A Week to Remember for Michigan Basketball

The Michigan men’s basketball team just finished one of the craziest seasons in program history.

After a sluggish start, the Wolverines were in danger of not only missing the NCAA tournament, but even the second-rate National Invitational Tournament.

When Michigan dropped three of its first four Big Ten games in January, senior Derrick Walton Jr. called a players’ only meeting, telling his teammates that if they didn’t start playing serious basketball now, it would be too late.

They dug in on defense, and their offense caught fire – led by Walton. When these Wolverines are good, they’re great, giving seven teams their worst loss of the season, including Michigan State, Purdue, and Wisconsin. They finished the regular season by winning six of their last eight.

But all that was only good enough for a lowly eighth seed in the Big Ten tournament, out of 14 teams. They’d have to win four games in four days – a tall order, which is why no team seeded that low has done it.

But a far scarier scenario unfolded came shortly after the team plane headed down the runway last Wednesday. Facing 60 mile-per-hour winds, the pilots soon realized taking off would be risky, and slammed on the brakes. The plane ran through the runway, crashed through a chain-link fence, rolled through a ditch – snapping off the landing gear – and finally settled to a stop in a grass field, just short of a ravine. The plane was damaged, and Walton took a few stitches in his thigh. But they were lucky, and they knew it.

And this is when John Beilein separated himself from most coaches. Like a sea captain, he took charge, telling his players to call their parents, then helping everyone else off the plane before he got out, last.

The problem was, Michigan was scheduled to play its first tournament game the next day in DC at 12:20. According to beat writer Brendan Quinn, when the league refused to move Michigan’s game back, Beilein told his team, “We have two choices, and I’m with you either way.” They could wake up in the wee hours the next morning to hop on another plane at 7:30 am, then dash through DC traffic to the arena. Or they could forfeit, and Beilein meant it. There were more important things than a basketball game.

The players voted to play. Despite the pre-dawn wake-up and their early flight time, they got caught in D.C.’s legendary traffic, and barely made it to the arena in time for tip off. They took the court wearing their practice uniforms, because their game uniforms were still trapped under the plane.

And they blew out Illinois, 75-55.

The next day, they faced Big Ten champion Purdue – and beat them in overtime, 74-70.

Then they beat a strong Minnesota team and Big Ten runner-up Wisconsin to win the Big Ten tournament title – the lowest-seeded team ever to win it, and the first time for the Wolverines in 19 years.

In the last two months of the regular season, the Wolverines had become a much better team. But in the tournament, they became an inspired team, playing with the kind of energy, confidence, and joy that players have who know what they’re doing, know they know what they’re doing, and are having a blast doing it together. Watching the players on the bench celebrate the starters’ best plays was almost as much fun as watching the players on the court make those plays.

“They really deserve it,” Beilein said. “They’re going to tell their grandkids about those five days.”

The NCAA rewarded Michigan with a tough 7th seed. But after everything this team’s been through, maybe that’s not so tough at all.

* * * * *

Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their FULL name. 

My latest book, “ENDZONE: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” debuted at #6 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, and is still going very strong. The paperback version,with 57 pages of new interviews with Harbaugh and others, is out. Literati and Nicola’s have signed copies

Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit and Flint, and 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later,  I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on WTKA.com, 1050 AM.

I also join Michigan Radio’s great Cynthia Canty on her afternoon Stateside show every Monday for a few minutes, and occasionally on NPR’s Morning Edition, and the afternoon Here & Now show. Check ’em out!

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-John
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3 comments Leave a comment  

  • Chris March 17, 2017 at 10:38 am

    Great story. True Wolverine spirit!. This is a group that is destined to do well in life, which it the most important game we all play.

    Reply
  • Patricia Gold March 17, 2017 at 2:42 pm

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    You really captured the spirit of the Big Ten tournament. And you’re right–watching the reactions of the kids on the bench was truly a delight. I admire John Beilein even more after learning of what he did to ensure the safety of everyone on that plane. And Derrick Walton, Jr., is playing with an intensity and swagger that is so much fun to watch! Thanks for an article that captures that amazing five days.

    I always enjoying hearing you banter back and forth with Sam and Ira on WTKA.

    Reply
  • Jim March 18, 2017 at 10:00 am

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    Great job as always Bacs. Watching the Wolves from out here in CO. Are you still leading our skaters in scoring.
    Go Blue
    Goolie

    Reply

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