No. 1-seed Michigan faces Mount St. Mary's-Texas Southern winner on Saturday in East Region
The last time Michigan was a No. 1 seed, Juwan Howard was wearing the maize and blue. Nearly 30 years later, the Wolverines earned the top mark again with Howard guiding them.
Michigan (20-4) will enter NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 seed in the East Region and will open play on Saturday against the winner of Mount St. Mary’s and Texas Southern, a pair of No. 16 seeds who will face in a play-in game on Thursday.
"I was excited to see that we were seeded No. 1 because this team — our players and staff — worked so hard to get to this point the entire year," Howard said Sunday. "It's been a very long journey. At times it's been stressful, but there have been a lot of highs outweighing the lows.
"Now the real work starts, and we're looking forward to that."
If Michigan wins, it will advance to meet the winner of No. 8 LSU and No. 9 St. Bonaventure on Monday. Other teams in the region include No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Texas and No. 4 Florida State.
It’s the first time Michigan has received a top seed since 1993, when Howard was a sophomore and the Fab Five lost in the national title game to North Carolina, and third time in program history.
“Right now, I’m as calm as can be," Howard said. "As a player, I remember the time, being a No. 1 seed, being a No. 6 seed and also my junior year being a No. 3 seed, there are a lot of different emotions going on as a player. You’re really excited, you’ve worked so hard leading up to this point. Every college basketball player wants to get to the tournament because all of them want to win. The ultimate goal is to cut down the nets and win a championship.
"Now, as a coach, I get that opportunity again. I will never forget going back to my (introductory) press conference when I said I have unfinished business. This is the unfinished business."
Michigan was the last team on the 1-seed line, following Gonzaga, Baylor and Illinois. But unlike the other three, the Wolverines have stumbled as of late and appear more vulnerable than invincible.
They’ve lost three of five, have had some rough shooting stretches and are marching on without senior forward Isaiah Livers, who is out with a stress fracture in his right foot. While that may appear to lower their ceiling, it hasn’t shaken the Wolverines’ belief that they can go all the way.
“I'd be lying if not every single player in that locker room fully believes that we are the best team in the country and that we will win the national championship,” freshman center Hunter Dickinson said after Saturday’s Big Ten tournament semifinal loss to Ohio State.
“I think the confidence starts with Coach Howard. He instills that kind of confidence in us every day and I think it really rubs off on the team. It's really hard to go undefeated in a season. I don't think it's been done in quite some time.”
Neither has winning a national championship at Michigan. Since taking home the program’s lone NCAA Tournament title in 1989, the Wolverines have reached the final four times — 1992, 1993, 2013 and 2018 — and come up short each trip.
Even though Michigan’s title odds will take a hit with Livers, the team’s second-leading scorer and top 3-pointer shooter, sidelined indefinitely, Dickinson still feels like the Wolverines have enough pieces to be the last team standing.
“If you go into the NCAA Tournament thinking that you're going to lose, then you're going to lose,” Dickinson said. “It's on the back of our shooting shirts — for competitors only. As a competitor, if you go into the game thinking you're going to lose, odds are you probably will lose.
“I have the utmost confidence in the rest of the players to step up. Zay obviously (provides) some big shoes to fill, but I think it's possible to put a Band-Aid on a wound.”
Michigan has qualified for its fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament and has at least reached the Sweet 16 each of the past three events, a streak Howard will look to extend.
And while the Wolverines may be wounded and limping into March Madness, Howard said the recent tough stretch and everything they’ve faced this season has prepared them for whatever hurdles and adversity lies ahead.
“To deal with having a pause within your season when you're playing great basketball and not knowing if there's even going to be a season, it's not easy,” Howard said. “Then to come back the way how we responded after that pause and fight through it, not make excuses for ourselves, it's not easy. To deal with injuries of key guys to our team, that's not easy at all.
“They are going far beyond some of the expectations that has been placed on this team. I'm in the trenches with this group all day, every day. Am I proud of our team? Damn right I am. I love this group. These guys play hard for each other and it's beautiful to be on the sideline to see it. Give them the credit. They deserve and earned to be in this position that they're in.”
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s/Texas Southern
Tip-off: 3 p.m. Saturday, Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind.
Records: Michigan 20-4; Mount St. Mary’s 12-10; Texas Southern 16-8
Outlook: The Wolverines won 18 of their first 19 games before sputtering a bit, but they still managed to grab a top seed in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in program history. Their reward is an opening matchup against Thursday’s First Four winner. Mount St. Mary’s won the Northeast Conference tournament to earn its sixth trip to the Big Dance since 1995, while Texas Southern snagged the Southwest Athletic Conference’s auto bid for the fifth time in eight years. The two teams are a combined 3-13 in March Madness and neither has made it past the first round.