Des Moines, Iowa — Believe it or not, there was a time Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis wasn’t boisterous and flamboyant.
At least that’s according to Florida freshman guard Andrew Nembhard, a fellow Canadian who played with Brazdeikis for two years on a club team when they were in fifth and sixth grade.
“He wasn't as loud,” Nembhard said on Friday, a little over 24 hours before the two would share the court again in an NCAA Tournament second-round game at Wells Fargo Arena.
“He was a little, quite guy actually. Always confident though, but now he shows it a little more.”
Nembhard added Brazdeikis was always of the strongest kids and played with the same bully-ball type of mentality that he does. And Brazdeikis’ 3-point celebrations? Those didn’t exist yet.
But even back then, Nembhard could tell that Brazdeikis was destined for big things.
“Iggy was a great player since we played on the fifth-grade team,” Nembhard said. “He was always a real good shooter, real good player, real good scorer. I'm really proud of him."
The two eventually rejoined forces and played on Canada’s national team in the 2016 FIBA U17 World Championship. Brazdeikis averaged 14.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists in the event, while Nembhard averaged 5.4 points, 3.7 assists and three rebounds.
That’s when Nembhard said he started to see Brazdeikis play with more emotion and become more demonstrative on the court.
"I guess I didn't really come out of my shell back then. I was more chill,” Brazdeikis said. “But now I am who I am. I don't care about what anyone thinks about me, so I'm just expressing myself without any restraint. I don't care what anyone thinks about me at all. Who I am on the court, that's who I am."
Not long after that, their paths crossed again when Brazdeikis and Nembhard were both being recruited by Florida and Michigan. Florida was among Brazdeikis’ final three schools and Nembhard took an unofficial visit to Ann Arbor.
Michigan coach John Beilein recalled Brazdeikis opted not to take a visit to Florida after he took a trip to Michigan and was "really pleased with that because a young man from Toronto can go down to Florida at the wrong time of the year and it could be a very appealing situation."
Nembhard said he talked to Brazdeikis “a little bit” during that time, but they never talked much about both going to Florida.
“If it would've happened,” Nembhard said, “it would've nice.”
But so far, it’s worked out for both parties.
Brazdeikis and Nembhard both made the all-freshman teams in their respective conferences. They’re both full-time starters and key pieces. And come Saturday, they’ll both be playing under the bright lights with a spot in the Sweet 16 up for grabs.
"We definitely know each other pretty well," Brazdeikis said. "We've been playing with each other for a long time. It's cool playing with him on this kind of stage.”
Florida assistant coach Darris Nichols spent the first three years of his career playing under Beilein at West Virginia. And when he decided to get into coaching, it was Beilein who helped him get into the profession.
“I still call him, and I still watch him play even when we're not playing,” Nichols said. “I still watch him play and just try to pick up different ideas. When I got into coaching I definitely talked to him…so he's been a big help for me even after playing for him.”
Nichols said he leans on what he learned from Beilein and tries to emulate his knack for teaching the basics and fundamentals.
Nichols noted how much Beilein has changed his stuff over the years, whether it’s with the offense due to the shot clock being shortened or with the recent transition to running a more defensive-minded team.
“It's definitely a change,” Nichols said. “When I was there we had to play almost every zone in the book just to be relevant defensively. That's why he's one of the best coaches in the business because he has adapted. The thing is when you continually adapt, I think that's why he's gotten better.”
The Big Ten posted a 7-1 record in NCAA Tournament first-round games with Wisconsin being the only team eliminated.
The conference’s early postseason success didn’t come as a surprise to Beilein considering his team’s closing stretch.
Over Michigan’s last 11 games, the Wolverines have played just two Big Ten teams that didn’t reach the Tournament and win a game: Penn State and Nebraska. And over that span, Michigan won seven games.
“Last year we had four NCAA teams, right?” Beilein said. “I think that's prepared all the Big Ten teams for playing at this level this time of the year.”
… Several of the Wolverines have been wearing pink Jordans throughout the postseason.
While former Wolverine Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman used to wear them out of superstition, sophomore guard Jordan Poole said it’s just a matter of preference.
“I think there's very little creativity that we are able to express on the team and with the pink shoes we were given them as a team and we actually liked the shoes,” Poole said. “But they're also extremely comfortable, so that's why I wear them. I don't know about anybody else."