A Very Mad Start to March Madness — Plus a Lot of Michigan

I can’t recall March Madness starting with more mayhem.

In the first round alone, the lower-seeded team pulled the upset in eight of 32 games – fully a quarter. And it only got crazier in the second round, when six of 16 lower-seeded teams beat the favorite – which is fully… more than a quarter, I think.

I didn’t know the University of Buffalo had a Division I basketball team until they upset 4th seeded Arizona. But then, I didn’t know the University of Maryland at Baltimore County was a school until its 16th-seeded basketball team pulled the upset of the ages, knocking off top-ranked Virginia to become the very first 16th seed to beat a one-seed in the tournament’s long history.

To his credit, Virginia coach Tony Bennett handled the historic upset with uncommon grace, saying, “This is life. It can’t define you.” But this Tony Bennett left his heart in Charlotte, North Carolina.

On the fun side, Loyola-Chicago surprised both Miami and Tennessee, led by team chaplain Jean Dolores-Schmidt, a 98-year old nun in a wheelchair. She became a national sensation cheering on her Ramblers from the stands. May I suggest a new slogan: Fear The Nun.

The list of victims included 3rd-seeded Michigan State, which lost a 2-point cliffhanger to 11th seeded Syracuse. Thus ended another great season for Spartan head coach Tom Izzo, who won his eighth Big Ten regular season title, and 13th overall. The Spartans were a favorite of many experts to win the NCAA tournament – which shows you what that’s worth.

On Michigan’s side of the bracket, the top five teams all went down before the weekend ended. That left the Wolverines as the highest seed still standing – but even that took a minor miracle.

After winning their second-straight Big Ten tournament title, the Wolverines had to wait 12 days to play again. They came out sluggish against Montana – Montana plays basketball? – falling behind 10-0 before taking over late in the game.

The next round was even scarier for the Wolverines, when they trailed Houston by two points with just 3.6 seconds left. They’d been shaky all night, missing free-throws and lay-ups, but their solid defense kept it close.

Coach John Beilein drew up the final play, and it was a beauty. Michigan threw the ball to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-RAHKMAN – yes, that’s one person – while he was running up court. When he drew two defenders, he flipped the ball over to freshman Jordan Poole, who hadn’t scored a point the entire half. Now he had the ball in his hands, a half-mile from the basket – and he drained it. All net. The three-pointer sent Houston packing, and Poole’s teammates chasing him in sheer joy.

The only pretty part of the win was the last shot. But at tournament time, there are no ugly wins. You either lose and go home, or you survive and advance.

After another win Thursday night, Michigan is still live, and now has a much easier path to the Final Four since so many good teams have gone home.

If the Wolverines stick around long enough, the national press might discover that they represent the antidote for all the bad press college basketball has justly received this year, from FBI investigations to assault charges to whatever mess comes out next.

Earlier this season, Michigan went to Maryland for the Terrapins’ last home game.  Traditionally, a coach will pull his seniors out near the end so they can enjoy one last thank-you ovation from the home crowd – but because the game had been close, Maryland had run out of time-outs. Beilien called one himself, so the opposing seniors could enjoy one last bow.

This is a team led by a coach who is so squeaky clean that, he once said of a party, “It was crazy. We had subs.” As in, submarine sandwiches – commonly served in junior high school cafeterias. Well, if that’s Beilein’s idea of crazy, Michigan fans should be grateful.

After the Houston win, Beilein donned a plastic poncho, swimming goggles, and a jumbo squirt gun to shower his players in a post-game celebration. Yes, it’s all that corny.

Whether you’re a Michigan fan or not, or don’t even care about sports, you might find yourself cheering for this team.

And if the cleanest team in the tournament wins the whole thing, it would be the greatest upset of the year.

 

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  • Joseph Fingerle March 23, 2018 at 9:38 am

    Great article John. I had no idea about UMBC either. It sounds like the name of a junior college, but those kids looked dominant against Virginia! Anyways, I can not wait to see all of the predictions against Michigan get foiled when Beilien and the Wolverines are cutting down the net Monday night.

    Best

    -Joe Fingerle

    Reply
  • pat greeley March 23, 2018 at 10:03 am

    one scene from the Houston win says all you need to say…Mo Wagner leaving the team celebration to console an obviously distraught Cougar…class

    Reply
  • Goolie March 23, 2018 at 10:59 am

    Message (Required)
    Great piece about a great team. Love your pen which is why I love your books….and to think you are a hockey player makes me want to put my skates back on. Digger appreciates it too and says thank you.

    Reply
  • Your name (Required) Phil H. March 23, 2018 at 1:40 pm

    Hi John,

    I like it, “Fear the Nun”. That would make a great T-Shirt with Sister Jean’s mug on the front. That said, for those of us whom went to Catholic Parochial School in the 60s it would hold equal merit for a different reason. I think another story worth telling about last night’s game was the former team student-manager (C.J. Baird) that was given minutes at the close of the game and a chance to get a bucket. Which he did. A moment of fame and a memory of a lifetime for that player. Those are the stories imo that separate Michigan and Coach Beilein from other programs and I wish to think bring the team closer. Go Blue.

    Reply
  • J. Fle March 23, 2018 at 3:08 pm

    I watched The Maryland game where Beilein used a Michigan timeout for the benefit of the Maryland seniors and their fans. When you look up “class act” in the dictionary, Beilein’s picture should be there!

    Reply
  • Mark March 23, 2018 at 8:11 pm

    Message (Required)More great Bacon! I read all your books. You ever read John Sandford? Terrific writer.

    Reply
  • Karen March 23, 2018 at 9:54 pm

    Awesome synopsis of this very maddening March!!! You just have got to Love i!! 💖💖😊

    Reply
  • Kevin March 24, 2018 at 11:57 am

    It is great to be a Wolverine fan. Go Blue

    Reply
  • Jamie Buhr March 24, 2018 at 3:19 pm

    John,
    Another great write! Your closing perfectly captures the sentiment of Michigan fans and alums across the nation and around the world. It really would be an “upset”, with the ethics gods smiling down all the while!! Jamie

    Reply
  • Ron Pudduck March 25, 2018 at 9:49 pm

    Message (Required) We have all heard it many times, but in light of the walk-on basket, the courtesy time-out, the conduct of the players, and respect of the coach for the opposition and his own team—It is “Great To Be A Michigan Wolverine”!
    Also, the manner in which you write and cover situations, makes my chest puff-out with pride!

    Reply

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