DES MOINES, Iowa – Every kid who picks up basketball dreams of playing under the brightest lights, showing their talent on the grandest stage, and winning a championship. For a relatively young Michigan team, the feeling that the NCAA Tournament brings on is unmatched.
“It’s just incredible, it’s a dream,” said Isaiah Livers. “When I was a kid, I always dreamed of playing in March Madness, and we are about to go at it for year two.”
Michigan has five freshmen on the team, led by Ignas Brazdeikis, who will play in their first NCAA Thursday night when No. 2 Michigan faces No. 15 Montana (9:20 ET, TNT) in a West Regional Round of 64 game.
“It’s cool because I was thinking in my hotel room (on Tuesday night,) let me turn on a game,” said Colin Castleton. “I’m like oh wait we got a meeting to go to; I can’t really sit back and watch like I did last year.”
“This is crazy. This is probably one of the best experiences I have gotten to experience so far,” said Brandon Johns. “This is my first time being here, and this is a really amazing time already. Hopefully, we can go far so we can get the full experience if you know what I mean.” Johns said with a wink. The East Lansing native watched Michigan compete in the Final Four in San Antonio last year in person.
Brazdeikis has a chance to leave his mark as the Wolverines hope to make a deep run. After finishing the regular season as the team’s leading scorer (15.0 points-per-game) and being voted the Big Ten Freshman of the Year as well as being named to the All-Big Ten Tournament team on Sunday. The ever-confident freshman is ready to keep proving himself in the big dance.
“I just want to win, that’s it. I want to have that banner. Put that second banner in the gym,” Brazdeikis said.
The NCAA Tournament is always noted for how random it can be. Michigan opened tournament play in 2018 against Montana by letting the Grizzlies get out to a 10-0 lead early. The Wolverines needed a Jordan Poole miracle shot at the buzzer to make it out of the Round of 32 against Houston. The team’s elder statesmen have reminded the younger players to take every moment in because it all could end as soon as Thursday night.
“It’s win or go home now, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s pretty much like a new season,” said Jon Teske. “Me, JP, X, Charles, take the experience from the last couple years we have and give it to the younger guys. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity when we’re winning in March, there is nothing better than that. The young guys right now are all taking it in, kind of enjoying the moment, living in the moment.”
The Wolverines have amassed a record of 17-3 in elimination games (Big Ten and NCAA Tournament) since Zavier Simpson, and Teske arrived on campus in 2016. For Michigan to try and make its third consecutive Sweet 16, the team will need to find the form that allowed it to blitz Iowa and Minnesota last weekend en route to the Big Ten Tournament title game. Simpson has been reminding teammates not to take the opportunity or opponent for granted.
“We knew they were a great team going in,” Simpson replied, reminiscing back to the early hole the Wolverines fell into against Montana one year ago. “They just punched us in the face a couple of times first, which was good! It allowed us to wake up, but then again, this is the NCAA Tournament, there is no team that should not be in, at least I don’t think. Montana is a great team; we should be excited.”
The Wolverines have reasons to be confident going into Thursday’s game, and as is the norm under John Beilein, the team will rely on doing what it does best: Prioritizing the fundamentals and preparing well for every team.
“We prepare for every single game very similarly. We take every single team we play very seriously,” said Brazdeikis. I feel like that relieves a lot of the pressure on the court. I definitely know this is the biggest stage in basketball, so I’m gonna be ready.”
As for the coach himself, sticking to treating every opponent with the proper level of attention and coaching in postseason tournaments for the better part of 40 years has taken a bit of the shine off the experience for Beilein.
“It all gets lost in everything,” he told reporters. “Especially now that I coach and you get done on Sunday and all of a sudden you’re playing again. You’re just working, you get on the plane, you get here, and you’re just working. One of my biggest fallacies would be I never embrace this stuff, I just work.”
While the coach may not be embracing the atmosphere, Michigan’s players certainly will. The young players will lean on the veteran core that helped the Wolverines get to the National Championship game as Michigan begins its march through March Thursday against Montana.