The Final Four can make people go crazy, so this morning, let’s put Michigan’s basketball success into proper perspective.
For one thing, it says the program is back. Reaching this Shangri-La is good medicine for teams that sustained a few poor seasons. But when a school is shredded the way Michigan was a decade ago – banners taken down, victories erased, postseasons banned – returning to a Final Four is better than a year’s rehab and an “Oprah” appearance combined.
“It’s a great day to be a Wolverine,” coach John Beilein said Monday.
Especially the way his kids have done it. It has been 20 years since the Fab Five brought maize-and-blue uniforms into a Final Four. Everyone still talks about that – the last high-water mark for Michigan basketball. But you can make a case that this 2013 group is poised to weave an even more remarkable story.
That’s not hyperbole. It’s fact. Remember, the 1993 Fab Five team was five sophomore starters who had been together for two seasons, three of whom had been starters from their very first game.
Today’s U-M group starts three freshman – one of whom only got his starting role a few weeks ago – plus one sophomore superstar and one junior. Collectively, that’s a lot less experience than the Chris Webber-Jalen Rose ensemble. The 2013 Wolverines are, essentially, still getting to know each other, still developing a rhythm.
“There’s a high ceiling for this team,” Beilein said.
And each victory gets more impressive.
The Road to Atlanta
In the tournament’s first round, the Wolverines handled South Dakota State deftly, holding its supposed superstar guard Nate Wolters to 10 points and no three-point baskets.
U-M won by 15.
Then came fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth, pegged by so many experts to knock Michigan out. Instead, the Wolverines crafted the perfect game plan for VCU’s “havoc” defense, and destroyed the Rams by 25 points.
Surely, critics said, top-seeded Kansas would teach the Michigan kids some manners in the Sweet 16. The Jayhawks make the tournament so regularly, they could do plane reservations in August.
Yet when it came time to show experience, which team held its nerve to come back from a 10-point deficit in the final minutes and force overtime with a rainmaker three-pointer?
It was U-M, behind Trey Burke, which won in the end, 87-85.
And on the lip of the Final Four, which team acted as if it knew exactly what to do to get there? Was third-seeded Florida, in its third straight Elite Eight? Or Michigan, whose players were about 2 years old the last time the school made it this far?
Final score: a blowout, Michigan 79, Florida 59.
You can compare that run to the Wolverines’ in 1993. I’m telling you, this group is more impressive. The Fab Five, a No.1 seed, beat a 16 seed, a 9 seed, a 12 seed and a 7 seed to make the Final Four. Their real test came in the national semifinals against top-seeded Kentucky, which they edged by a few points in overtime.
Beilein’s group, seeded fourth, already has beaten a No.1, No.3, No.5 and No.13 seed – all but one by fat margins. If Michigan gets past Syracuse, another fourth seed, on Saturday night, it will have gone as far as the Fab Five ever did.
And will be poised to do something that legendary group could never do.
Win it all.
Rising from the ashes
Now all this would be great enough if it just put Michigan back on college basketball’s upper shelves. The fact that Beilein has done it with intelligence, humility, discipline, hard work, good recruiting and a sense of history makes it all the better.
Remember, this is a guy who, like the kids, has never been to a Final Four, despite nearly four decades in coaching. On Monday, the 60-year-old was remembering nine years he spent coaching Le Moyne, a tiny NCAA Division II school in Syracuse, N.Y, just a few miles from the campus of the Orange. Le Moyne traveled by van (“the freshman had to ride with me,” Beilein recalled) and as the team rolled through one snowstorm after another, it would listen to the Syracuse games on the radio, with the announcers boasting about “30,000 people in the (Carrier) Dome.”
Now Beilein will face the Orange in the late game of the national semifinals Saturday in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
That alone should earn Beilein an award of some kind. But the fact that he rebuilt this program smartly and patiently, with year-by-year improvement and steady, heady leadership, is even more impressive.
Remember, Michigan tried several times to right the ship after the Fab Five era. Brian Ellerbe couldn’t do it. Tommy Amaker couldn’t do it. When Beilein arrived, the sanctions and punishments basically were over, but the sting of the lash remained. The team hadn’t been to an NCAA tournament in a decade. He essentially walked in with ash in the air and shadows in the rafters.
Look at him now.
“There’s been a lot of people,” he said Monday, deflecting credit. “I mentioned Tommy in my press conference…. Tommy was saying we need to do this and do that. Then Coach Beilein comes in and says the same thing and it gets done. We had to be able to do things. Improve facilities… all that.
“A lot of people were involved in this renaissance.”
And that’s really what it is, right? A renaissance. A rebirth. A revival. And a HUGE accomplishment. Morale will soar. Support will soar. 8Recruiting will be easier.
After what feels long a very long winter, this has been a fabulous new spring for Michigan basketball.
And don’t be shocked if it gets better.
The arrows have been pointing up.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom