Beilein has been down this path before with West Virginia
Ann Arbor – Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr. and Moritz Wagner have heard all the stories.
Throughout Michigan coach John Beilein’s 41-year career, there’s no shortage of tales to reference, from his days as a junior varsity coach at Newfane High in New York back in the late 1970s to his most recent Michigan teams.
But perhaps the one story that sticks out the most involves one of Beilein’s best teams ever – his 2005 West Virginia squad.
Led by senior Tyrone Sally and juniors Kevin Pittsnogle, Mike Gansey, Johannes Herber and Beilein’s son Patrick, the Mountaineers ranked third nationally in 3-point attempts (885) and fifth in made 3-pointers (319). But after a rough start in conference play, West Virginia headed into the postseason on the NCAA Tournament bubble desperate for wins, only to make an unprecedented run in the Big East tournament that springboarded into an Elite Eight appearance.
Of all the teams Beilein has coached over his lengthy career, no one reminds him more of that West Virginia team than this year’s Wolverines.
"That's probably the best comparison you can make because they were fighting and fighting,” Beilein said. “That was a team that started out 10-0 and couldn't win a Big East game then all of a sudden could win a bunch of them. They all bonded.
“Mike Gansey, Patrick (Beilein), Darris Nichols, Rob Summers, guys that were on those teams have reached out to me saying exactly the same.”
Beilein told his players about West Virginia’s remarkable postseason run right before Michigan left for the Big Ten tournament. Beilein recounted how the Mountaineers ran into travel complications when an ice storm hit New York, where the Big East tournament was being held. So West Virginia had alter its travel plans, fly into Scranton, Pa., and take a bus to New York City, a normally two-hour ride that took eight hours.
Despite arriving in the middle of the night before its noon game, West Virginia, the No. 8 seed in the conference tournament, went on to beat Providence comfortably in the first round. From there, the Mountaineers ousted top-seeded Boston College in the quarterfinals, avenged its loss against Villanova in the semifinals and came up short in the championship game to Syracuse.
The magical run unseated West Virginia off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament, where the Mountaineers pulled out a pair of thrilling victories over Creighton and Wake Forest in the first and second round, respectively, before eventually losing to Louisville in overtime in the Elite Eight.
Ironically, Michigan’s postseason story has unfolded in similar fashion. After ending the regular season on NCAA Tournament fence, there was the plane mishap that delayed the team’s travel to the Big Ten tournament, forcing Michigan to arrive mere hours before tip-off of its first game.
Michigan, the No. 8 seed, pounded Illinois in the first round, edged top-seeded Purdue in the quarterfinals, got its revenge against Minnesota in the semifinals, and toppled Wisconsin to become the lowest seed to ever win the tournament title and erase any Big Dance doubt.
The Wolverines rode the wave of momentum into the NCAA Tournament and to a pair of nail-biting victories over No. 10 seed Oklahoma State and No. 2 seed Louisville in Indianapolis last week.
According to Beilein, the one common trait that sparked both teams’ late-season surge is the tight-knit bond and unselfishness amongst the players.
"I think that's the nice thing about this team. Nobody is worried about their individual stat line or their hidden agendas that they might have,” Irvin said. “Everyone just wants to play well for each other. I think when you do that, you get players that start to play so well and that speaks to how well they've been playing."
As Michigan enters Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup against No. 3 seed Oregon in Kansas City, Mo., on a seemingly unstoppable roll, it is four wins away from writing a story no one will soon forget.
"It's really good just to have the feeling that you are part of something special right now, that this is special for (Beilein) with all the teams he's had and he's been very successful,” Wagner said. “That's something very unique and something we can all be very proud of.”
Michigan vs. Oregon
What: Michigan vs. Oregon in a semifinal of the Midwest Region.
When: 7:09, Thursday
TV/radio: CBS/WWJ 950
Seedings/records: No. 7 Michigan 26-11, No. 3 Oregon 31-5
At stake: Spot in Midwest Region final against Kansas-Purdue winner