Ann Arbor — John Beilein was up early Sunday morning, and before he and his team hit the road — a day after bowing out of the Big Ten tournament semifinals — Michigan’s coach was kneeling in prayer inside St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in downtown Indianapolis.
After the 8 a.m. Mass, he was stopped by a visiting priest — also in for the Big Ten tournament from Minnesota — “and when I was walking out the door, he said, ‘Coach, I think you’re in.’”
This was good news, all right. This being Selection Sunday, he knew what the man meant. But how did he know?
“I got a guy,” the priest told him, “who’s better than Lunardi.”
That was a reference to ESPN’s tournament bracket guru, Joe Lunardi. But Beilein smiled and — pointing to the heavens — wondered aloud, “Are we talking about this guy? Is that the guy you’re talking about?”
No, actually, it was a different guy. But whoever it was, and however he knew — be it divine providence or merely the RPI rankings — he was right.
Michigan was in, and “I’m so happy for our guys.”
Because they’re still playing. And while we’re not supposed to call this what it is — a play-in game for the NCAA Tournament — Michigan certainly needs to treat it that way.
It’s a prayer answered, and a gift granted. A mulligan, and a second chance in the so-called First Four.
Junior Zak Irvin called it a “fresh start” Sunday night. And regardless of how they got here — it took Friday’s final fling from Kam Chatman for the Wolverines to find their way into the NCAA Tournament field — they now have a shot to make something of their season.
It’s a long shot, but it’s all they could ask for at this point, having limped into the postseason with six losses — all but one by double digits — in their final nine Big Ten games.
They’ll face an even longer shot Wednesday in Tulsa, a team that most bracket projections had eliminated from contention after a 22-point loss to Memphis in quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament Friday night. That left them with a sub-.500 mark (10-11) against teams ranked in the top 200 in the RPI this season. And probably even that guy was surprised to see the Golden Hurricane in the field Sunday.
This wasn’t a very comfortable year to sit on the bubble. All the parity in college basketball left us with few, if any, dominant teams — Kansas, the consensus No. 1 in the field, lost three games in the span of two weeks in mid-January — and plenty of postseason carnage already. Of the 31 conference tournaments that carried automatic NCAA bids this month, only nine were claimed by the top-seeded team.
That left eight or nine teams — maybe more — playing a game of musical chairs this weekend, with only four seats likely available. And whatever good vibes Michigan fans were feeling after Friday’s Big Ten tournament upset of No. 1 seed Indiana, this weekend’s wait was interminable, nonetheless.
Michigan’s players and coaches waited it out behind closed doors Sunday, but they clearly were on edge. Teammates said Chatman, of all people, was the most agitated, pacing the floor and refusing to eat or drink.
Mercifully, though, the expanded two-hour CBS Selection Show was ultimately pre-empted by a prank, as the full tournament bracket was leaked on Twitter right about the time Charles Barkley started grappling with a touchscreen on live television.
No one was quite sure who first spotted the could-be, sure-was bracket going viral on social media. Irvin pegged backup guard Andrew Dakich as the one. Point guard Derrick Walton Jr. agreed, though he admitted he saw it early on and kept it mostly to himself, only whispering to injured teammate Caris LeVert about it.
LeVert then began checking the names as the bracket was revealed on TV, all of them matching.
“But I don’t believe it until I actually see it,” Walton laughed afterward.
And when he finally did?
“The wait is worth it, man,” said Walton, who admitted it would’ve been “devastating” to miss the tournament for a second straight year. “When you know you’re in, the excitement and the moment itself, it’s just indescribable.”
Now, though, what will they make of this moment? And can they make it last? Walton insists the Wolverines discovered something in Indianapolis, in that overtime win over Northwestern and that clutch rally to upset Indiana.
But most fans — and the selection committee, too, apparently — will believe it when they see it again. And they’ll have to if they want to see it in a game that truly counts for something, with a first-round date with Notre Dame — an Elite Eight team a year ago — awaiting the play-in winner in Brooklyn on Friday night.
“After all the adversity we’ve had, just for the committee to see that and give us this opportunity, we're thankful for this,” Irvin said. “We didn’t care where we were put. We’re a dangerous seed, no matter what they put us at. We just can’t wait.”
They won’t have to wait as long as most of the rest of the field, obviously.
And for that, Beilein says he’s thankful, based on some encouraging play with three games in three days in Indianapolis. His staff will get Tulsa scouted, coach up the team the next 48 hours “and play.”
“And then play again,” he said hopefully. “And then play again. It’s a great opportunity for us after a long, challenging season to keep playing now in March.”
Not long after he’d finished saying that, though, someone alerted him to the news about Wednesday’s tip time. It’ll be the late game in Dayton, with a tip time after 9 p.m.
“Oh, God,” Beilein sighed.
Not all prayers are answered, obviously. But this time of year, in college basketball, you take what you can get and move on.
Michigan vs. Tulsa
What: East Region play-in game
When: Wednesday, 9:10 p.m.
Where: Dayton Arena, Dayton Ohio
TV / radio: truTV / WWJ 950
Records: No. 11 Michigan 22-12, No. 11 Tulsa 20-11
At stake: Winner meets No. 6 Notre Dame in first-round game Friday in Brooklyn, N.Y.