This isn’t just a feel-good story anymore.
Thirteen days ago, it was about the plane, the practice jerseys and the improbable performance the Michigan men’s basketball team put forth in its Big Ten Tournament opener. The eighth-seeded Wolverines dismantled Illinois, 75-55, and it felt like an underdog tale.
That win turned into a Big Ten Tournament championship, and this weekend, Michigan has a chance to punch its ticket to the Final Four for the first time since 2013.
“I think winning those four games in a row, against who we beat,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “…I think that after that, these kids just said, ‘Hey, we go into this NCAA Tournament, we can play with anybody.’ After the gauntlet, they just ran.”
Despite being a No. 7 seed, the word “underdog” doesn’t quite fit anymore. The Wolverines are playing great basketball, and with each passing day, it has felt more like Michigan can make a run at the title.
But first comes Oregon. Thursday night, the Wolverines will tip off against the Ducks at the Sprint Center with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line, and Michigan’s experience in the opening weekend could prove invaluable.
When Michigan faced Oklahoma State and Louisville, those opponents were ranked first and seventh in adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency, respectively, according to Ken Pomeroy.
While the Ducks don’t necessarily fall into the elite tier of either category, they still rank in the top 25 for both.
“They can really put the ball in the basket, man, from a lot of different places,” said senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. “And they’re athletic. They got some athletic guys.
“…(Oregon is) like a combination of the last two teams, I think, but again, I think we fare well against a lot of different competition this year, so we’ll just see how this game plays out and make the proper adjustments.”
Though the Wolverines have showcased an ability to make those adjustments, they will still have their hands full. Finding a way to stop Oregon’s three-headed monster of Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey and Jordan Bell is no easy task.
Over the last five games, Brooks is averaging an impressive 18.8 points while shooting 42 percent from the floor. Dorsey, on the other hand, has been playing on a whole new level. The sophomore guard is averaging 23.6 points on 65-percent shooting through the last five contests.
In all likelihood, redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson and junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman will match up with Brooks and Dorsey, respectively.
Though Wilson fared well against Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes and Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas, Brooks is a different type of forward and could arguably be his biggest defensive challenge of the year.
The obstacles don’t end there, either.
The Ducks boast a plethora of talent outside of Brooks and Dorsey. Bell has shot nearly 63 percent from the floor to this point, and in Oregon’s opening weekend, the junior forward cleaned up on the glass — grabbing 24 boards through two games.
To cap it all off, Dylan Ennis and Pritchard Payton serve as the Ducks’ two catalysts, turning in 3.8 and 3.1 assists per game, respectively.
That’s not to say Oregon isn’t still vulnerable.
While the Ducks haven’t felt the impact of losing injured forward Chris Boucher through their first two games, the Wolverines may be able to tear that wound wide open.
Prior to Boucher’s ACL injury, Oregon allowed just 0.97 points per possession — good for first in the Pac-12. In the three games without Boucher, though, the Ducks are allowing 1.14 points per possession.
What’s more, Oregon has made a living from points off turnovers — averaging 15.8 points off 13.6 takeaways. Michigan, on the other hand, leads the nation with just 9.2 turnovers per game, and has turned the ball over just 10 times in the last two games.
“It’s not something that we just say, ‘OK, today we’re gonna take care of the ball,’ ” Beilein said. “It’s been like day one from the first summer practice that we’re valuing that. … It’s not like we got this elaborate press breaker.”
“It’s just the day-to-day things you do every day knowing that the way our system works. It’s about possessions.”
If the Wolverines can continue to take care of the ball, while also keeping pace with the 1.212 points per possession they are averaging over the last three games, Michigan’s Dance could be far from over.
After all, when asked Tuesday if this team could make it to the Final Four, Wilson’s message was simple: “I mean, we can beat anybody, so I think so.”