'Believe in ourselves': Doubters don't deter UM in quest for NCAA crown
A little extra motivation never hurt the Wolverines.
Before their regular-season victory at Ohio State, coach Juwan Howard showed the team a video of the Buckeyes dancing in their locker room after beating Michigan last season.
Then sometime before Michigan beat Michigan State at home to clinch the Big Ten title, Howard played a clip of former Spartan Draymond Green bashing the Wolverines.
There aren’t any more video clips adding fuel to Michigan’s fire this time of the year. Rather, it’s the number of naysayers and national college basketball experts who don’t believe the top-seeded Wolverines will reach the Final Four.
“We're the popular choice in this room and, in my opinion, that's all that matters,” freshman center Hunter Dickinson said Wednesday. “I don't really care if the public thinks we're going to win.
“Coach Howard is always talking about grind it out. I think that's something that we really are trying to do, especially for me taking it one game at a time. It's easy to look forward to the Final Four and the national championship, but you can’t get there unless you win the first game.”
Michigan will begin NCAA Tournament play on Saturday against the winner of the play-in game between Mount St. Mary’s and Texas Southern. If Michigan wins, it will advance to face the winner of No. 8 seed LSU and No. 9 seed St. Bonaventure on Monday.
And it’s that second-round matchup where some experts are predicting Michigan to bow out. CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated each had eight experts fill out an entire bracket. Of the 16, six had Michigan getting ousted in the Round of 32 — five to LSU and one to St. Bonaventure.
Six experts had the Wolverines losing in the Sweet 16 and three others had them falling in Elite Eight. No one at CBS had Michigan in the Final Four, while one at Sports Illustrated did. Among the two outlets, there were four East Region champions — No. 2 seed Alabama (11), No. 3 seed Texas (three), No. 4 seed Florida State (one) and Michigan (one) — and two experts picked Alabama to win it all.
At ESPN, a collection of 34 experts — men’s college commentators, analysts and writers — provided their Final Four and national champion picks. Only Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Vitale had the Wolverines emerging out of the East Region.
Eleven of Vitale’s colleagues picked Texas to reach the national semifinals, while 10 selected Alabama and 10 had Florida State. No. 7 seed Connecticut and LSU each received a pick just like Michigan.
Certainly, Michigan’s recent stretch has given observers pause. The Wolverines are limping into the Big Dance after dropping three of the last five games and losing senior forward Isaiah Livers, who is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his right foot.
But the last loss — by one point to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals — was particularly painful for the team, according to Dickinson, because of how it ended. Michigan nearly erased a double-digit deficit in the final three minutes and had a chance to win it on the last possession.
“I think that one really hit home, especially for me,” Dickinson said. “I gave it my all out there. When you give it your all and you lose, it really affects you and hurts you.”
Dickinson said the team has done a good job of staying connected during the rough patch. Nobody is pointing fingers, but everyone is holding each other accountable.
When the Wolverines looked back at what went wrong in the recent losses, Dickinson said he noticed some of his mistakes and needs to do better job of staying mentally focused on the offensive and defensive ends.
“I think sometimes the film that he shows, we have lapses, I'm usually one of those people who has those lapses,” Dickinson said. “Sometimes I have spurts where I don't know what's going on out there in my mind, I'm just not locked in. That's what I'm trying to focus on now, treating every possession like it's a one-possession game with a minute left.
“I think it starts with me, personally. I need to do better for the team. After the games I'm thinking of plays where I could've done this, I could've done that, if I had we would've won the game. I want to make sure I don't have that regret the next game.”
Howard sees plenty of value in the adversity Michigan has faced as of late, particularly in the Big Ten tournament. The Wolverines learned to stay within the process when they trailed by double figures in the first half against Maryland before pulling away in the second half.
They stayed the course when they were trailing by 13 points late against the Buckeyes and showed their determination by staging a late comeback with two of their best players — sophomore wing Franz Wagner and Livers — on the bench.
“It’s been a great experience for not only players but the coaches as well,” Howard said.
“All we've dealt with has truly prepared us for this time. Some of the close games that we've had this year, the overtime victory that we've had, a loss during a close game. We've also experienced some games that we've really dominated on both ends of the floor. It's prepared us for this moment.”
Dickinson feels the same way, regardless of what the bracket prognosticators may say.
“I think we're doing a good job of not really focusing on what the media has to say because I don't think we really care,” Dickinson said. “If we would've cared what the media said at the beginning of the season, we would've been in sixth place in the Big Ten and not ranked in the top five.
“I think we've got to continue with what we were doing and just focus in on ourselves and believe in ourselves.”
NO. 1 MICHIGAN VS. NO. 16 MOUNT ST. MARY'S/TEXAS SOUTHERN
Tip-off: 3 Saturday, Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Indiana
Records: Michigan 20-4; Mount St. Mary’s 12-10 and Texas Southern 16-8
Outlook: The Wolverines will play the winner of Thursday’s First Four matchup. 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 automatic bid for the fifth time in eight years.