Wolverines trying to put plane incident in past
Indianapolis — It didn’t take long for the questions to start coming.
As seniors Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin took the podium ahead of Friday’s NCAA Tournament first-round game against No. 10 Oklahoma State, the topic quickly centered on Michigan’s remarkable run from near tragedy to triumph in last week’s Big Ten tournament.
“After the emotional ride you guys had in the Big Ten tournament, how do you reset, move on to this and not have a letdown after that?”
“Can you take us back to last week and the decision to actually continue to play and fly to Washington rather than forfeit the rest of the tournament?”
“I don’t know if you guys want to revisit that or not. From guys who were on the inside, was there a real fright in your minds and hearts? Do you think that had any effect on bringing you guys together and what happened in Washington?”
Walton and Irvin graciously answered each question before heading to the locker room, where the discussion and media horde followed with even more questions for even more players about recounting their emotions and reliving the harrowing experience.
Back at the podium, the conversation turned to Michigan facing an Oklahoma State team that went through a terrible tragedy in 2001, when a plane crash killed two basketball players, six people in the team’s traveling party, the pilot and co-pilot.
“I tried not to think about what could have happened, particularly if the plane would have got up in the air,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I thought about that. I thought about Evansville. I thought about Marshall. You think about all those tragedies that have happened in sports that really there’s a lot of — we’re just blessed.
“We’re just blessed it never got to that point.”
Oklahoma State braces for ‘hottest team in the country’
But with only one guaranteed game left and no safety net to save Michigan’s season, it has reached a point where the Wolverines are ready to put it all behind them and just play.
“Well it’s funny,” sophomore center Moritz Wagner said, “because obviously there’s the plane crash and it’s all a great story but we also know it’s a little bit overrated in the sense — I don’t know how to put it — it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t win again.
“At some point it’s history. It’s a very sad thing. It’s a feeling that you don’t really want to have again and going through that emotion again is something that’s nerve-racking and not enjoyable. It gave us perspective and we have that perspective now living that out and that’s it.”
Michigan has become America’s darling in a sense, a team riding the wave of a feel-good story that many are expecting to make another inspired run, this time in the Big Dance.
Despite the overwhelming amount of attention the team has garnered — from national papers and stations to crowded locker room sessions — senior forward Sean Lonergan said the team has handled it in stride, even if the spotlight has shifted slightly from its performance to its circumstance.
“I can understand why that happens but we don’t try to focus on what people are saying about our game or even too much about the experience in the incident that we had,” Lonergan said. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re excited to be here. We’re happy that we’re playing in the NCAA Tournament and we’re going to try to let our play speak for itself and let the others decide if that’s good enough or not.
“A lot of people are tuning in now and I think that’s fun for everybody to have some extra eyes on you. We talk about how we play better when our backs are against the wall. Maybe a few more eyes won’t hurt to put the pressure on us and get us going.”
For starters — or at least Irvin — it all starts with tuning out the noise and the same lingering questions.
“At this point we just want to play,” Irvin said. “We’ve moved on from that moment. Obviously that’s a memory that we’ll all live with and always have, but now we’re just looking at the road ahead.”
No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 10 Oklahoma State
What: First-round game in NCAA Tournament
Tip-off: 12:15 p.m. Friday
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Records: Michigan 24-11, Oklahoma State 20-12