Role reversal: Wolverines turn heel for Final Four
San Antonio — Michigan knows what it’s like have the entire country rooting for it in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, the Wolverines are going to find out what it’s like to be on the other side of that unyielding support when they face this season’s Cinderella team, No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago, in a national semifinal on Saturday.
Last season, Michigan captivated the nation with an inspiring postseason run after a scary plane mishap when the team’s charter aborted takeoff and slid off the runway at Willow Run Airport one day before the Big Ten tournament.
The Wolverines rode an emotional wave to four wins in four days to become the lowest seed to ever win the conference tournament, then all the way to the Sweet 16, where they fell a shot short of advancing to the Elite Eight.
This time around, the only fans who will be cheering for Michigan will likely be those wearing maize and blue, while the majority will be pulling for the underdog Loyola.
“It’s definitely flipped,” fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson said Thursday following the team’s practice at the Alamodome. “It’s been an incredible story that a lot of people have got behind and it’s been fun to follow, quite honestly.
“It’s not very often that teams make a run like that at all, not just a mid-major. High-major, low-major, it doesn’t matter. It’s special.”
Michigan was deemed a team of destiny following its harrowing ordeal and drew national notice for its inspiring postseason performance.
While Loyola has taken on a different title, it has garnered just as much — if not more — media attention for being a feel-good story — a team playing in its first Final Four in 55 years.
“To be on the other side, it gives you perspective,” junior forward Brent Hibbitts said. “Like last year we can look at the teams that we played and we think what they were thinking, ‘Oh, wow. This team is going to play with so much motivation. They went through all this.’
“Now we’re thinking the same about Loyola. They’re a smaller school. They made it to the Final Four. They’re going to come out and they’re going to play hard. It gives us perspective both ways.”
Having that experience, though, also gives Michigan a sense of what’s in store and what it’s like when you have millions of people in your team’s corner.
“It’s all confidence. It goes straight to confidence,” Hibbitts said. “After we got in the plane crash, we felt like nothing is as big as deal as almost losing our lives. We had so much confidence going out and playing free, and everybody wants (Loyola) to win. When everybody is at your back, man, it’s hard to lose.”
Junior center Moritz Wagner shrugged off the idea that Saturday’s game will have a Michigan-against-the-world feel to it, which is a far cry from last week’s games in Los Angeles that arguably felt like more of a home game than any one in Ann Arbor this season.
“I mean, I don’t care. It’s just basketball,” Wagner said. “It’s a whole surrounding thing that we don’t really care about. We at Michigan always have a lot of people that cheer for us and if that’s all, that’s enough. We’re all we need.”
And that’s likely all there will be as most fans will want to see Loyola continue its magical run and move one win from becoming the lowest seed to ever take home the national title.
“We’ve had our backs against the wall all year,” freshman guard Jordan Poole said. “We weren’t even supposed to make it far in the Big Ten tournament. We played the Michigan States and the Purdues, but when we got something to prove to people I feel like that’s when we play at our best.”
If there’s one Michigan player who might’ve secretly been cheering on Loyola throughout the postseason, there’s a good chance it was redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews.
Matthews, a Chicago native, played his high school ball at St. Rita, which is roughly 20 miles from Loyola’s campus.
“I’m ecstatic for them,” Matthews said. “I know the tough parts of growing up in that city. To see the positivity (the tournament run has had) and shedding light amongst the children in the city, I’m happy for them.”
Matthews said while he wasn’t sure if it was the matchup that was made to be, both teams are fortunate to have made it this far.
“I don’t know if it’s destiny. I don’t get into those kind of thoughts,” he said. “It’s March and anything can happen.”
What’s in the name
Robinson said he grew up a fan of the San Antonio Spurs, but former stars David Robinson and Tim Duncan have nothing to do with how he got his name.
“That’s not why (my parents) named me,” Robinson said. “A lot of people give me that.”
Coincidentally, though, Robinson said he has a poster in his room with the two Spurs standing next to each other and it says “Duncan Robinson.”
“Obviously that name means a lot around here,” he said. “A lot of people have stepped onto that (Alamodome) floor and done a lot of great things. I have the name connection and hopefully that’ll rub off on me being in this city.”
Michigan vs. Loyola-Chicago
Tip-off: 6:09 p.m. Saturday, Alamodome, San Antonio
TV/radio: TBS/WWJ 950
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 32-7; No. 11 seed Loyola Chicago 32-5
Up next: Winner advances to Monday’s national championship game against Villanova-Kansas winner.