It’s the rollicking ride of their lives, a feel-good tale of a team that began the season overlooked and melded into something special. It’s a story of perseverance, selflessness and pit-bull defense, of a Michigan basketball team that scrapped its way to the Final Four.
It’s a fascinating story, yet it won’t be the most-lauded tale of fight and fortune Saturday in San Antonio. That will be Loyola-Chicago, one of the most-improbable Final Four teams in NCAA Tournament history, an 11 seed that twice pulled out games in the closing seconds. While bluebloods Villanova and Kansas meet in one semifinal, the Wolverines will face an opponent toting its own remarkable tale of fate and spirit, with an extra dose of spirituality.
Loyola-Chicago isn’t winning by divine intervention, no matter how it looks with its breakout media star, 98-year-old team chaplain Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt. But this will be a divine collision, and sorry to tell the Wolverines, they’ll be forced into the role of the bad guys (figuratively, of course.) Not that it’ll bother them, with their enormous fan and alumni base that packed the stands in Los Angeles, but the average unbiased fan almost assuredly will be rooting for the embraceable bunch from Chicago.
It actually might be the toughest obstacle the Wolverines have faced so far, considering how the bracket has crumbled. Michigan has received plenty of breaks reaching the Final Four — John Beilein’s second in five years — with every top team in its path falling. The highest-seeded opponent was No. 6 Houston, and it took a miraculous 3-pointer by Jordan Poole to win at the buzzer. The Wolverines didn’t shoot well Saturday night — four-for-22 on 3-pointers — but used their smothering defense to beat No. 9 Florida State 58-54.
Explanations or apologies are never required now, and Michigan earned its way. Just be careful celebrating apparent good fortune, because the Ramblers (32-5) play like the Wolverines play, with fierce defense, inside-outside shooting and discipline. They’ve won 14 straight, and pummeled Kansas State 78-62 to get here.
Somehow, Loyola-Chicago is a Cinderella and a legitimate challenger at the same time. And that makes Michigan a favorite and a spoiler at the same time.
“I asked (assistant) Luke Yaklich about them and he said, you know what, Coach, they're a lot like us,” Beilein said. “They have a bunch of good kids. They play together, they play defense. They have a bunch of guys that can shoot. The only difference is they have a wonderful nun on the sidelines rooting them on with some prayers. But we have some prayers on our team, too. We have some people behind us.”
Beilein is proud of his own faith, having begun his college coaching career at Jesuit schools, LeMoyne and Canisius. But somehow I doubt the Wolverines will be game-planning against divine intervention, although in this bizarre Tournament, who knows what forces actually are at play.
Sister Jean’s national legend (“international,” she playfully reminds) has grown because she’s delightful and quotable and a symbol of small-team goodness in an oft-sullied sport. But she doesn’t suit up, although she does have custom-made Jordan sneakers and her own commemorative bobblehead. Asked if they knew who she was, Michigan players were mixed, with Charles Matthews admitting he didn’t and others saying they were aware from social media, where TV images of her are omnipresent.
In the larger picture, Sister Jean represents what the Ramblers are about, and what makes them difficult to eliminate. There’s simplicity in her words and in their style, a sound team that spaces shooters around a big man (6-9 freshman Cameron Krutwig), and virtually anyone is capable of hitting the shot. Senior Donte Ingram beat Miami in the Tournament opener with a buzzer-beater and junior Clayton Custer beat Tennessee in the second round with three seconds left.
Listen to Loyola-Chicago coach Porter Moser, and you’d swear you were hearing Beilein.
“These guys have been investing for a long time on how hard they worked, how hard they believed, and we've kind of had this mantra about the process,” Moser said. “These guys have done an amazing job on laser-like focus on what's right in front of them instead of skipping steps. Why not us?”
Beilein has been known to use the Why-Not-Us? angle, but at least with a three seed that rolled through the Big Ten tournament, it made sense. Since the Wolverines turned it around following a 61-52 loss at Northwestern Feb. 6, it’s not a shock they made it the Final Four. They’ve won 13 straight and have a program-record 32 victories. The shock is in the path, paved clear of imposing seeds, although still pocked with potholes.
Outside of their offensive eruption in the 99-72 blasting of Texas A&M, it’s been tedious at times. That’s why Beilein planned for days like these. He hired Yaklich as a defensive specialist, and along with assistants Saddi Washington and DeAndre Haynes, helped hammer the importance. This is easily the best defensive team of Beilein’s 11 seasons here, and if it wasn’t, the Wolverines would be long gone from the Tournament.
“I’ve never seen a team work so hard and be so connected on both ends of the floor, even when things do not go right on the offensive end,” Beilein said after the escape against Florida State. “They were exceptional on defense. We had that string of plays where Moe (Wagner) was wide open, Charles (Matthews) is wide open, Duncan (Robinson) was wide open, and they didn't go down and sulk at the other end. They ended up just playing better defense so we could win the game.”
It was tense to the end, as Florida State cut a 10-point deficit to three in the final seconds. The Wolverines’ suspect free-throw shooting nearly cost them, but it didn’t, thanks to a 17-point game by Matthews.
Matthews is another of the pieces that found a way to fit, a one-time celebrated recruit who began at Kentucky, transferred to Michigan and spent a year on the scout team, absorbing and growing. He struggled with his shot late in the season but was invaluable against the Seminoles, and along with Zavier Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, gives Michigan a fearsome defensive presence.
Before the season, Matthews had no idea what his would role would be. Same with Simpson, the sophomore point guard who didn’t even start at first. Same with Robinson, who became a sixth man to make way for freshman Isaiah Livers in the lineup. Back then, Michigan was a Big Ten afterthought, considered a fringe Tournament possibility.
“Nah, I’m not gonna lie, I never expected us to make it this far,” said Matthews, averaging a team-high 16.5 points in the Tournament. “But we believe now, and that’s where it all starts, with the belief system. We don't get caught up in the win streak. Like most of the guys, we didn't even know we were on a 13-game win streak. We just stay connected through it all. When you have guys like that who are truly your brothers, anything's possible.”
There’s that mantra again, echoing from the little school in Chicago to the big school in Ann Arbor. It’s the sound of the moment, the theme of this Final Four matchup, ringing louder and truer than ever.