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Michigan, Man!

Amid an NCAA tournament devoid of a true Cinderella, a nation of hoops enthusiasts has fallen hard for this year’s closest thing: a traditional blue blood occupying an untraditional position after going from conference afterthought to sleeper national title threat — with a plane mishap in between

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

John Beilein stands at a lectern inside the University of Michigan’s Crisler Center, straight-backed and polo-clad and surrounded by microphones and cameras, and from almost the first moment he opens his mouth, the Wolverines’ men’s basketball coach smiles.

He smiles when he says “Good afternoon” to the assembled reporters in Ann Arbor and again when he comments on the date. It is nice, he explains smilingly, to still be playing basketball in the last third of March. “When you come out of practice and it’s light out, and you’re still playing basketball,” Beilein says, “that’s a really good sign.”

He smiles when he mentions the bond among his players and again when he charts their improvement over this season, mentioning the growth of players from Moritz “Moe” Wagner to Derrick Walton Jr. and his team’s transformation from a Big Ten afterthought to a sleeper national championship threat. The smile is subtle but omnipresent, like something outside Beilein’s control. His words meander, and he grins his way through sharing the memory of coaching in 2003 at West Virginia against then-Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony (“There was no scheme for that”), a digression into Canadian basketball culture (“such a fertile ground”), and even a quick mention of junior Oregon big man Jordan Bell (“He’s a problem”). At one point, about halfway through a press conference to preview his team’s Thursday Sweet 16 matchup against Bell’s Ducks, Beilein’s lips go wide even as he talks about traveling violations, unable to contain himself as he speaks the words, “I get so upset.”

It’s hard to blame him now that his Wolverines have reached their third Sweet 16 in five years. The no. 7 seed in the Midwest region and 27th overall seed in the field will face the third-seeded Ducks in Kansas City, and they seem a decent bet to win. All of this in March of a season that months ago looked lost, on track to end outside the NCAA tournament and perhaps even outside the NIT. All of this as Beilein — he of the two Big Ten regular-season titles, one conference Coach of the Year award, and a trip to the national title game in 2013 — has fought off grumblings among his own fan base about his recruiting and his team’s defense, and calls on message boards for his job. All of this with a team that is suddenly the hottest in the country, in the Sweet 16 after a four-wins-in-four-days run through the Big Ten tournament; a team that Louisville coach Rick Pitino compared to the Golden State Warriors after the Wolverines upset his 2-seed Cardinals in the round of 32. A team that, in the absence of a true Cinderella, feels at times like the closest thing to one this tournament has got. A team that seems to be having more fun than any other left in the field.

Beilein keeps talking — about transition offense and out-of-bounds execution, about the depth of the Big Ten. At one point, he turns to logistics. He talks about routine and about travel and about how he wants his players to “stay sharp and rest.”

“We’re going to do the exact same thing we’ve always done,” he says. “The Sweet 16 is just another two games. We’re going to have the same prep as we did before the Big Ten tournament.” And here, again, he grins. “Of course,” the coach says, “the Big Ten tournament travel got a little more complicated.”

This is what it’s like to be a part of Michigan basketball deep in March 2017: unable to stop smiling even when referencing a plane accident.

It’s the kind of story that transforms over time, beginning as a moment of horror before becoming an inspiring anecdote and then some day in the future hardening into the stuff of lore.

On March 8, the Michigan basketball team boarded a chartered flight from Willow Run Airport near Ann Arbor that was scheduled to head to Washington, D.C., for the Big Ten conference tournament. High winds whipped as the plane sped down the runway, and the pilot aborted takeoff. (A preliminary investigation suggests a mechanical issue contributed to the incident.) The plane skidded off the runway and through a fence, stopping short of a ravine. As detailed by MLive’s Brendan Quinn, Beilein helped to stabilize inflatable chutes used by players, staff, and cheerleaders who exited the plane and ran. Star senior point guard Walton required stitches after clipping his knee on an emergency exit door. Senior swing man Zak Irvin called his mother and cried. Players and staff looked back at the plane, afraid that it might explode.

It didn’t. The Wolverines scheduled another flight and promptly rolled through their conference tournament, winning four games in four days, one in their practice uniforms (the game unis were held up as part of the crash investigation), and three over teams (Purdue, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) that finished above Michigan in the conference standings during the regular season. A week and two NCAA tournament wins (over Oklahoma State and Louisville) later, the Wolverines had gone from Big Ten afterthought and NCAA tournament bubble team to a squad with a real chance to reach the Final Four.

The plane incident serves as a convenient line of demarcation — the Wolverines, of course, have not lost since. “We’ve just been working and working and working, [not thinking] about what could have been,” Beilein told WXYT-FM. “We’re already a close-knit group,” Irvin told reporters before Michigan’s first-round game against Oklahoma State. “If possible, I think that brought us closer.”

But Michigan’s run of form has been building over a matter of months, coalescing as Walton, sophomore big man Wagner, and several other players began realizing their own potential, stepping into roles that have pushed this team beyond expectations and into the Sweet 16.

He smiles again. “Very funny,” Beilein says, and he nods to the back of the media room, through a windowed wall where Wagner and Walton stand, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, making faces at their coach.

“What do you call that?” Beilein says. “Photo-bombing?” He laughs again. “They’re press-conference-bombing.”

For the next several minutes Wagner and Walton pace around outside the room, laughing together as they wait for Beilein to finish and for their turn in front of the reporters. They are vastly different players with wildly dissimilar paths to this point, but each is critical to Michigan’s chances of continuing its run.

Walton grew up nearby in Detroit, a four-star prospect, star at Chandler Park Academy, and the successor at point guard to 2013 national player of the year Trey Burke. Walton has spent much of his career uncomfortable in Burke’s vacated alpha role, preferring to facilitate rather than to look for his own shot. “So much was expected of him,” says Mike Fitzpatrick, host of the popular Michigan Man podcast. “He has all the skills, and he’s so quick, and so tough. But he always has just seemed like he didn’t want to be the guy who took the big shot. He didn’t want to step into that role. Coming after Trey Burke, who always wanted that role, fans would really give him a hard time.”

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Through the first half of this season, Walton’s passivity and Michigan’s struggles seemed deeply intertwined. Six points in a brutal loss to Virginia Tech, nine in a blowout defeat to UCLA, five in a home defeat to Maryland. After a January 11 loss to Illinois that dropped the team to 11–6 on the season, Walton called a players-only meeting, gathering the Wolverines in a hotel room. Rather than lecturing his younger teammates, Walton vowed to take on a greater role himself. He later said that he realized he needed to become the dominant player that Michigan lacked.

“It’s like a light switch came on,” says Fitzpatrick. “He just decided, ‘I’m a senior; I’m a captain; these young players are looking to me to lead, and I need to take over.’” Walton carried Michigan through the meat of its conference schedule, scoring 20-plus in five straight games in late January and early February, then going for 29 and 22 points in the last two games of the Big Ten tournament run before burying Oklahoma State with 26 points and 11 assists in 39 minutes in Round 1 of the NCAAs.

Now Walton stands in the media room, beaming just like his coach as he reflects on his team’s run. “I felt like we always had the pieces,” he says. “The moment we put it all together, we would put the whole nation on notice.”

As Walton lifted the Wolverines through February and early March, he gave his teammates time to develop into the pieces the Wolverines lacked. Fellow senior Irvin emerged from a January slump to become a reliable double-digit scorer. Junior D.J. Wilson — who redshirted his first year on campus and barely saw the floor last season — has added 50 pounds to his 6-foot-10 frame and grown into a legitimate NBA prospect. Against Oklahoma State, Wilson showed an ability to space the floor as a stretch 5. Against Louisville in the second round, he showed he could bang with the Cardinals’ bigs.

“He had to work on embracing contact,” Beilein says. “He wanted to score, but he didn’t want physical contact. When you’re 6–10 and 190 pounds, it doesn’t feel good — contact. But when you’re 235 or 240, you still have that in your mind even though now you’re hurting people. He’s started to embrace that. You’ve got to be convinced that this is fun. Contact is fun.”

Wilson has paired with Wagner, another floor-stretching big man, to give Michigan perhaps the most versatile frontcourt pairing left in the field.

It may be the most memorable image of the opening weekend of the tournament: Moritz Wagner screaming. There’s Wagner screaming alone. There’s Wagner screaming with Wilson. And then, of course, a more subdued Wagner, mouth fixed in a half-scream, open just wide enough for his tongue to wag.

He was Sunday’s breakout star: 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting against Louisville, showing the size and skill to score from anywhere on the floor and the unchecked exuberance to let everyone know just how much he enjoys doing it. A native Berliner who barely understood the significance of March Madness until he arrived stateside in 2015, Wagner has assumed complete control of his sport’s grandest spectacle. “One of my youth coaches used to say I was somebody who sees the basketball court as a stage and really enjoys it,” Wagner says to reporters in Michigan’s media room. “Last year I just started to understand what that really means. I embraced it this year.”

He’s embraced it by letting no bucket go uncelebrated and no call go unchallenged. His game is full of reckless wonder, often dazzling and infuriating on the exact same play. “If you go back to my first press conference,” remembers Beilein, “I said he’s gonna look like a star — like a can’t-miss NBA player — one minute, and then you’re gonna say, ‘How could Beilein give him a scholarship,’ the next minute.” He pauses. “Right now you’re seeing more of the first than the second.”

Walton laughs when Wagner is mentioned. “He’s one of those guys you love to have on your team,” Walton says, “but if he’s not on your team he really agitates you.” He certainly agitated then-Indiana coach Tom Crean when he barreled over him after knocking down a 3 in Bloomington in February. And he seemed to agitate Michigan State’s Nick Ward, who received a technical on February 7 in Ann Arbor after he tripped Wagner as they walked back to their respective benches for a huddle. And at times, yes, he has even agitated Beilein. When asked if he has to walk a fine line between controlling Wagner’s worst tendencies and unleashing his best ones, Beilein smiles once more and says, simply, “Yes.” Moments later he continues. “In the timeouts, he’s really into it,” Beilein says. “Sometimes we have to say, ‘Would you just be quiet? We’ve gotta go play!’”

Wagner grins, a little sheepish, when asked about his own expressions of emotion. “It’s not something I consciously think about,” he says. “It’s just coming out of me. I can’t really control that. That’s just me. I won’t change that at all. It’s a huge part of my game.”

There was a time, just a few months ago, when the Michigan fan base roiled with calls for Beilein’s head. In January, fans turned their attention away from the Wolverines’ resurgent football program and tuned it to a basketball team that was stagnant and soft, inept on defense and one-dimensional on offense. Yes, Beilein had made Michigan a fixture in the tournament. Yes, he’d gotten them within minutes of a national title in 2013. But the program seemed to have stalled. There was no ascent to the same plane as Tom Izzo’s Michigan State program, no return to the former glories of the Fab Five. A ceiling had seemingly been reached.

“If you’re from here in Michigan, and you take an hour trip north to East Lansing, you see the program at Michigan State and think this is what Big Ten basketball is supposed to be like,” says Fitzpatrick. “And it’s about recruiting. Michigan State gets the four-and-five-star recruits. You look at Michigan. Same resources, this coach who’s supposed to be a guru, and you ask, ‘Why are we getting two-and-three-star guys? Why are we having to go find players in Germany?’ I think there was just a sense that Beilein had maxed out what he could do here.” Since taking the Michigan job in 2007, Beilein has yet to sign a McDonald’s All American. During that time, Izzo has signed six at Michigan State.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Now here we sit in March — the Spartans eliminated and the Wolverines peaking at exactly the right time. All year, Michigan seemed to represent the Big Ten’s mediocrity. Now it joins Purdue and Wisconsin as teams with still-intact paths to Phoenix. The criticisms have vanished as quickly as they came, at least for the moment. Beilein’s basketball team has continued the momentum begun in the fall by Jim Harbaugh’s football team, returning the Wolverines to the national prominence that has strangely eluded them in recent years.

One run in March can make a season’s worth of struggles feel meaningless. Beilein’s job feels safe. Michigan’s momentum has continued to grow. Walton has assumed control of his team, and Wagner and Wilson have grown into the roles required of them. Though Oregon’s balance and efficiency are sure to push the Wolverines, another win seems possible — Michigan is favored by 1.5. And though it would be followed by a difficult game against top seed Kansas or fourth-seeded Purdue (whom Michigan beat earlier this month in D.C.), a trip to the Final Four is within reach. Regardless of what comes next, though, Beilein already has plenty of reasons to smile.