CHICAGO — Twenty minutes after Michigan looked on as confetti cannons burst and the United Center lit up in green and white, celebrating Michigan State as the Big Ten Tournament champions, the Wolverines were ushered to their selection show watch party.
Suddenly, the Michigan men’s basketball team had to switch gears to the NCAA Tournament. Cameras were trained on the Wolverines, ready to catch their reaction as their draw — a No. 2 seed playing Montana in Des Moines — was announced.
The announcement itself was anti-climactic. Michigan knew it would be in the tournament and though the Wolverines stood and clapped while they were announced, they were devoid of the same energy as teams with undetermined fates — and teams that hadn’t just been dealt a crushing loss.
Back in the locker room afterwards, the mixed emotions collided.
Some players were sullen, refusing to even face reporters. The ones that did simultaneously faced questions about what had gone wrong in Michigan’s third loss to its most bitter rival and questions looking ahead to March Madness.
But the answers to those two questions are connected.
“Here we are on Sunday and we’re down,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We’re on to the NCAA Tournament and now we’ll see what we can do there and learn from what we did today.”
Before blowing their second title opportunity in two weeks, the Wolverines blew away both Iowa and Minnesota in earlier rounds of the Big Ten Tournament. Neither of those teams is great — but both made the NCAA Tournament as No. 10 seeds, and Michigan hadn’t beaten a tournament-caliber team so decisively since January.
Ask the players, and they’ll tell you that the fact that those wins came so soon after the loss at the Breslin Center on Mar. 9 — which compeleted the regular-season sweep for the Spartans — wasn’t a coincidence.
“The loss at Michigan State kinda brought a lot of us together and kinda evaluate ourselves,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers on Saturday after the semifinal win. “Look in the mirror, are you doing what’s right for us to win? What’s going on? Why are we coming up short against our rivals?
“It was just, some people just self-reflected, some had a little meeting. It was just small stuff like that and I could see from starter all the way to walk-on, just a difference in the practices last week. It felt a lot more competitive and focused.”
The title game made clear that those issues aren’t totally resolved. But there were some improvements, tweaks that came out against lesser competition. And perhaps the road to another March run is taking those tweaks a step further — something the Wolverines have no shortage of motivation to do.
“I think every loss has been a rallying point for us,” Beilein said. “That we learn from every loss and we’ll learn from this one. … We’d like to avoid losing to get better, but the fact of life is it’s gonna happen.”
Michigan likely won’t soon forget the way it felt in the locker room. Even amid the joy of a high NCAA Tournament seed and the fun of March Madness, the pain of the Spartan sweep will still be there, fuel for a team that still very much has something to prove.
Of course, it’s a tough task to fix everything so quickly. The Wolverines play again Thursday, and there’s only so much prep that can go into such a short turnaround. Beilein himself couldn’t offer up any promises Sunday, but when asked if it was really possible to produce an uptick in efficiency in a mere matter of days, Beilein did offer a glimmer of hope.
“We have before.”