BY ALEX PROSPERI
Daily Sports Writer
Published March 15, 2009
The Michigan faithful waited more than 4,000 days and watched more than 300 games in preparation for a day like Sunday.
And judging by the turnout at Crisler Arena, it was worth the wait.
For the first time since 1998, the Michigan men's basketball team has earned an NCAA Tournament bid. CBS announced Sunday night that No. 10 Michigan would face No. 7 Clemson in the South Regional in Kansas City on Thursday at 7:10 p.m.
If the Wolverines win, they will face the winner of No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 15 seed Morgan State.
"I knew that the country wants to see the block 'M' back at the dance," Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin said. "I think it's a real defining moment for our program this year. It's just upward going forward."
The Wolverines have played their best basketball this season with their backs against the wall. Michigan was the 61st team to have its name called Sunday, which put the team through the grinder yet again.
"It was very appropriate because that kind of sums up our season," fifth-year senior C.J. Lee said. "We've been right there, back and forth all year."
When studio host Greg Gumbel finally said 'Michigan' on the CBS telecast, it was to the tune of hundreds of screaming fans who filled the lower bowl on the east side of Crisler Arena. Michigan coach John Beilein addressed the crowd after the show.
"I don't even know because of all the excitement, where are we going?" Beilein asked.
Michigan waited more than a half hour to hear its name called — not an easy task for players or coaches.
"I was so nervous," fifth-year senior co-captain David Merritt said. "My stomach was turning over just to think that there was a chance we wouldn't make it. Luckily and thank God that our name came up as a 10 (seed)."
Added Lee: "Of course I was nervous. When you're seeing all those spots being taken by teams that kind of are similar to yourself, we were just playing the waiting game."
Assistant coach Mike Jackson was also feeling the pressure.
"I told Coach (John) Mahoney after the second (regional) that we were probably going to be in the last group, not really believing it, but just kind of trying to psych myself out," Jackson said.
When Michigan's name appeared on the screen, the Wolverines jumped out of their seats on the sideline and hugged each other in a team huddle.
The lower bowl was mostly full a half hour before the selection show, and the Jumbotron was dropped to about 10 feet from the floor so fans could easily watch the broadcast. When Beilein did an interview with CBS 15 minutes before the start of the selection show, he had to cover his right ear because the Crisler crowd was so loud.
Beilein joins Lefty Driesell, Eddie Sutton, Tubby Smith, Rick Pitino, Lon Kruger and Jim Herrick as coaches who have taken four different teams to the NCAA Tournament.
"We were hugging so many people," Beilein said. "I don't know if I saw the looks on (the players') faces. There was a lot of joy in the room. There was a lot of passion out there."
The selection is the program's 21st all-time NCAA Tournament appearance, and Michigan has a 41-19 overall record in the tournament. The bid comes just one year after the Wolverines finished with a dismal 10-22 record in Michigan coach John Beilein's first season.
The Wolverines' strong RPI (44) and strength of schedule (11) were key to earning a bid. Nonconference wins over Duke and UCLA and Big Ten wins against Illinois, Purdue and twice against Minnesota, all teams that made the tournament, also helped Michigan's cause.
Despite sitting on the bubble for the past few weeks, the Wolverines essentially locked a bid after topping Iowa 73-45 in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday. Even after dropping its quarterfinal matchup against Illinois, Merritt was confident that Michigan had done enough to earn a bid.
"Hopefully. I think we've made a case," said Merritt when asked Friday. "We've played everybody this year, haven't strayed away from playing anybody. We've competed in a tough conference. It's one of the best in the country."
Michigan could be difficult for any tournament team to handle. There aren't many teams who play as much 1-3-1 and 2-3 zone defense as the Wolverines. Michigan also led the Big Ten in 3-pointers attempted, meaning if the Wolverines get hot from behind the arc, they have the potential to go on big runs.
The Wolverines were on the other side of the tournament bubble in 2007 after they finished with a 21-12 record. A pair of losses to top-ranked Ohio State in their regular-season finale and the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament diminished their tournament hopes.
In 2006, Michigan was 16-3 before losing six of its last eight regular season games. The Wolverines then lost to Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan settled for the National Invitation Tournament in both seasons, losing to South Carolina in the title game in 2006. The Wolverines won the NIT in 2004.
In 1998, the last time Michigan earned an NCAA Tournament berth, Beilein was in his first year as head coach at Richmond and freshman guard Stu Douglass was seven years old.
Although Beilein said making the tournament in his second year with the Wolverines is ahead of his initial rebuilding process, both the team and fans appear ready.