SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Final Four life is an elevated court in a spacious Alamodome with festive banners plastered along brick walls so pervasively it hits you in the face.
It welcomes veteran captains in Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, the amalgam of nearly four years of work. But it welcomes anyone who can find their way there. For freshman Isaiah Livers and his first-year counterparts, they didn’t have to wait that long. A Saturday night, Final Four date with March-darling Loyola Chicago is fast approaching.
It’s a short wait — a non-existent wait, technically — met with jovial cynicism by the rest of the Michigan men’s basketball team.
“I often make a joke and say ‘You should be thankful because you might not make it back,’ ” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “Not wishing bad upon them or anything like that, just making a joke and making light of the situation. I mean, they are spoiled. I definitely didn’t have this my freshman year, we were 16-16.”
Spoiled or not, it’s an experience that the talkative Livers is taking in stride as much as possible, like a child filled with wonderment. The Alamodome isn’t like any venue the Wolverines have played in all year, not even close. All Livers could do is double-take when he saw how far away Section 325 sat.
He’s a wide-eyed freshman still taking in the moment — social media, celebrity endorsements, a room just for him to be interviewed. Yes, the enormity of it all is still settling in.
“I don’t wanna say we feel like a villain it's — actually, no, we’re gonna feel like a villain,” Livers said. “It’s gonna happen because, if we win, there is gonna be crazy stuff on social media.
“I’ve never really thought about celebrities coming to a basketball game that I’m playing in. Any celebrity would be cool to see. Talk to Jordan Poole, he would know.”
And of course Poole would know. The freshman guard hit that shot. The reason the Wolverines flew to Los Angeles to run circles around Texas A&M and grind out another win against Florida State, and the reason Livers and his team are now in San Antonio with a real shot at the NCAA Championship is Poole.
Livers knows this better than anyone. He’s been Poole’s roommate the past seven months.
“Jordan Poole wasn’t gonna leave it alone,” Livers said. “He was gonna remind me everyday about it. Sometimes when I’m serious when I’m talking about it I’m like ‘You really as a freshman hit one of the biggest shots.’ … I told him you can’t talk about it all the time. But when you wanna talk about it, let me know.”
And now the Ramblers await. It’s not the matchup anyone anticipated — No. 3 vs. No. 11 — but perhaps it makes sense. The only thing Livers has heard about more than Poole’s buzzer beater is Loyola-Chicago’s team chaplain, Sister Jean. The 98-year-old nun had her own media availability on Friday morning — Ramblers coach Porter Moser likened it to Tom Brady being interviewed before the Super Bowl. Even a video of Jalen Rose’s 100-year-old grandma surfaced guaranteeing a Michigan victory on Saturday, the hopeful bulwark to the media frenzy around Sister Jean.
The fanfare surrounding Loyola-Chicago inspires both awe and motivation for Livers. He knows to not take the mid-major lightly, even if it doesn’t totally seem like it.
“Lieola? Loyola? I’ve been saying it wrong the whole time,” he says through a wide grin. “They deserve the noise. … We see why they’re here: they’re a well-put-together group, the coaching staff is incredible. And when you have the power of Sister Jean behind you — you’re gonna want to play for something and I think they’re playing for Sister Jean.
“I have so much respect for Sister Jean, but I’ve gotta take Jalen Rose’s grandma.”
The unexpected contest has brought out a saga of outspoken elders, various Cinderella storylines and 33 student-athletes who have never to a Final Four before. And as a freshman, it is even more difficult to stay focused at this level. Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman have never made it to this stage, either, and Livers acknowledges that the two captains are doing what they can to calm nerves and “keep your eyes on the prize.”
And as Michigan hit the floor for a practice open to the public, it looked like business as usual for Livers, as he stoically motioned through drills. The depth of the Alamodome hardly muddled the trajectory of his jumpshot.
But as the Wolverines concluded their practice, Livers bowed to the crowd.
The freshman’s show is just beginning. Earlier than some may have expected? Sure. But for Livers, it’s happening at just the right time.