The Comeback Kids: Young Wolverines Show Adversity Fuels Their Collective Fire

Basketball

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — All is quiet on the Wolverine front. Michigan secured its Sweet 16 berth Saturday and will not leave for Anaheim until Tuesday. It provides a chance for perspective and brings into focus just how remarkable this season has been as Michigan (30-6) prepares to play in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year.

“I do keep track of some things. That might be five how many years? Five in seven years,” John Beilein said in the locker room Saturday night after his team shut down Florida en route to a 64-49 victory in Des Moines. The 49 points were the Gators lowest scoring output in eight years.

Michigan is going to the Sweet 16 for a fifth time under Beilein, the most trips under any Michigan head coach. The Wolverines have also reached 30 wins for a second consecutive season (first time in program history team has won 30 or more back-to-back) and a third time (2013, 2018) in Beilein’s 12 seasons on the bench. Every season the Wolverines have hit that mark (1989, 1993, 2013, 2018,) they have managed to reach the National Championship game. For a team with no seniors, and three juniors who played sparingly (Simpson, Teske) or not at all (Matthews, Redshirt) during the 2016-17 season, it shows how much the team has grown over the last year and the course of this season.

“It’s something special,” Teske said of advancing to the Sweet 16 for the third time in his career. “A lot of guys don’t even make the tournament, so for me to make it three years in a row, is something special. Winning in March is a lot of fun, so we gotta keep playing our game.”

Perhaps the surest sign of growth were the displays of dominance the Wolverines put on in Des Moines, which came after the team felt low following a third loss on the year to Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament championship game. Despite losing to the rival Spartans three times in three weekends, the Wolverines were galvanized by the Big Ten Tournament title loss, and carry momentum into Thursday’s Sweet 16 game with Texas Tech.

“We were salty to each other,” Beilein described the team’s demeanor before trying to turn things around for the NCAA Tournament. “How many times do you get to play two championship games, and lose twice to the same team? That was tough… That could have torn us apart, but it actually brought us together.”

Michigan has managed to use losses as a turning point dating back to the 2016-17 season. The Wolverines are 7-0 this season when coming, a streak that concluded with Thursday’s 74-55 win over Montana. The team has not lost back-to-back games since January 29 and February 4, 2017, after which the Wolverines current run of 75-17 began.

“You know I can get used to this,” said assistant coach Saddi Washington with a smile. Washington joined the Michigan staff before the 2016-17 season and is now Beilein’s longest-tenured assistant. “For so long you miss out on these opportunities of playing in this tournament, and then when you come into a program, and you’re with a group of young men who stay committed to the process, it’s special.”

As a familiar path takes shape for the Wolverines in their quest to return to the Final Four, needing to beat a Texas school then playing either Gonzaga or Florida State, the focus for Michigan is singular: raise that banner.

“People think that we lose momentum after the regular season because we lost three straight times to our rival in three weeks,” said sophomore Isaiah Livers after the Florida game. “We still had momentum coming in here; we still had one goal: to win a national championship. It kind of reminds me of last year’s team with Duncan, Moe, Muhammad, Jaron, all those guys who were just relentless. I know we don’t have a lot of seniors or a lot of vets on this team, but you never know when you’re going to be blessed with this opportunity, and you just go for it.”

As the Wolverines chase that return trip to the Final Four, and the national championship the program has played for three times since last winning the whole enchilada in 1989, Beilein put the team’s success in perspective compared to where the program was at ten years ago.

“That’s the way I’ve always judged it,” Beilein said referencing the team’s NCAA Tournament success. “I think all our people that have to put up with all of our rival fans all season long, see that Michigan State game as ‘we gotta beat Michigan State or its an unsuccessful season!’ Well then you’re gonna have a lot of unsuccessful seasons because they’re really good every year. Some years you’re gonna beat them, and some years you’re not. We should be measured by a lot of things, this (The NCAA tournament) is one of them. Are we competing in the Big Ten? Did we get in the NCAA Tournament? Did we advance in the NCAA Tournament? That is what my measuring stick will always be.”

A lot of things could happen this coming second round weekend in Anaheim, Kansas City, Louisville, and Washington D.C. For Michigan, there is a nonzero chance the ultimate measuring stick could appear: facing Michigan State one last time in the Final Four. While many dominoes need to fall in the proper order for that to happen, Michigan will focus on what could be a defensive battle against Texas Tech Thursday. The Wolverines will depart for Anaheim confident in their abilities to match up with anyone as they try to extend their season as long as possible.

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