The first part of this story, you probably know.
The Michigan men’s basketball stunk so badly in January, just about everyone figured they’d never get to the NCAA tournament in March. They had some talent, but they were one-dimensional: all offense and no defense. Worse, other coaches said Michigan was soft and lazy – two things no coach wants to hear about his team.
Another team, and not a very good one, called Michigan a “white collar team.” Worst of all: They were right.
What could coach John Beilein do? He’d already told his players everything they needed to hear. He worked them every practice. But the results weren’t close to what his previous Michigan teams had achieved.
And that’s when senior captain Derrick Walton, Jr., acted like a senior, and a captain. He called a players’ only meeting, and chewed out his teammates.
This is rarer than you might think, because it’s asking a lot: not many college students are eager to tell their friends hard truths, because you risk becoming unpopular – something few 21-year olds are willing to risk.
Walton decided there was something worse than being unpopular: not achieving your potential, because you were too afraid to speak your mind.
Walton’s meeting worked. The team started playing defense, which is often a grim, dull business. They started losing close games against good teams. Then they started winning close ones. Then they started blowing teams out. The Walton-led Wolverines handed seven opponents their biggest defeats of the season.
Right before the Big Ten tournament started, the team’s plane stopped — well past the runway. The landing gear snapped, Walton received stiches, and Coach Beilein let his team decide if they wanted to hop on a plane the next morning, or forfeit their opening game.
Once again, they decided to toughen up. And boy did they, beating four teams in four days, including the Big Ten’s two best team, Purdue and Wisconsin, both for the second time.
The Wolverines won the Big Ten tournament, and a 7th seed in the NCAA tournament. They won their first game against a hot Oklahoma State team, 92-91, they’re sixth straight. They were as tough as anyone still standing.
And that’s just one more reason I prefer college sports to the pros: you can actually see college kids grow up before your eyes, and become men. You can watch them accept responsibility, respond to pressure, and develop into leaders when following is so much easier. In just two months, we saw Derrick Walton Jr. transform himself from a passenger to a pilot.
On Sunday, they faced an excellent, if morally compromised, Louisville program. A few years ago, a staffer confessed to hiring prostitutes for their recruits. Those players beat Michigan in the NCAA title game back in 2013. This year, Louisville was supposed to compete for the national title.
I watched that game in the Michigan Union. As the game built toward its climax, people gathered to watch the TVs there. I saw undergraduates, graduate students, a 78-year old physics professor, and the guys who clean up the Union, all glued to the TV. When the Wolverines pulled off the upset, they celebrated together. That’s what college sports can do.
They weren’t just cheering the victory, but the values behind it. They admired these coaches and players, and they should have. These guys do it the right way, and that’s rare. Just ask Louisville.
Michigan’s magical run ended last night, in a one-point loss to Oregon – another department that’s had some moral issues.
At some point, Michigan fans have to make a decision: Do they want to win a national title, the way Louisville did? Or do they want a program they can be proud of, on and off the court?
If it’s the latter, then John Beilein is their man, and Derrick Walton Jr is their captain.
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