Michigan scout team’s unsung work playing pivotal role
Michigan coach John Beilein can’t help but crack a smile when he brings up the Fab Five.
But he’s not talking about the likes of Jalen Rose and Chris Webber, and it has nothing to do with the Wolverines’ starting lineup.
Instead, Beilein is referring to Michigan’s scout team — an often overlooked and forgotten group comprised of walk-ons Brent Hibbitts, Luke Wilson, Rico Ozuna-Harrison, C.J. Baird and Naji Ozeir.
During the regular season, they’re the ones who are buried at the end of the bench, rarely get their number called and have combined to score 14 points in 40 minutes.
Throughout the NCAA Tournament, they’re the cluster who looks on in a corner of the locker room as the media swarms the starters and wears black tracksuits in the stands, which is fitting considering they spend most of their time lurking in the shadows and out of the spotlight — with the exception of Baird’s 3-pointer that sealed the convincing win over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16.
But behind the scenes, they have all made their mark and played a crucial role that has helped propel Michigan to the Final Four, where the Wolverines will take on No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago in a national semifinal Saturday at the Alamodome.
“Huge, huge,” redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews said of the scout team’s impact. “Those guys have a tough job. They have to learn the other team's offense and got to be ready to execute against us every day. They come prepared to practice every single day.”
That’s where they shine and that’s where they thrive. It’s a responsibility that none of them take lightly as they push and prepare the team for the next challenge that lies ahead, a task that becomes increasingly more vital and difficult with the quick turnarounds in the tournament.
They share the team’s successes and failures, which means after a tough loss they receive the same punishment and run just as much as everyone else. And, sometimes, they even give the starting lineup the business.
“I personally believe people on our scout team can go play for other Division I teams. That's just me,” freshman forward Isaiah Livers said. “They really cause problems for us in practice.
“It helps my game a lot more because I'm actually going against the real deal and not just some pushover guy that's out there.”
For Baird and Hibbitts, one of the most gratifying parts is when they witness guys like fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson and Livers lock-in, execute and perform well after battling one-on-one against them behind closed doors.
“When we run drills in practice or we work as another team in practice, to see the team's response in the game is the most satisfying thing because everybody understands what their role is, how they're supposed to play defense and how they're supposed to adjust to changes in the game,” said Baird, a Detroit Catholic Central grad who started the season as a team manager before being promoted to walk-on status.
“From our perspective, I think everybody is really happy to even say that we helped these guys achieve their dreams and we're a part of that. It's really hard to describe. It's amazing.”
According to Baird, the first moment he thought the Wolverines were capable of making some noise in the tournament was before the regular-season finale at Maryland when nobody could score on the starters.
For Hibbitts, the realization the team was capable of pulling off something special hit him at the Big Ten tournament when Michigan threw itself in the conversation after beating Michigan State and Purdue.
But one of the underlying keys that has boosted the postseason ascent has been a unifying team mentality and close-knit bond where every player — no matter their role — is a needed piece to the puzzle.
“A lot of people say their teams are well-connected and things like that, but I think we're the definition of well-connected,” Hibbitts said. “We do everything together on and off the court. We go to movies together. Everybody loves everybody on the team and I think it's starting to show on the court now.”
Never was that more evident than when Baird hit a 3-pointer and the bench burst into a euphoric celebration in a moment of recognition for those who often go unrecognized.
Since then, Baird has returned to obscurity at the end of the bench. But in the end, it’s all worth it to be a part of a postseason ride that wouldn’t have been possible without the five guys behind the scenes.
“It's nice to know that the hard work we put in is going toward a lot of success — Big Ten (tournament) champions and now we're here (at the Final Four),” Hibbitts said. “It’s very satisfying for us.
“You want to be part of the action, especially in this atmosphere. It's the NCAA Tournament. That’s the toughest part. But we get to live vicariously through each other. We're a family so when one succeeds, we all succeed.”
Michigan vs. Loyola-Chicago
Tip-off: 6:09 p.m. Saturday, Alamodome, San Antonio
TV/radio: TBS/950 AM
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 32-7; No. 11 seed Loyola Chicago 32-5
Up next: Winner advances to Monday’s national championship game against Villanova-Kansas winner.