'It's been amazing': Michigan freshmen warm up to bright lights of NCAA Tournament

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Anaheim, Calif. — NCAA Tournament runs and Sweet 16 trips have become a regular March occurrence for Michigan’s vets.

It’s all redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews, junior center Jon Teske, junior guard Zavier Simpson and redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis have known since joining the program three years ago.

Brandon Johns

But for Michigan’s five fresh faces — Ignas Brazdeikis, Colin Castleton, David DeJulius, Brandon Johns Jr. and Adrien Nunez — it’s an experience they’ve yearned for and a taste they’ve been savoring.

“I'm really at a loss for words when it comes to this,” Johns said Wednesday. “It's something that we've been working toward since the summer and it's been amazing so far. I'm enjoying every little minute of it.

“We're in California now, so it couldn't get any better.”

Of course, it could with an extended stay in Anaheim if No. 2 seed Michigan is able to get past No. 3 Texas Tech Thursday at the Honda Center and return to the Elite Eight for the second straight year.

But the reality is that playing in packed arenas on national television on college basketball’s grandest stage is where all five freshmen thought they’d be. It's what they signed up for.

When DeJulius committed to the Wolverines as a junior at Detroit East English Village, he was hands-on throughout his recruiting process and saw firsthand how the team's success came to fruition the last two years. This year has merely unfolded how he had envisioned.

Castleton added there was a “certain expectation” that came with being recruited by a program like Michigan, which has been aided by the coaching staff’s daily affirmations that a national championship isn’t a pipe dream.

Even with all that, there’s still no way for first-timers to be fully prepared for the spectacle of March Madness.

Adrien Nunez

“It’s pretty crazy. It's even bigger than I expected,” Nunez said. “I expected the big crowds and the media and stuff like that, but to see how much goes into even like the food we get, the hotels, the people around us, the people getting us from point A to point B, the people cleaning the floor, the people making sure everything is on schedule, it’s a huge operation. There's so much everything happening.”

And that everything is happening in whirlwind fashion. Last week, the Wolverines flew to Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, had practice and media sessions on Wednesday, followed by walkthrough, shootaround and a late tip-off against Montana on Thursday.

Rinse and repeat for Friday and Saturday with travel on Sunday. Then after a brief 48-hour stay in Ann Arbor, the cycle started all over again.

“When we won (last weekend against Florida) we had to fly back the next day, go to classes, turn in essays. It's definitely been a shock to me just being involved in how fast-paced it is,” Castleton said. “That's definitely something I've never done in my whole life, having such a tight schedule and always moving to different places and not really having much down time.”

That’s where the team’s elders come in. Castleton rooms with Teske on the road and Teske gave him tips on how to handle the daily grind and quick turnarounds that can be overwhelming for someone who has never had to deal with them before.

While Brazdeikis doesn’t shy from the moment and the big stage, Matthews and Simpson still let him know what it takes to be successful at this time of the year.

“I love this intensity. One and done, you could lose and you're out,” Brazdeikis said. “That's a lot of fun, the whole Tournament feel, the media, the lights.

“You've got to leave it all out there but at the same time not let it get to you. Just play your game, play calm, play relaxed.”

Above all, soak everything in. That’s the one mistake Simpson felt he made and wanted to make sure didn’t happen again.

“I tell the young guys to enjoy the moment. Enjoy every single day, practice, the media, everything leading up to it because it goes by quick,” Simpson said last week. “Last year we were so focused on winning this, I don't think we got a chance to enjoy being in the NCAA Tournament, which is not fortunate for every team.”

That isn’t lost on the young Wolverines, even if most of them haven't seen much game action in the postseason.

They know there are countless players who are watching and wishing they could be in their position, living a reality that most could only dream of.

“It's so surreal,” DeJulius said. “When we reached the Sweet 16 and had the water fight in the locker room, that was such a great moment. I'm hoping we can do that a few more times.”


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins