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A Group of Misfits Propelled Michigan to a Most Improbable, Spectacular Run

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Loyola vs Michigan Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

On October 19th, 2017, I asked John Beilein a question. It was my first foray into Big Ten Media Day, and I probably looked like a fish out of water. While the microphone was being passed around and media members lobbed Beilein softball questions, I wanted to ask something that would tell me where he thought his team was now, where he wanted it to go, and where it could be by season’s end.

Michigan scheduled a brutally tough five game stretch during first semester, including four of those five against teams that ultimately made the NCAA Tournament. I wanted to know how Beilein planned on preparing for this stretch, and what impact it could have down the line. The second half of his answer was better foreshadowing then probably he even anticipated.

“We embrace that sudden change, and we’re gonna do the best we can, and I know we’ll be really prepared for the second semester based on that schedule.” The rule, as always, is to never doubt John Beilein.

But plenty of fans did early on, as Michigan struggled through early season games against low major competition despite three victories. The Wolverines headed to Maui, where they dropped a game against Louisiana State that the current iteration of Michigan would have probably won by 20 points. The loss saw Zavier Simpson, the de facto starting point guard after the departure of Derrick Walton Jr., lose his starting role to Eli Brooks for the next 12 games.

Those 12 games included the aforementioned stretch I asked Beilein about, where Michigan looked mediocre for long stretches North Carolina, UCLA and Ohio State. It was hard to gauge how good this team really could be, but all of the hype turned into legitimization as Michigan lost a heartbreaker to Purdue, one of the very best teams in the entire country. That marked Simpson’s second consecutive game back in the starting lineup, a spot he never relinquished for the rest of the season.

The loss to Purdue left Michigan at 14-4, a respectable record, but it was hard to tell whether they would be able to sustain any type of momentum. Nine days later, the Wolverines were curb stomped by Nebraska in a game that was never close for the final thirty minutes. Almost three weeks later, after eking out a victory against a shorthanded Minnesota team, Michigan looked completely flat at Nebraska, mustering only 52 points. The team sat at 19-7, just off the bubble but squarely in position to face a top seed in the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Whatever preparation John Beilein mentioned suddenly kicked in. The Wolverines won their final five games by at least nine points, with offensive juggernaut performances on the road at Wisconsin and Maryland as the ones that stood out the most. After being just above average all season, Michigan finally started to look elite.

Then New York happened. After surviving an ugly slugfest in overtime against Iowa, Michigan faced a Nebraska team in desperate need for a win to make their own case for the NCAA Tournament. The Huskers were never close, as Michigan raced out to a huge early lead and won by 19 points.

This set up a rematch with Michigan State, “overrated” in-state rival but a team chock full of NBA talent. Tom Izzo, who all season couldn’t quite figure out how to manage his rotation, found himself in a world of trouble against Michigan. The Wolverines just wanted it more, winning 50/50 balls and getting huge performances from its veteran players. When it was over, it was Michigan’s second double-digit win over Sparty on the season, with neither game played in Ann Arbor.

The final pitted Purdue and Michigan, the two hottest teams in the Big Ten clashing at the World’s Most Famous Arena. The Wolverines led by five going into halftime that probably wasn’t indicative of Michigan’s near-dominance, but a Jon Teske dunk over Isaac Haas in the second half gave Michigan an 18-point lead they would never give up.

All weekend, MSG was full of maize and blue, and the Michigan faithful had plenty to celebrate. The raucous crowds were electric, creating a homecourt advantage in every game. I was fortunate enough to share those games with friends that had traveled in for the weekend, and we were stoked that Michigan was able to hang another banner.

What we didn’t anticipate was that the run would continue. After a game against Montana that deserves no description, the victory over Houston probably deserves its own article. Michigan played pretty poorly throughout, with only the defensive intensity keeping the Wolverines in the game. After Devin Davis missed two free throws, we were positive that Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman would get the last shot. He had to.

When he drove up the court and the second defender moved toward him, a panic fell over. Surely there wouldn’t be enough time to pass the ball and get off a good final shot. While we panicked, MAAR never did. He delivered an inch-perfect pass to Jordan Poole, the swagger king himself, and the rest is history.

That’s when pandemonium ensued. As a Michigan alum, we’ve been on the wrong end of too many last second debacles in recent memory. So when Poole’s shot went down, we could do nothing but celebrate. Besides for my roommate, I was with an entirely different group of people than the previous week at the Big Ten Tournament. We went absolutely ballistic, knowing that our Wolverines would continue playing.

And so they did. Four days later, I boarded a plane with my dad to Los Angeles to see the Wolverines keep on marching. As I alluded to in a previous article, the weather gods were stuck in traffic on the 405 on Wednesday and Thursday. It completely downpoured, and it led to a more nervous energy before the game as we stayed inside for protection.

Inside the arena, the rains came pouring down again. The Wolverines trounced Texas A&M, who tried everything defensively but ended up giving up 99 points to an offense that was mediocre in every other game this tournament. We hooted and hollered on every single made three-pointer, and C.J. Baird’s last shot nearly blew the roof off. I got to share this experience with two other Michigan friends, one living in Los Angeles and the other making the trek from Chicago.

The second Los Angeles game looked nothing like the first, as Michigan had to scratch and claw against a very good Florida State team. When Duncan Robinson dribbled out the clock, we couldn’t believe it. This Michigan team, one that mustered only one excellent game through the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament, was headed to the Final Four.

We quickly arranged travel plans and made it to Texas on Thursday night, where we picked Austin’s nightlife and barbecue as the obvious choice over the doldrums of San Antonio. The drive down on Saturday morning took about 90 minutes, and the Riverwalk was packed to the brim with fans of teams from all around the country.

If you’ve never been to a Final Four, it’s a giant spectacle. In the organizers’ minds, the game is probably one of the least important parts. There’s a fan fest, March Madness logos everywhere, and just enough basketball players to convince you that any human over 6’5” must have played at some point.

We braved the San Antonio heat and made it through to our seats. After the first half, we wondered why we spent a single dollar to go to Texas. But like all tournament long, Michigan found just enough resilience to knock off Loyola-Chicago. Just like that, the Wolverines secured a place at the table for the National Championship game.

But that was the end of the road for me. After seeing my Wolverines in Madison, New York, Los Angeles and San Antonio, I had to return home to start a new job. When they offered the position with the start date of April 2nd three weeks prior, I half-joked that it would be the night Michigan would be playing for the championship. In a million years, I never thought that would actually happen.

And neither did Villanova. Through the first 10 minutes, the Wolverines dominated, using their length and defense to frustrate the Wildcats. But Donte Divincenzo had other ideas. The Wildcats’ sixth man was electric, knocking down absurd, contested three-pointers en route to 31 points. Every time Michigan threatened to make a mini-run, Divincenzo or Mikal Bridges answered with a backbreaker. With five minutes to go, my roommate texted me only a white flag. We knew the run was over.

As One Shining Moment flashed on my TV screen just before midnight, it got a wee bit dusty in my living room. Rather than be frustrated about how Michigan came so close yet again but failed to finish the job, I reflected back on my prior three weeks being able to attend and cover this team.

I’ll never forget being extremely sick in New York, only summoning the energy to make it from my bed across 34th Street to Madison Square Garden on adrenaline alone. By the time the game ended, the adrenaline would ware back off and I’d hop right back into bed. For those few fleeting hours on Friday, Saturday and Sunday it was the best distraction anyone could ask for.

I got to spend an unbelievable weekend in Los Angeles with my dad, a University of Texas graduate but a proud parent of one Wolverine and two Badgers. In the fall, he visited Indianapolis for the first time to see Wisconsin play in the Big Ten Championship in football. To avoid playing favorites, he excitedly joined me in Los Angeles. We had great meals, visited incredible museums and got to share the experience of watching Michigan make the Final Four.

In Texas, we were just happy to be there. We roamed 6th Street in Austin with crowds that collectively probably had one too many drink. We made friends at the hotel pool, spending hours talking about college sports and life in different parts of America. We went to a basketball game at a football stadium, a deliriously stupid idea in theory and only slightly less idiotic in practice.

But I only got to do all of this because I got to watch my school and my team throw a stupid ball through a hoop for 41 games this season. Even watching at home, the experience of knowing that every week between November and March, some day during the week between 7 and 9pm E.T., we’d have a crew anywhere from two people all the way up to 10 to watch Michigan play.

These shared experiences are what I’ll remember the most. Sure, it was incredible to watch Zavier Simpson morph from an average player to one of the best defensive point guards in the entire country. Charles Matthews, who seemed like a lost puppy for long stretches of the season, regained his offensive touch. We knew if Duncan Robinson got to six points it was all over, and would clamor for that stat to reach its mark. And then there’s big Mo Wagner, the cockiest and most brash player that’s played for Michigan in the last five years, shit-talking and jawing his way all the way to the National Championship Game.

I’ll look back fondly because everywhere I went, I got to have these experiences with other Michigan people who cared just as deeply as I did. Opportunities to travel around the country, see great friends and watch Michigan play don’t come up often enough, and taking advantage felt like a no-brainer.

If you’ve made it this far, send a text or call your friends and thank them for watching Michigan games with you this year. I’m fortunate that I have this platform to write and analyze this team every week, and it wouldn’t be nearly as fun if it wasn’t for everyone who reads and reacts to these articles. This Michigan team will be back next year, but for now it’s most important to savor just how incredible this all was. Without the ability to attend such an amazing university and make long-lasting friends, none of this would have ever been possible.

And for that, forever Go Blue.