March Madness 2017: Michigan starting to look like NCAA Tournament darling
A plane crash, a top-seed upset, and team playing with nothing to lose
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Michigan, the team that could barely reach the Big Ten Tournament because of a plane crash, is now a March darling. Of course it is.
Consider the Wolverines’ last three days: Skid off the runway Wednesday during a traumatic experience; arrive in Washington on Thursday a couple hours before a 20-point win over Illinois; knock off Big Ten regular-season champion Purdue 74-70 in overtime on Friday. At this rate, the Wolverines will beat Minnesota in Saturday’s semifinals with a hook shot from half-court to surpass their recent degree of difficulty.
“Anytime you survive something like we did, it’s a blessing,” guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said. “We kind of have that over our head that we can do anything as long as we put our mind to it and our will.”
Look, Michigan was hot before the plane crash so this isn’t totally coming out of nowhere in a Big Ten that lacks a great team. The Wolverines have won eight of their past 10 games, and the two losses came on a fullcourt-pass, buzzer-beater layup at Northwestern and an overtime defeat at Minnesota.
But how could anyone not appreciate the opportunities life offers after a life-or-death experience? How could a basketball team not bond and trust each other more when they worked together to quickly evacuate off an airplane while they smelled the jet fumes?
Forward Duncan Robinson said a lot of his comments regarding Wednesday are now jokes about the randomness of the Wolverines’ bizarre week.
“Just the fact that, my God, we were in a plane crash two days ago,” Robinson said. “It’s kind of funny to talk about.”
Michigan coach John Beilein said adversity never bothers him — until now.
“Somehow this one’s not rolling off me yet,” Beilein said. “As I read more accounts that you’re going that fast (on the plane) and, well, this is not a toboggan ride. … Just think about it — an airplane. If it had just lifted, there’s no way it was going to have power to get up in the air, and what would have happened? That just keeps going through my mind.”
Michigan-Purdue was hardly a pretty game. In other words, it was typical Big Ten. Michigan shot 33 percent from the field and 7 percent on 3-pointers in the second half and overtime — and still beat the Big Ten’s No. 1 seed.
The Wolverines looked gassed for long stretches. But the ultra-versatile D.J. Wilson (26 points, eight rebounds, key blocked shot to end regulation) and Zak Irvin (13 points, two clutch driving baskets late) provided enough offense.
Meanwhile, a Michigan team with some deficiencies on defense this year is relying more on defense to win.
“I think in the backstretch of the Big Ten (regular season), we finally changed our mentality on the defensive end,” Irvin said. “It just changed our whole season.”
There is some normalcy again this week for the Wolverines, who returned to wearing their regular blue road uniforms Friday. Their luggage, which was delayed arriving due to the crash, appeared at 10:30 p.m. on Thursday to the joy and relief of players.
“That was great to have some underwear,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “But I miss the practice jerseys. I think they were a big hit for our fans. They told us once we got our game jerseys, we had to wear them. I guess it was a rule.”
Rules? The rules for Michigan got thrown out Wednesday. All bets are off on how far surviving a plane crash can take a college basketball team.
Inside the Michigan locker room, the words “Not today” were written in marker on the wall. Players said assistant coach Billy Donlon — apparently a big fan of writing on walls — wrote the message because Purdue eliminated Michigan from the Big Ten Tournament last season.
Still, it was hard to ignore the deeper meaning of those words this week for Michigan.
“I mentioned it once, how great was it to be here playing right now, right?” Beilein said. “Carpe diem, seize the day today, because you’re never promised another one.”
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