Kansas City, Mo. — They believed everything was possible, right up until the final shot fell short. And of all the lessons the Wolverines will extract from their rollicking run, that’s the one that should stick.
They flipped the scripts on impossibilities, from a team meandering through the season to a team with legitimate Final Four aspirations. From a program trying to recapture its identity, to a program that appears back on the rise.
In the immediate aftermath of the 69-68 loss to Oregon in the Sweet 16, players buried their heads in towels and spoke in low, halting tones. In the middle of the locker room stood John Beilein, as crushed as anyone, yet more hopeful than ever. Oh, the Wolverines will suffer significant losses in the senior urgency of Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin. They could suffer unexpected losses, although D.J. Wilson and Moe Wagner both said they hadn’t given any thought to the NBA.
It’s hard to see either leaving, as they’re still growing into their near-7-foot frames. Assuming they’re back, along with a touted freshman class and a key transfer, Michigan should be even better, capable of topping its 26-12 mark and Big Ten tournament title.
There will be ample time for emotional reflection, and the Wolverines won’t ever forget what this run created, a team already bonding, then bonded forever after the plane incident. In the midst of the postgame gloom, Beilein’s thoughts tumbled out as if he couldn’t wait to get going again, as if he knew his program was back on track.
He wasn’t so sure in February, when Michigan was 14-9 and getting outworked by teams like Illinois and Ohio State. He’s much more certain now.
“I understood we were in a cycle and we’d build back up with some quality kids, and you’ll probably see more of this next year,” Beilein said. “During that stretch in February, we were like, OK, we’re gonna go through this and we’re gonna be good. I don’t know if it’s going to be right now, but we’re gonna be good again one day. I believe more than ever in how we’re going to do things in the future.”
What changed? And more important, how can it stay changed?
For one, Walton blossomed into a fantastic point guard and leader, extremely difficult to replace. But he and Irvin left an imprint on the younger players, including sophomore-to-be guard Xavier Simpson, who already displays a boisterous, vocal side. Walton directed what Beilein was craving to see, a team of free-flowing, interchangeable parts, where everyone could shoot and everyone had a role.
“The life lessons they learned, whatever classroom you go to, you can’t learn what they just did,” Beilein said. “How a team that is really connected can achieve much higher than teams that don’t have that team-first attitude.”
It’s a tough thing to learn, and a tough thing to sustain. And make no mistake, to be an annual contender, Michigan must be stronger on the boards and stickier on defense. Ultimately, those were areas of breakdown in the loss to Oregon.
Wilson and Wagner have alternated positions and moments, and together they’re capable of becoming a force, a pair of 6-10, 6-11 guys who can post up and shoot the three. Both have to get stronger to battle inside, but when discussing Michigan’s chances next season — top-three team in the Big Ten? — that’s a good place to start.
“Hopefully going forward, this team next year will be great,” Walton said. “When I think about it like that, it takes away the pain a little bit. Just how selfless we were, how tough we were, just the determination throughout the entire season. When times got rough, nobody ever folded.”
You hear that from many teams after a long season but the Wolverines were uniquely tested, long before their story took a near-tragic turn. After a Feb. 4 home loss to Ohio State, Michigan was 4-6 in the Big Ten, and it was impossible to envision any tournament run. Sweet 16? Ha. An NCAA bid didn’t seem likely.
To be clear, Beilein’s program was never way off track, and some of the fan angst was weirdly over-wrought. In the past seven years, Beilein’s Wolverines have made six NCAA Tournament appearances, won two Big Ten regular-season titles and one conference tournament title, and reached three Sweet 16s and one national championship game. Perspective, folks.
But also to be fair, there was a nagging sense of stagnation early, and Beilein fretted about his inability to get the team to adopt a feistier edge. He was frustrated, players were confused.
After an agonizing loss to end it, perspective was gained.
“I think I’m getting more philosophical about what goes on in life,” Beilein said with a smile. “Stay with what you think is strong, just stay with it. It’s not always going to be a bowl of cherries. It’s the bad stuff that’s gonna create the good stuff.”
It did this season, and with normal development and an impressive infusion of talent, it should continue. Michigan is bringing in three promising freshmen — Mr. Basketball Isaiah Livers and guards Jordan Poole and Eli Brooks —and will add intriguing former Kentucky player Charles Matthews, a five-star recruit who sat out as a transfer. Two big men — 6-10 Austin Davis and 7-foot Jon Teske — are coming off their redshirts, and many rave about Davis’ potential.
A returning backcourt trio of Simpson, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson presents size, speed and shooting. The Wilson-Wagner combo can be the difference-maker, and while each struggled at times, their confidence rocketed. Wilson took the Oregon loss especially hard, after he gave up a key rebound basket in the closing minutes.
“I don’t really think it was a magical run, I think it was something we were made of, something we had the ability to do,” Wilson said. “A couple plays, we should still be playing basketball right now.”
A couple plays, a couple more consistent players, and Michigan could still be playing basketball next year at this time.