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Michigan’s magical run ends

The first part of this story, you probably know.

The Michigan men’s basketball stunk so badly two months ago, just about everyone figured they’d never get to the NCAA tournament in March. They had some talent, but other coaches considered them one-dimensional: all offense and no defense. Worse, they said Michigan was soft and lazy – two things no coach wants to hear about his team.

John U Bacon
John U. Bacon

And even worse than that: other teams, and not very good ones, called Michigan a “white collar team.”

Worst of all: They were right.

What could coach John Beilein do? He’d already told them everything they needed to hear. He worked them every practice. But the results weren’t close to what his previous Michigan teams had achieved.

And that’s when senior captain Derrick Walton, Jr., acted like a senior, and a captain. He called a players’ only meeting, and basically chewed out his teammates.

This is rarer than you might think, because it’s asking a lot: not many college students are very eager to tell their friends hard truths, because you risk becoming unpopular. And is there anything worse for a college kid than that?

Walton decided there was: not achieving your potential, because you were too afraid to speak your mind.

His meeting worked. The team started playing defense, which is often a grim, dull business. They started losing close ones against good teams. Then they started winning close ones. Then they started blowing teams out. The Walton-led Wolverines handed seven opponents their biggest defeat of the season.

Right before the Big Ten tournament started, the team’s plane stopped -- well past the runway. The landing gear snapped, Walton received stiches, and Coach Beilein let his team decide if they wanted to hop on a plane the next morning, or forfeit their opening game.

Just as they decided to toughen up after Walton’s meeting, they decided to play after this one. And boy did they, winning four games in four days. Along the way, they beat the Big Ten’s best team, Purdue, for the second time, then the second best team, Wisconsin, also for the second time.

They won the Big Ten tournament, and a 7th seed in the NCAA tournament. They won their first game against a hot Oklahoma State team, 92-91. They’d won six straight games, and had become as tough as anyone in the tournament.

And that’s just one more reason I prefer college sports to the pros: you can actually see college kids grow up before your eyes, and become men. You watch them accept responsibility, respond to pressure, and develop into leaders when following is so much easier. We saw Derrick Walton Jr. transform himself from a passenger to a pilot.

On Sunday, they faced an excellent, if morally compromised, Louisville program. A few years ago, a staffer confessed to hiring prostitutes for their recruits. They beat Michigan in the NCAA title game back in 2013. This year, Louisville was supposed to compete for the national title.

I watched that game in the Michigan Union, while working on my next book. As the game built toward its climax, people gathered to watch the TVs there. I saw undergraduates, graduate students, a 78-year old physics professor, and the guys who clean up the Union, all glued to the TV. When the Wolverines pulled off the upset, they celebrated together. At their best, that’s what college sports can do.

They weren’t just cheering the victory, but the values behind it. They admired these coaches and players, and they should have. These guys do it the right way, and that’s rare. Just ask Louisville.

Michigan’s magical run ended last night, in a one point loss to Oregon – another program that’s had its moral issues.

At some point, Michigan fans have to make a decision: Do you want to win a national title, the way Louisville did? Or do they want a program they can be proud of, on and off the court?

If it’s the latter, then John Beilein is their man, and Derrick Walton Jr is their captain.

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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