Kansas City, Mo. — Michigan’s remarkable postseason run has captivated college basketball fans across the nation.
From a harrowing plane incident to a team that has taken flight in March, the Wolverines also have drawn support and praise from numerous teams over the past two weeks.
Add Thursday’s Sweet 16 opponent Oregon to the growing list.
Ducks forward Jordan Bell said he has a friend who transferred from Michigan, and has been following the Wolverines throughout the season as a result.
“We have all been rooting for them to win until now because obviously we want to win. We’ve all been cheering them on,” Bell said. “We understand that going through a thing (plane incident) like that can really bring a lot of heart and passion out of people, so we’ve just been rooting for them.”
Michigan had been one of the hottest teams heading into the NCAA Tournament and entered Thursday’s matchup at the Sprint Center on a seven-game win streak and victories in 12 of its last 14 games. And if not for Michigan uncharacteristically missing nine free throws in an overtime loss at Minnesota on Feb. 19, and losing on a last-second, buzzer-beater layup at Northwestern on March 1, the Wolverines could have had a perfect record over the past six weeks.
But after the team’s charter flight skidded off the runway at Willow Run Airport on March 8, Michigan garnered national attention for its inspiring run through the Big Ten tournament by winning four games in four days and becoming the lowest seed (No. 8) to ever win the championship.
“I think definitely an experience like that would bring you that much closer together, realizing what is important in the grand scheme of things,” Oregon guard Casey Benson said. “Definitely they have carried that since that happened into the postseason. They’re playing at a high level with a lot of confidence, so we’ve got to match the intensity.”
Unlike Bell and Benson, Oregon coach Dana Altman said he doesn’t have time to root for any teams, but noted what Michigan has gone through is a “unique story.”
“Obviously having something like that happen really puts everything in perspective of what’s important,” Altman said. “Sometimes we get so tied up in the season that we really believe that winning and losing is the most important thing. You do lose perspective. I’m sure that really brought them together.
“I do think it’s a great story, though, and how Coach (John) Beilein says they have bonded and it’s made them much closer.”
But it’s also an incredible tale in which Oregon is hoping to provide the last chapter.
“It’s just another team in front of us and we have to attack it headstrong,” Oregon forward Dillon Brooks said. “I’m just trying to crush everything and help my teammates get over that hump in the Sweet 16 and try to make it to the Final Four and create our own book.”
In Beilein’s 10 seasons at Michigan, he has set the all-time program mark at 215 wins and counting, and has guided the Wolverines to three Sweet 16 appearances.
When asked why he’s not as appreciated by casual fans outside the Midwest as other coaches like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Beilein shrugged off the question.
“Our program is about Michigan and it’s about those kids. I don’t care about that,” Beilein said. “I came up a lot different than everybody else and I am blessed to be in these situations. I don’t want to be measured by those.
“I would love to be measured by, what are those kids like on the court and how they represent our university and what are they like many years later and not about the trophies. The trophies will come.”
… Entering Thursday’s game against Oregon, seniors Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. rank second and third, respectively, in the nation in minutes played at 1,308 and 1,286, trailing only Duke’s Luke Kennard mark of 1,314 minutes.
With Duke eliminated from the tournament and Walton and Irvin each averaging roughly 35 minutes a game, they are on pace to surpass Kennard and claim the top two spots.