NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With its highest seed since 1998, the Michigan men’s basketball team will kick play off in the NCAA Tournament on Friday against Ohio.
The 1998 team, a three-seed, was upset in the tournament’s opening weekend and has since been banished from the record books due to sanctions. The Wolverines have to look back to 1994 to find the last team that made it out of the opening weekend. Since then, Michigan has just four tournament wins.
Standing in front of the Wolverines (13-5 Big Ten, 24-9 overall) are the MAC Champion Bobcats. Riding a four-game win streak, Ohio (11-5 MAC, 27-7 overall) is making its first appearance in the Big Dance since 2010, when it upset third-seeded Georgetown.
“We’re not going to overlook this team,” said freshman point guard Trey Burke. “They won the MAC for a reason. We know how good they can play and how well they’ve been playing lately. Just watching film lately, we see … their go-to guys and how good they can be.”
One of those players is guard D.J. Cooper. The junior leads Ohio with nearly 15 points and six assists per game.
But Michigan also has some history on its side. This won’t be the first time that the Wolverines will run into the Bobcats in postseason play. In 1964, Michigan defeated Ohio, 69-57, en route to the program’s first Final Four.
Additionally, in games following each of the Wolverines’ eight regular-season losses this year, Michigan is yet to lose. The players say their ability to bounce back is all mental, and they earned it in the film room.
“You’ve got to put pride aside and grow up a little bit,” said senior guard Stu Douglass. “Just take responsibility for your own actions and move on and ask yourself, ‘what are you going to do for this team?’ instead of saying, ‘Woe is me, why is coach picking on me?’ Maturity and growing up and the experience we had last year has helped us a lot.”
To avoid a similar fate to their 1964 tournament team, the Bobcats will need to play the superb perimeter defense they’ve used all season, holding opposing 3-point shooters to just 29.6 percent.
“They get in you, they climb up,” senior guard Zack Novak said. “They’ll let you catch the ball, but afterwards, it seems like they try to eat you up.”
Perhaps the most important shooter on the floor for the Wolverines is their primary ball handler, Burke. The correlation between strong performances from Burke and Michigan wins was magnified in Indianapolis at last week’s Big Ten Tournament.
In the opening round, Burke shot 75 percent from long range on his way to 30 points, lifting the Wolverines to a 73-69 overtime win over Minnesota. But the following day, when the point guard was held without a 3-point make and finished with just five points, Michigan was throttled by Ohio State.
The Columbus native is the only notable contributor that lacks NCAA Tournament experience. The rest of Michigan’s starting lineup started in the Wolverines’ 75-45 win over Tennessee and the ensuing 73-71 loss to Duke last March.
But Burke, who has displayed exceptional composure all season, has the support of his teammates, who aren’t concerned about his lack of experience.
“I haven’t even thought about (talking to him about staying calm), and I won’t do it — won’t even think about doing it,” Douglass said. “The whole experience thing, needing that experience has kind of gone out the window. It started with playoff-time experience with Minnesota, and he basically carries us the entire game. Then he had a rough game against Ohio State. So he’s had a wide range of experiences already in postseason play.”
Should the Wolverines beat the Bobcats, they’ll move on to face the winner of the Temple-South Florida game. The fifth-seeded Owls are the favorite, but the Bulls are riding the momentum of a convincing 65-54 win over California in the first round.