. When these Wolverines are good, they’re great, giving seven teams their worst loss of the season. That includes Michigan State, Purdue, and Wisconsin. The team finished the regular season by winning six of their last eight games.

But all that was only good enough for a lowly eighth seed in the Big Ten tournament. They’d have to win four games in four days – a tall order, which is why no team seeded that low has ever done it.

But a far scarier scenario unfolded shortly after the team plane headed down the runway last Wednesday. Facing 60 mile-per-hour winds, the pilots soon realized taking off would be risky and slammed on the brakes. The plane ran through the runway; crashed through a chain-link fence; rolled through a ditch, snapping off the landing gear; and finally settled to a stop in a grass field, just short of a ravine. The plane was damaged, and Walton took a few stitches in his thigh. But they were lucky, and they knew it.

And this is when John Beilein separated himself from most coaches. Like a sea captain, he took charge. He told his players to call their parents, then helped everyone else off the plane before he got out. 

The problem was that Michigan was scheduled to play its first tournament game the next day in DC at 12:20 p.m. According to beat writer Brendan Quinn, when the league refused to move Michigan’s game back, Beilein told his team, “We have two choices, and I’m with you either way.” They could wake up in the wee hours the next morning to hop on another plane at 7:30 am, then dash through DC traffic to the arena. Or they could forfeit, and Beilein meant it. There were more important things than a basketball game.

The players voted to play. Despite the pre-dawn wake-up and their early flight time, they got caught in D.C.’s legendary traffic and barely made it to the arena in time for tip off. They took the court wearing their practice uniforms because their game uniforms were still trapped under the plane.

And they blew out Illinois, 75-55.

The next day, they faced Big Ten champion Purdue – and beat them in overtime, 74-70.

Then they beat a strong Minnesota team and Big Ten runner-up Wisconsin to win the Big Ten tournament title – the lowest-seeded team ever to win it and the first time for the Wolverines in 19 years.

In the last two months of the regular season, the Wolverines had become a much better team. But in the tournament, they became an inspired team, playing with the kind of energy, confidence, and joy that players have who know what they’re doing, know that they know what they’re doing, and are having a blast doing it together. Watching the players on the bench celebrate the starters’ best plays was almost as much fun as watching the players on the court make those plays.

"They really deserve it,” Beilein said. “They're going to tell their grandkids about those five days."

The NCAA rewarded Michigan with a tough 7th seed. But after everything this team’s been through, maybe that’s not so tough at all.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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