How a pizza-house intervention put Michigan on path to Final Four
Wednesday, Feb. 27, then-No. 4 Michigan plays at Penn State. It blows a 10-point lead in the second half and loses to a team that would go on to drop 17 of its last 19 games and end with a 10-win season. The 84-78 result is the Wolverines' fourth loss in seven games. That's when Michigan's season turned.
ATLANTA -- Wednesday, Feb. 27, then-No. 4 Michigan plays at Penn State. It blows a double-digit lead in the second half and loses to a team that would go on to drop 17 of its last 19 games and end with a 10-win season. The 84-78 result is the Wolverines' fourth loss in seven games.
In the locker room afterward, Michigan senior Josh Bartelstein, who has played 10 total minutes this season and did not take one shot in the regular season, sat and watched the team trickle out. The body language was horrible. Even though UM was far from a broken team, it was now one with a lot of doubt about its long-term chances at winning a Big Ten title and making a Final Four. It really had a sting because the group watched Indiana drop a game to Minnesota the night before, and so they thought the Big Ten title was theirs for the taking. The Penn State loss wiped away that ambition.
So Bartelstein just sat there in his chair at his locker and waited out the entire team. He'd be the last one to leave, he and fellow teammate, graduate student Corey Person -- who also rarely sees the floor and averages less than a point per game.
"It was a bad loss and even worse mood," Bartelstein said from Michigan's locker room on Friday afternoon.
They would become the two guys who would have arguably the biggest impact on Michigan's season.
On the plane ride back, Bartelstein and Person discussed what they wanted to do. Predictable as it was, it was time for the inevitable and inaugural players-only meeting. The group had a convention before, with coaches, after a film session a few weeks earlier. But this would be the last one and it'd be only the college kids in the room.
"If you have too many team meetings, it just means you're really bad," Bartelstein said.
The plane from State College to Ann Arbor landed around 2 a.m. Person drove Trey Burke back to his dorm in his old Toyota Camry. That's when he told him what the meeting would be about -- and said he'd need Burke to speak after he and Bartelstein did. Burke agreed. He was ready to have this moment.
"It's all about level of comfort, and I just wasn't comfortable last year," Burke said. "I felt like it wasn't my place to be a guy that's always talking. Though, I felt like it would've helped, this past summer is when I felt that it had changed and I matured more."
"When the player of the year talks, that's going to carry some weight," Bartelstein said. "As the year's gone on, Trey's spoke more and more. He's speaking more now than he ever has."
So Bartelstein had the team manager make sure the players' meal cards would go to eating at one place the next night: Pizza House, a two-story brick restaurant where John Beilein hosts his radio show once a week, and the biggest eatery on campus. They reserved a back room on the second floor for 7:30. Before the food would come the grievances, and it was well past time for grievances.
"Sometimes you can get so caught up in what people back at home are telling you or what people on Twitter or Instagram are telling you," said Person, "so my whole thing was, can I be perfectly honest with everybody and not worry about hurting everybody's feelings?"
Bartelstein agreed emphatically. In the aftermath of the game, players were embarrassed to go to class, to be seen on the street.
"The guys didn't want to leave their rooms," Bartelstein said.
"The biggest fault with our team: We're all really good friends," Bartelstein said. "So, our issue is, when you have really good friends, you don't create conflict. We weren't holding each other accountable. I think from that meeting on, there was no more bullshitting. When someone messed up, we could get on each other."
Bartelstein started it off and dressed the group down. It was positive but critical. He talked more about the future than frustration with the past. The team had forgotten some of what was making it good and preventing it from being great. He talked of what it would be like to be at a Final Four, to ride a bus with police escorts, to be going through the things this team is going through now.
Person went around to everybody and challenged them. A lot of players left with some upset feelings.
"We honestly spend more hours with the group of 15 people in this locker than anybody else," Person said. "And quite frankly, I said it's bullshit, it's not right that we can't be perfectly honest and can't talk with each other. There are guys seeing something out there on the court and they feel like they can't say something because they're gonna get mad or worried about how they're gonna take it."
They talked for 45 minutes. Aired the issues, eliminated some of the phony acceptance of certain habits that had built up with the team since last fall. Then they plowed through wings, nachos, chicken fingers, pizza and sodas while continuing to sort out a plan for the rest of the season. It'd be a team with equal opportunity for criticism toward anyone. It would be a fun team, but to win, it'd have to be an honest one.
Burke finished up and emphasized camaraderie and embracing the moment. A lot of teams have these meetings. Most of them don't work, or do to varying levels. There's nothing to say this is the reason why Michigan got here, but the players do believe it contributed heavily. That's all that really matters. When reflecting on success, logistics can sometimes go out the window -- or enhance clarity.
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