SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The scene at the Michigan men’s basketball team’s open practice Thursday was familiar.
Freshman guard Jordan Poole was dancing, and junior forward Moritz Wagner and coach John Beilein were talking loudly. The Wolverines went through the regular shooting drills, the regular passing drills, the regular handling drills.
But no Final Four is ever routine, and Thursday’s shootaround was a reminder of that. One side of the lower bowl at the Alamodome was almost completely full, and Beilein was interrupted halfway through the practice to be interviewed by Jim Nantz of CBS.
It’s a small price to pay for making it this far into the season. Luckily for Michigan, the surrounding hoopla, to a lesser extent, has been present before. Freshman forward Isaiah Livers said the team had trouble staying focused when they were in Los Angeles last weekend, but now that the Wolverines are in San Antonio, they’re cool, calm and collected.
“In LA, we got a little antsy, so we were messing up the principles of our defense, executing in practice,” Livers said. “Coach (Beilein) said it was normal because we were really excited, but I think this is different now in San Antonio. We’re a lot more poised, motivated, confident, because we’re almost there. Like, we really want to win a championship. We just all decided together, just stay relaxed and just stay focused.”
It’s interesting that’s the case for Michigan, who hasn’t been here before with any of its members, other than Beilein himself.
The Wolverines don’t have the ability to draw from experience to calm any nerves, because this is the first time they’re experiencing it.
But Michigan has done its best to stay calm. The leaders of the team have helped with that. From there, the Wolverines’ confidence has taken care of the rest.
“You look around at Moe, Muhammad, Duncan, like they’ve never been to the Final Four,” Livers said. “Most of them never even got to the Elite Eight or anything like that. It’s just, they lead. They’re definitely leaders, and they taught me and the other freshmen, the other young guys, just how to stay focused and have your eyes on the prize.”
Added Poole: “It just shows that we have amazing confidence in our abilities. We’ve been playing basketball for so long. … Of course, there’s the media, and it’s a bigger stage, but at the end of the day, you’re just going out there and playing basketball against another team.”
Earlier in the week, when Michigan was still in Ann Arbor, the focus on Saturday’s game manifested itself in a different way. Sophomore center Jon Teske said the team was a little anxious, saying, “We just wanted to get out here, I think.”
Now that the Wolverines are here, the anticipation remains, and it’s something Beilein can sense, too.
“I'll tell you what, we’d love to be playing today, I think,” Beilein said. “It’s great to have all this prep time. But they want to play. We want to play because this is our 40th game and we've been preparing for a long time. They're probably sick of the same fast facts and walk-throughs and practicing.
“But we have to continue to do what we do all year long. But if you’re in a journey like we’re in with these type of young men and staff we have, we can get through this last weekend. And I don't think they'll ever forget this experience regardless of what happens.”
It’s an interesting balance for these athletes.
In the end, Michigan is here to win two basketball games and hoist a trophy to prove itself as the best team in the country. But along the way, there are things to see, people to meet and experiences to cherish.
“When you walk out in this dome to practice, first of all, it takes you a minute to get to the court because it’s so big,” Wagner said. “And obviously, you take a couple minutes to take that in and enjoy it a little bit. But you guys know Coach Beilein, he’s really good at focusing in on the important things, and we all know that. And I think that’s what this team has been really good at.”
The wait is nearly over for the Wolverines. Tip-off is near. There’s little time left to prepare, take things in or be antsy.
Whether Michigan’s talk of calm and focus is true will be proven Saturday.