WASHINGTON — “Four days, pack your clothes, let’s go win it.”
Seventy-two hours ago, that was the message Michigan coach John Beilein gave his team before taking off for Washington, D.C.
Before the plane accident, the practice jerseys and the potential upsets, the No. 8 seed Michigan men’s basketball team prepared as if the Big Ten Tournament was theirs for the taking.
Despite all the obstacles that have stood between them and the championship game over the past three days, that’s exactly where the Wolverines now find themselves.
“Once we got to the tournament, (we) were able to focus on basketball,” said senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. “We wanted to do something special. …We have another opportunity to do that tomorrow.”
Michigan came into the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the conference — riding a 6-3 second-half mark that included upsets over then-No. 11 Wisconsin and then-No. 14 Purdue — and hasn’t cooled off yet.
From blowing out No. 9 seed Illinois to upsetting No. 1 seed Purdue in overtime to sneaking past No. 4 seed Minnesota, the Wolverines have embodied every word of Beilein’s mantra.
In order to achieve its ultimate goal, though, Michigan has one more obstacle in its path — No. 2 seed Wisconsin. The Badgers were on the opposite trajectory as the Wolverines entering the postseason — dropping six of their final nine Big Ten games — but they have enjoyed a resurgence in the conference tournament.
Dispatching Indiana by 10 on Friday before throttling Northwestern by 29 on Saturday, Wisconsin looks eager to capture the Big Ten Tournament crown after falling just shy of the regular season title.
But for Michigan, the moment could be far more important than the opponent. With little time to prepare, both teams will likely bank on the foundation of the system and the strength of the relationships they have built all season. Fortunately for the Wolverines, connection is a word that has come up often throughout the tournament.
“I think the incident just brought us closer as a team and as a family,” said senior wing Zak Irvin. “We’re just going out there playing really connected, playing for one another.”
At the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., Michigan has been playing its best basketball of the season, a fact that should be none too surprising. While the Wolverines’ 3-8 road record is hardly inspiring, Michigan had a 2-0 record at neutral sites before the tournament began.
Those two wins stem from a November trip to Madison Square Garden in New York City, where the Wolverines pulled off a surprise during the early college basketball season, blowing out Marquette and now-No. 12 SMU en route to a 2K Classic championship.
Taking its act from the Big Apple to the nation’s capital, Michigan has bumped that record up to 5-0, boosted by a strong turnout from its loyal fanbase outside of Ann Arbor. Backed by loud chants and spirited attire, the Wolverines have found a level of comfort that could prove crucial in what should be a highly competitive championship game.
“If we play in New York, it feels like a home game. The East Coast, Michigan has so many great alums, so much support in that area of the country,” Beilein said. “… I just think Michigan is really special, that we have so many students coming from there, just so much interest there.
“It was really nice to have that support. I could hear it.”
Twenty-four hours from now, Michigan will have a chance to win the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 1998. After the journey that has led them to this moment, Beilein had another message planned for his team.
“Only the good teams are left right now. … Somebody’s going to win this tournament. … Why not us?”