SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Before Saturday’s game, the Michigan men’s basketball team huddled around Jordan Poole just outside its tunnel.
The fiery freshman is adept at hyping up his team, and he looked around before giving a galvanizing message.
“We’re not supposed to be here.”
Poole was almost definitely referring to how the Wolverines have been doubted all season. Nobody expected them to be in the Final Four.
But there’s an underlying message that comes with Poole’s statement. Along Michigan’s run to this point, it needed some lucky breaks to stay alive. Poole’s buzzer beater to beat Houston, even with the preparation to make it possible, needed some luck to go down. The Wolverines’ path to the NCAA Championship game, littered with lower-seeded teams, needed a bit of luck to materialize.
Those are fortunate happenings that could have gone either way. Perhaps Michigan isn’t supposed to be here.
That’s not a slight. Michigan coach John Beilein recognizes it’s necessary to have some luck this time of year.
“It's been an incredible year for Michigan with very few injuries, a ton of breaks to be to this point,” Beilein said. “And I feel guilty sometimes about some of the games we won because we just had this grace fall on us all of a sudden. But at the same time it's gone the other way many times for some of our teams and you beat yourself up as a coach, and what could I have done. But as I get more experience in this game, I realize that's what it's about, and you can't do anything about those things.”
Fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson understands this balance too. The year he redshirted, after transferring to Ann Arbor, the Wolverines went 16-16. His next three seasons, they barely made the tournament, lost in the Sweet Sixteen and now have made it to the title game.
Robinson has seen things break both for and against him and his teams. It helps him value just how tough it is to get to this spot.
“I would just say you learn very easily not to take things for granted, in particular in that Houston game,” Robinson said. “You know, Jordan doesn’t hit that miraculous shot, none of us are sitting here. … So, I mean, when you think about it like that, the only thing you can do is just be appreciative that, for whatever reason, it’s you and it’s your team.”
For Beilein and Robinson, experience has given them perspective. For the younger Michigan players, the perspective hasn’t come yet.
It’s easy for them to take it for granted, because this is the only thing they’ve experienced. The veterans try to let them know how lucky they are, though.
“Moe was telling Jordan and I, I think we were like traveling and we said something (that) doesn’t really matter,” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers. “And Moe was like, ‘What? Do you know how hard we’ve worked to get to the place we are at right now? You guys are spoiled.’ Moe was saying, ‘You’re spoiled. You’re spoiled.’ I said, ‘Hey, I guess we’re just lucky to be spoiled people.’ ”
Added Robinson: “It’s hard because you can say that, but they’re just words. You’ve gotta experience it for yourself. Like I try to tell the freshmen, ‘The next three years here, you could have a team that’s far better than us, and you still won’t get to this point.’ And I’m not saying that won’t happen for them, but it very well could. Getting here is obviously, it’s so tough to do. And really good teams and really good coaches and really good players haven’t gotten to this point in their careers.”
Whether by luck or skill or more likely a combination of both, though, the Wolverines are here now. They’ve used their underdog feeling as motivation. Now, their ability to stay alive is fueling them.
Michigan will play in Monday’s NCAA Championship Game for just the seventh time in program history, so close to a goal that’s almost impossible to reach.
With one game left, Michigan could be a few good bounces away from winning it all.
“Sometimes I feel like we’re not supposed to be here,” said sophomore guard Zavier Simpson. “So we’ve got to give it our all.”