At West Virginia in 2005, John Beilein faced nearly the same situation he faces today.
After finishing the regular season 18-9, the Mountaineers headed to Madison Square Garden as the Big East Tournament’s No. 8 seed in need of a victory or two to feel secure about their chances of making the NCAA Tournament.
West Virginia ended up doing more than picking up the wins it needed. After beating Providence in the first round, the Mountaineers followed that performance up by establishing and maintaining a 22-point halftime lead to take down the tournament’s No. 1 seed, Boston College. Beilein’s team then carried that momentum into the next day’s matchup against Villanova, where West Virginia escaped with a two-point win and was suddenly 40 minutes away from a Big East title.
The Mountaineers dropped the conference championship game to Syracuse, but their run to the final instilled a newfound confidence in Beilein’s squad that carried over to the Big Dance.
There, West Virginia first squeaked past Creighton at the buzzer in the first round, then upset No. 2 seed Wake Forest in double overtime and worked magic again to get past Texas Tech and into the Elite Eight.
The Mountaineers finally folded just short of the Final Four, when they blew a 20-point lead against Louisville and lost in overtime.
Just three weeks earlier, Beilein didn’t even know if his team was going to have the chance to play on college basketball’s biggest stage. But as it all unfolded, West Virginia became the main attraction of that year’s tournament.
And that’s the moment when Beilein first witnessed the magic of March.
“That series of events taught me anything can happen,” Beilein said. “We were just trying to make the NCAA Tournament, and the next thing you know, we’re ahead 16 points on Louisville in the first half (of the Elite Eight), and don’t go to the Final Four. It was a great testimony of kids realizing, if you believe, anything can happen.”
Twelve seasons and seven NCAA Tournament appearances later, Beilein finds himself facing a very similar situation with Michigan.
The Wolverines enter the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 8 seed, and while many believe Michigan to be in the field of 68, a win or two will certainly lock in a spot on Selection Sunday.
Based on the parity across the league throughout the regular season, this year’s edition of the Big Ten Tournament could be as wide open as ever. If the Wolverines can discover the same edge Beilein’s West Virginia team found, they could be the most dangerous team in the tournament.
“We’re trying to sell to them the magic that can happen in a run,” Beilein said. “It’s the best feeling. Something about the spring air and that the end of the season is near but you’re playing good basketball. You’re more excited to see your teammates. What a time March can be if you’re still playing.”
While Michigan’s goal and expectation is a championship, the Wolverines are focused on keeping their vision narrow and not overlooking what’s on the immediate horizon. Heading into the tournament, that challenge will come in the form of Illinois, a team Michigan saw twice in the regular season.
One of the Wolverines’ biggest obstacles will be their travel schedule. After their team plane slid off the runway in a take-off accident during a power outage Wednesday, they will now leave Ann Arbor for Washington at 6 a.m. Thursday, just six hours before tip-off.
At the Verizon Center, a rubber match awaits them. Michigan and Illinois split two regular-season meetings, with each winning at home with the last meeting coming early in the conference season Jan. 21. In basketball time, that’s almost an eternity ago.
The “white-collar” comment Illinois center Maverick Morgan made following the first matchup has lost its sting, and both teams have developed new looks on both ends.
“The fact that we’ve played them twice, we know each other a little better,” Beilein said. “If you watch our last five games, their last five games, there are some similarities. But both teams have really evolved.”
Being that both teams are familiar with each other and know what’s at stake, Beilein kept his prediction of what to expect in the Verizon Center simple:
“Whoever makes shots and defends the best is going to win.”
But for Michigan, it may not be that easy. The hardest part of any tournament run is managing the game-to-game needs and ultimate goals. The Wolverines will have to establish that approach Thursday when they take on the Fighting Illini.
“We end practice everyday talking about being champions,” Beilein said. “We wanted to be champions of the (2K Classic). We were. We wanted to be (Big Ten) regular-season champions. But about two weeks ago, that wasn’t a possibility. Now there’s another one. That would be really special to spend those days there in D.C., to see the groundswell of support we have and win this thing.”
“But that’s the way you have to go into it now. Not with the idea that we just need to get another win. That’s part of it. I think they’re old enough to understand, ‘Let’s focus on this one game at a time, but the real prize is to win this championship.’ ”