Michigan sneaks into NCAA Tournament in First Four

Sunday, March 13, 2016 - 4:23pm

Michigan will open the NCAA Tournament on Wednesday against Tulsa in Dayton, Ohio.

Michigan will open the NCAA Tournament on Wednesday against Tulsa in Dayton, Ohio. Buy this photo
Luna Anna Archey/Daily

 

Just two days after he hit the biggest shot of his college career, Kameron Chatman was pacing up and down the floor of the Weiser Crisler Center Club.

The sophomore forward knew he might have saved the Michigan men’s basketball team’s season with his game-winning 3-pointer to topple Big Ten champion Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament, but the Wolverines remained on the NCAA Tournament bubble heading into Selection Sunday. According to his teammate, junior guard Derrick Walton Jr., Chatman wouldn’t eat or drink as the team collectively awaited its fate.

But at 6:37 p.m. Sunday night, Michigan’s name flashed up on the board on CBS’s selection show — the Wolverines were a No. 11 seed, headed to Dayton, Ohio, to play fellow No. 11 seed Tulsa as part of the First Four. The winner faces No. 6 seed Notre Dame on Friday in Brooklyn, N.Y.

For the second time in three days, many of Michigan’s players mobbed Chatman in celebration.

“Everybody almost tackled him,” Walton said. “His shot still means something for the season.”

The announcement was a relief to the Wolverines (10-8 Big Ten, 22-12 overall), who battled through the loss of injured senior guards and co-captains Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht to still finish with 10 wins in the conference and four in the RPI top 50. 

For some Michigan players, that relief came a little bit earlier than expected, though, as the bracket leaked online a half-hour before the Wolverines officially popped up on the board.

Walton thinks it was junior guard Andrew Dakich who first saw the leaked bracket — which had already correctly predicted half of the field at the time it was discovered — and some members of the team began to feel more confident. Walton, though, wasn’t convinced yet.

“I didn’t believe it,” Walton said. “I don’t believe stuff like that until I actually see it. I’m a visual guy. I need visual proof.”

Nobody dared to tell Michigan coach John Beilein, who shared Walton’s skepticism when he found out about it a few minutes later.

LeVert, meanwhile, started checking off names on the leaked bracket as they were announced in real time. Assistant coach LaVall Jordan tweeted a video of the team’s reaction to its selection, which conveniently started right at the point where the leaked bracket had Michigan listed.

Meanwhile, Beilein may not have bought into the leaked bracket, but he was feeling hopeful on Selection Sunday for an entirely different reason. Before the team left Indianapolis on Sunday morning, Beilein went to 8 a.m. Mass at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church. The priest, who was from Minnesota and came to the Big Ten Tournament, told Beilein after the service that he thought Michigan was in, claiming he knew a guy better than ESPN’s Joe Lunardi at picking the NCAA Tournament field.

Astonished, Beilein pointed to the sky and asked, “Are we talking about this guy?” before the priest laughed and dismissed the thought.

Whether it was divine bracketology or leaked news on Twitter, the team had plenty of sources of optimism before its name was called. But even though most of the Wolverines were starting to feel good about their chances, they didn’t need to fake the ensuing celebration.

Only seven members of Michigan’s current roster have experienced an NCAA Tournament run, making it the first taste of the Division I postseason for Chatman and seven other underclassmen. A year after the Wolverines stumbled to a 16-16 record and thrust multiple freshmen into action due to injury, those same young players have seen their contributions result in a tournament berth. 

“That’s what made it a lot more sweet,” Walton said. “There’s no experience like it. You want everybody to experience that. ... (It will) give those guys times to experience the excitement when it really gets to its peak.”