Beilein has heightened the expectations for Michigan basketball
Des Moines, Iowa — A mixture of sweat, smiles and sweet satisfaction.
That’s the postgame scene that filled Michigan’s water-soaked locker room last season at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan., and at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis the year before.
And shortly after No. 2 seed Michigan dispatched No. 10 Florida, 64-49, at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday, the players and coaching staff once again threw a soggy celebration as the Wolverines earned their third straight trip to the Sweet 16.
“I feel like it's an amazing honor,” sophomore guard Jordan Poole said. “It shows what direction this program is going. Being able to consistently make it to the NCAA Tournament and make it to Sweet 16 shows all the hard work that we’ve put in before this period of time in the summer, all the hard practices and early mornings. To be in a situation like this is amazing."
Quite frankly, it’s a situation that wasn’t even on Michigan’s radar when coach John Beilein set foot in Ann Arbor in 2007. He inherited a program that won 20 games three times the previous nine seasons and hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since the late 1990s.
The goal back then? Just make the Big Dance. By his second year, Beilein did just that and snapped Michigan’s 10-year NCAA Tournament drought.
Then in 2013, the Wolverines broke through and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994 en route to a national title game appearance. They followed that up with a run to the Elite Eight.
Michigan fell a shot short of reaching another regional final in 2017 before returning to the national championship game last season and ripping off two wins in Des Moines to reach the second weekend of the Tournament for the fifth time in seven years.
Add it all up from when Beilein arrived, deep Tournament runs have become the norm and postseason success is what everyone has come to expect.
"If we don't win a national championship pretty soon, somebody will probably fire me and say, 'You can't win it,'” Beilein joked. “It's all relative. If we continue to just have good kids that want grow in basketball, have guys who don't have a lot of maintenance off the court, it shows you can do a lot of great things with them.
“I'm pleased for everything. I know we have so many Michigan fans that basketball is so relevant in their life right now because of this last decade. It's really neat to see. I expect in Anaheim a lot of them will show up and support us."
Yet, the recent wealth of March riches didn't cheapen what the Wolverines accomplished Saturday and doesn’t mean anyone in the Michigan locker room took it for granted.
Junior guard Zavier Simpson understands how hard it is to reach this stage once — let alone three times — and made it known numerous times he was “blessed.” Beilein said while there was a great appreciation for the achievement, there was also a “great sense of relief” to get past Florida.
“We haven't been a No. 2 seed very often,” Beilein said. “The upset rules the news this time of year. We're trying to stay out of those. While I wouldn't see this as a big upset, it's good to get through it and move on.”
Surviving and advancing isn't just a mantra. It's what Beilein has done at Michigan year after year as he has had to deal with roster turnover, staff changes and four different athletic directors to rebuild the program brick by brick.
And while Beilein puts a lot of stock into his Big Ten titles — two regular-season and two conference tournament crowns — he understands college basketball has long been defined by its postseason tournament.
“That's the way I've always judged it,” Beilein said. “That's why I think all our people that have to put up with all our rivals' fans all season long see that Michigan State game as like, 'We've got to beat Michigan State or it's an unsuccessful season.' Well, then you're going to have a lot of unsuccessful seasons because they're really good every year. Some years you're going to beat them, some you're not.
“We should be measured by a lot of things. This is one of them. Are we competing for the Big Ten? Did we get in the NCAA Tournament? And then did we advance in the NCAA Tournament? That's my measuring stick and will always be."
By that measure, Michigan's recent stretch stacks up among the nation's best. The Wolverines are one of only four teams to reach the Sweet 16 each of the last three years, along with Gonzaga, Purdue and Kentucky. They are also one of three programs to reach the national championship game twice in the past six seasons, an exclusive list that includes North Carolina and Villanova.
But the best way to measure how far Michigan has come and how far it is going? That usually involves water.
"I think everybody got at least two, three bottles on Coach B,” sophomore forward Isaiah Livers said. “It’s a great feeling when you’re actually pouring water on the head coach.
"That’s the best feeling in the world.”
NO. 2 MICHIGAN vs. NO. 3 TEXAS TECH
Tip-off: 9:39 p.m. Thursday, Honda Center, Anaheim, Calif.
Records: Michigan 30-6; Texas Tech 28-6
Next up: Winner faces No. 1 Gonzaga or No. 4 Florida State in the Elite Eight