ANAHEIM, Calif. — As the cameras swarmed to Ignas Brazdeikis, he only sank further into his element.
A slew of local TV cameras shone in his face, there was a reporter from Sports Illustrated asking him questions and many more waiting for their turn. Brazdeikis, mind you, is a freshman, playing in his first NCAA Tournament.
On the other side of the Honda Center, Texas Tech’s Malik Ondigo spent the afternoon talking about preparing the Red Raiders’ freshmen for their first taste of the tournament’s second weekend. This, after all, is a level of intensity that they’ve never experienced.
As that same pressure is heaped on Brazdeikis, he’s the same player he’s always been. With each question, he only leaned further back into his chair, stretching his legs out into the scrum of reporters and running his fingers through his hair.
When one reporter asked about Michigan’s defensive identity, he yawned in blatant disregard of the moment’s importance.
As soon as his yawn ended, the confidence returned.
“I think (assistant coach Luke Yaklich) is definitely one of the best,” he told the reporter before pausing. “No, he’s definitely the best defensive coach I’ve ever had.”
It’s the same confidence that endeared himself to Michigan fans back in November, when he responded to a sleepy, 56-37 win over Holy Cross by describing himself as the best free throw shooter in the world. It’s the same confidence that led him to respond to two hours of personal insults at Maryland with a flurry of flexes, before telling reporters, “I love that part of the game, that’s one of my favorite parts of the game by far.”
And now, it’s the same confidence that has him ready for this moment — no mentoring necessary. Because it isn’t manufactured. It’s who Brazdeikis is, and who he’s always been.
Nate Johnson, Brazdeikis’ high school coach at Orangeville Prep, confirmed his effervescent confidence is rooted in his perceived version of reality. In Brazdeikis’ mind, Johnson said, Michigan is the best team in the country and he is one of the nation’s best players.
After practices in high school, he would ask Johnson what levels pro players had scored on the drills that Orangeville ran. If the number was higher than his own scores, Brazdeikis would stay after practice until he deemed his own performances satisfactory.
Wednesday afternoon in Anaheim, assistant coach Saddi Washington began to give a stock answer on the importance of not changing who you are this time of year and embracing the moment. Then, midway through his answer, a light bulb went off, as if he suddenly remembered who he was talking about.
“But guys like Iggy and —,” Washington said, pausing, and failing, to rack his brain for anyone else comparable. “All of our guys, I think they really thrive in these moments.”
Amidst requisite praise for the Wolverines’ leaders, Haynes sang the same tune.
“Iggy lives up for these moments,” Haynes said. “I haven’t seen a kid like him that lives for these moments. He loves the crowd, he feeds into it, whether it’s hate or love. He’s a different kind of guy.”
But no matter how Brazdeikis’ approach has prepared him for this moment, there is no high school version of March Madness — certainly not in Canada. This is the reality that hit Nik Stauskas, Michigan’s Canadian guard from 2012-14 who Brazdeikis works out with over the summer, when the Wolverines made the national championship in his freshman season. Stauskas finished with zero and three points in his two Final Four games that year after averaging 11.0 during the regular season.
“It’s definitely gonna be a new thing for him,” Stauskas told The Daily earlier this month. “March Madness is very unique, I don’t think there’s many things like this.”
Stauskas, though, knew Brazdeikis would be ready.
“I think (what stands out is) just how normal everything feels for him,” Stauskas said. “With all the success he’s having, it doesn’t feel like this is some kind of fluke for him. He truly believes this is just normal, this is what he should be doing.”
Jordan Poole is one of the few who knows the March spotlight better than Stauskas. This time last year, he was the freshman thrust under its wrath after his buzzer-beater sent Michigan into the Sweet Sixteen.
But when asked whether he’s given Brazdeikis any advice, Poole cocked his head back and cracked a smile.
“I ain’t given him any advice,” Poole said.
Because Poole, better than anybody, knows Brazdeikis doesn’t need it.
“It’s just some people that’s just built for it.”