- Considered a longshot for the national title back when the season started, Michigan has played itself all the way into the Final Four—and now has a legitimate chance to win the whole thing.
LOS ANGELES — Inside the victorious Michigan locker room, atop a carpet long soggy from spilled water bottles, someone pushed a white board against the wall. The right side of this white board told the story of the Wolverines season. On top, someone had affixed a picture of a dog, maybe a pitbull, its mouth twisted into a grimace, teeth out, spit flying everywhere. And below the picture someone had scribbled a single word followed by three exclamation points.
It read: Final 4!!!
That was Michigan this season, a team that wasn’t defined by baggy shorts or future NBA stars or thought early on to be a national championship contender. That Michigan played a junkyard-dog-type defense, and that defense became the Wolverines' identity, and that identity carried into the Big Ten season and the NCAA tournament and an Elite Eight game on Friday. In that game, against Florida State on Saturday at the Staples Center, Michigan basketball played defense as well as any football squads under Bo Schembechler, and because of that dominant D, they battered the Seminoles, winning 58–54 on a night where they made fewer than 40% of their shots.
The win personified the picture affixed to the white board and it led to the slogan scribbled underneath. The Wolverines were indeed headed back to the Final Four, in perhaps the most unexpected bid in program history, with not only a legitimate chance to win but also a scheduled date with Loyola-Chicago in the Final Four where Michigan will be favored to advance.
“There’s just been this constant improvement all year, this upward trajectory,” forward Duncan Robinson said. “This is where it led.”
To here, after all the Michigan missed free throws and the Florida State comebacks thwarted, when the final buzzer sounded. Robinson flung the ball about 20 feet in the air and an arena filled with Michigan fans erupted in celebration. “It felt like a home game,” he said, hat turned backward, a snippet of the net tucked into the brim.
The fans lingered afterward, dancing to Celebration, swapping hi-fives, recounting the season that was and that will continue, from starting their campaign unranked to the two losses in November to the Big Ten tournament championship to the NCAA buzzer beater from freshman guard Jordan Poole that toppled Houston and sent the Wolverines to Los Angeles. What a year it was.
The players gathered on the stage that had been assembled hastily near half court. They donned Final Four hats, tilting them sideways, and tugged T-shirts over their jerseys. This revelry wasn’t as intense as the (first) water fight after Poole’s one shining moment but it marked a worthy celebration.
Here was a team that started the season in the “receiving votes” category of the top 25, although that was misleading, because Michigan was also loaded with talent and tradition. What it lacked was a superstar, a future lottery pick, a takeover-games type. Yet here they were, the Wolverines, headed to the Final Four. They are the fourth team in school history to win 30 games (they're currently 32–7) and that history is encouraging. The other three teams … won a national title (1989), lost a national title (1993) and made the Final Four (2013). Good company, more or less.
“Hold it up! Hold it up!” the fans chanted, until coach John Beilein lofted the trophy from the West Region overhead. Then the crowd performed some group karaoke, belting out Hail to the Victors! so loud it probably could be heard in Hollywood, a good 40 minutes of traffic hell away.
The 2013 Michigan team starred Trey Burke, the future NBA guard whose three-pointer tied a Sweet 16 game against Kansas, allowing the Wolverines to come back in overtime and triumph. So many of the current players saw that shot. Watching it go in, Poole said, was the first time he had ever considered Michigan.
For C.J. Baird, one of the team’s walk-ons, Burke’s triple cemented his love for all things Wolverine. Baird was watching the game in Florida, visiting his grandparents. He watched the shot go in and “went crazy,” he says, running onto the balcony and screaming and running up and down the stairs of his grandparent’s apartment complex. He was so loud, he says, the neighbors yelled upstairs to tell him to shut up. “I saw that team go to the national championship,” he said. “I really believe if we continue to stay together, stay connected, we’re going to make that run again.”
It sure felt that way on Saturday, with former Michigan football star Desmond Howard and former basketball star turned well-known coach Rudy Tomjanovich in the stands here to serve as stand-ins for the Lakers' regulars, like Jack Nicholson. They were on hand to watch this cast of characters that Beilein had assembled. Guys like Moritz Wagner, the German who barely registered with recruiting services; or Zavier Simpson, whose father called, asking the Wolverines to recruit his son; or Robinson, who transferred from a Division III liberal arts college.
There was also Charles Matthews, the Michigan player who possessed the most NBA talent and idolized Kobe Bryant and played like him on Saturday. He was good enough to play at Kentucky but didn’t succeed there and transferred to Michigan. Before the Wolverines opened their NCAA tournament against Montana, he stopped his teammates as they left their first practice for the locker room. “Everybody back in here,” he told them, gathering his teammates for a huddle. “We’re going to win the whole thing,” he announced.
Then on Saturday night at the Staples Center, that same Matthews staked Michigan to a 27–26 advantage at the half, scoring 10 points. Matthews was key to this match-up in particular, because the Seminoles presented the Wolverines with problems, because the Seminoles were long and athletic and deep; they played 11 players with regularity. They forced Michigan into 11 turnovers and a 7-of-21 shooting performance in the first half. But the Wolverines adjusted. Story of their season. Matthews finished with 17 and Moritz added 12 and while many of his teammates missed foul shots to keep Florida State in the game, Robinson made two big ones near the end that cemented the Wolverines' triumph.
“It’s insane,” freshman forward Isaiah Livers said. “We just keep getting to a bigger stage and we just keep winning that.”
Make no mistake about it: Michigan will contend for the national title in San Antonio. The Wolverines will be favored in their Final Four contest and they are likely to be underdogs should they advance to the national title game. To do so, they will start with the strength of their team this season: defense.
Michigan ranked as high as third in KenPom rankings for defensive efficiency. They do that with a big shot blocker like Wagner and several athletic, long wings that can rotate in. Mostly, said Luke Yaklich, an assistant coach and defensive specialist, the Wolverines improved defensively this season because they worked at that specifically. “We raised our defensive standard,” he said.
Yaklich saw glimpses of what was possible as early as Michigan’s overtime win over UCLA on Dec. 9. He really saw it when went to Texas and topped the Longhorns three days later. “They played an unbelievable defensive game that day,” he said. “That got them in a rhythm.”
That carried over into Saturday, against Florida State. Michigan limited the Seminoles to a 31.4% shooting percentage and held guard Terance Mann, the Seminoles' best player, to seven points.
While his players took turns snipping off pieces of the net, Beilein made his way courtside, for a radio interview. He saw a group of supporters lining the front row there, cheering him on, yelling compliments about his game plan, the season he guided his team through and even for his yellow-striped tie. He held his right arm aloft and pumped his fist. This was for them, the people who believed the way his team believed, who saw the raw talent and potential coalesce in the most unlikely special season of all of Michigan’s special seasons. It was on to San Antonio, whether anyone expected that or not.
“Did anyone expect us to be this good?” assistant coach Saddi Washington asked. It was a relative question, one he did not expect to answer. Maybe, he said. Maybe not.