Sports

How Michigan (not Michigan State, Purdue or Ohio State) became the Big Ten team in the Final Four

LOS ANGELES — When Michigan headed home from Chicago following a sloppy loss at Northwestern on Feb. 6, it would have been difficult to point to anything about it that was memorable or significant. The Wolverines, ranked No. 20 at the time, fell to fifth place in the Big Ten and, at 8-5, were a game behind Nebraska — a team they lost to by 20 a couple weeks prior.

It was a disappointing defeat, sure, but it wasn’t necessarily too surprising — because at the time, Michigan simply wasn’t that good. An NCAA tournament team, almost definitely, but not one that would be expected to do much damage come March.

The Final Four? It couldn’t have been further from the Wolverines’ minds.

Yet, 45 days later, not only is Michigan bound for San Antonio, it hasn’t lost since. The Wolverines won their final five games of the regular season and cruised through the Big Ten tournament, and now they will take a 13-game winning streak to the eighth Final Four in program history.

“It’s crazy to think that’s our last loss,” senior guard Duncan Robinson said. “We’ve grown so much as a team since then. I’m happy to be on this ride with these guys.”

Michigan’s winning streak ranks second in the country to the team it will play next: Loyola-Chicago, which has seen its own streak grow to 14 games during a Cinderella run.

Ask five players on the Michigan team what has changed since that trip to Chicago and you’ll get different answers: toughness, focus, defense, being able to switch correctly on ball screens. The theories vary. They all agree, though, that their unselfishness has been contagious.

It’s why the Wolverines were able to gut out a 58-54 win against Florida State in a defensive struggle Saturday night, just as they were able to have five players in double figures two nights prior in a rout against Texas A&M.

“There is going to be nights like tonight where shots aren’t falling, but you get it done on the defensive end,” senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said. “As long as you get stops on the defensive end, you have a chance to win the game.”

It’s why against Houston in the second round Michigan freshman Jordan Poole was counted on to hit a game-winning shot, and why against Florida State he finished scoreless in two minutes of playing time.

The Wolverines’ ability to adapt and execute in whatever style of game emerges might be their best asset, and it bodes well for their chances at landing the second national title in program history.

“When you’re a 10-year-old boy, you dream about this moment — going to the Final Four,” sophomore center Jon Teske said. “Growing up, I’ve watched this tournament ever since I can remember, just thinking about what it would be like to go to the Final Four and the national championship. But to be in this spot where we’re at right now — going to the Final Four — it’s an awesome feeling. It’s something I’ve always dreamt of.”

It will be the program’s second trip to the Final Four under coach John Beilein, who took the program back to the tournament after an 11-year absence in 2009. The Wolverines reached the final in 2013 but lost to Louisville in the championship game — a title the Cardinals were later forced to vacate.

~Source reference~