INDIANAPOLIS — The Michigan men’s basketball team may not have grabbed a conference tournament championship on Sunday, but it did secure its highest NCAA Tournament seed since 1993.
After falling to Michigan State in the final of the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines gathered in a viewing room in Bankers Life Fieldhouse to watch the Selection Show. There, they learned they’d be a No. 2 seed, set to face off against No. 15-seed Wofford, winner of the Southern Conference, in Milwaukee Thursday. The winner of that contest will take on the victor of Texas vs. Arizona State two days later.
Just over 30 minutes separated the final buzzer in the 69-55 loss and when Michigan learned of its NCAA path.
“We snapped out of it like that,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We were really down after the game. And then all of a sudden, hey, let’s go watch the Selection Show.”
The Wolverines are in the Midwest regional, and should they advance from the second and third rounds, they’d find themselves right back in Indianapolis, and potentially against some familiar foes.
Louisville, April nemesis of last year, is the No. 4 seed in the Midwest, and Duke, December nemesis of this season, is the No. 3 seed.
“We worked hard all year, all summer to put ourselves in this position,” said sophomore guard Nik Stauskas. “It’s fun to look ahead and see the possible options, but with the tournament, you never know. You can’t assume anything, so we’re just really focused on this first game.”
Michigan ties don’t exactly run deep into Spartanburg, S.C., but Wofford assistant coach Darris Nichols happens to be a former player under Beilein at West Virginia.
“(He) is one of the smartest, brightest point guards I have ever had,” Beilein said. “I wish he really didn’t understand our offense at all. But he knows everything about it, so we have a challenge with a guy on the other bench knowing everything we are going to do.”
To hear Michigan talk about it, the team could hardly be bothered by its NCAA Tournament seed.
“People talk about one, two, three, four seeds,” Beilein said. “None of us coaches really care about that. Or at least this coach doesn’t.”
Added Stauskas: “That wasn’t really mentioned at all. We wanted to win this tournament. We understood if we won, we could possibly get a one seed. But we weren’t too concerned about that. We’re happy with a two seed.”
The only other time the Wolverines were tabbed as a two-seed, they were upset in the second round by No. 7-seed Iowa State in 1986. That game was also played in the middle of Big Ten country, in Minneapolis.
“The NCAA has been so good this past couple years of finding teams and getting them close to home without putting them in their home arena,” Beilein said. “So it’s really good. We have great fans all through the footprint of the Big Ten. Particularly in that area, the Chicago area, we will really draw well.”
It’s the 25th tournament appearance in school history, and it’s the fourth time the school has been a two-seed or better. The Wolverines are 7-4 overall in the Midwest region and 15-3 overall in their opening March Madness matchup. The top seed in the region is Wichita State, the only undefeated team in college basketball.
Maybe it was that Michigan had just lost to its rival Michigan State, or maybe the team has recalibrated to a new normal, but it didn’t think much of its NCAA draw.
“I don’t know if it’s that much excitement,” said fifth-year senior center Jordan Morgan. “It’s not like we didn’t expect to be in the tournament.”
That speaks to the direction of the program, because Beilein certainly remembers different in his coaching career.
“I’ve been in that room when you lost the (conference) championship and you weren’t going anywhere,” he said. “Or maybe the NIT. This is huge to walk from that room and go see us in the NCAA Tournament. It’s terrific.”
Morgan is the only one on the team to have experienced a season that Michigan failed to reach the NCAA Tournament, but for the rest of the team, that concept seems foreign.
“With the tradition in this program, you start to expect that you’re going to be in the tournament,” Stauskas said. “It doesn’t mean we’re gonna take this for granted. But all year the tournament was kind of an expectation for all of us. So the fact that we’re here now, we’re just happy, and we’re excited, ready to go.”