Who could’ve predicted this?

Picked by everyone to finish at or near the bottom of the Big Ten, playing with no seniors and with one of the youngest squads in the country, the Michigan men’s basketball team has defied the odds this season.

The Wolverines’ surprising season culminated on Sunday, when they were announced as a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan willl take on Tennessee in the second round this Friday in Charlotte, N.C.

“It’s huge,” Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon said yesterday. “It’s huge for our program. I’m so proud of Coach Beilein and his staff and these players. They’ve earned this, and they’ve worked incredibly hard. I don’t think anybody gave us a snowball’s chance in hell of being here.”

The team gathered at Crisler Arena to watch the selection show in front of a large gathering of fans. CBS had a camera crew there to interview Michigan coach John Beilein and get live shots of the team’s and crowd’s reaction to its potential selection.

Beilein addressed the fans before the show began. He preached about being pleased with the season no matter what the outcome of the selection show was.

It was a rather pessimistic take, considering most experts pegged the Wolverines as solidly in the tournament after their victory over Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals on Friday.

“I just have to always prepare myself for (disappointment),” Beilein said. “You just never know what’s going to happen. I would have been very disappointed (if we were left out) — never shocked, but very disappointed. But now that I see where we were seeded, I don’t know what I was so worried about.”

Indeed, it appears that Michigan would have been safely in the field even if it had lost to the Fighting Illini. Beilein explained his team’s surprising seed by pointing to the strength of the Big Ten — seven conference squads made the tournament — and the fact that the Wolverines finished in fourth place.

Two seasons ago, Michigan held a similar watch party on Selection Sunday. The situation was slightly different then — the program was trying to make it back to the NCAA Tournament after an 11-season drought. It was a much more nerve-wracking evening in 2009, as the Wolverines were among the very last teams announced.

This time, Michigan’s name was called before the selection show even hit its halfway point — and the team was on more solid ground, widely considered above the bubble.

But considering the expectations for the Wolverines before the season and that their conference record stood at 1-6 in mid-January, it was no surprise that the celebration upon hearing Michigan’s selection was just as raucous as it was two years ago. The fans in Crisler Arena burst into cheers as the players leapt up excitedly, hugging and congratulating each other.

“I almost had a heart attack,” freshman guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “It’s every kid’s dream, and we’re living it right now.”

Added junior guard Zack Novak: “I wasn’t nervous up until we came out here today, and after that, I was a nervous wreck … It’s just a dream come true to see your team’s name up there. You work so hard for it. It’s been a long two years. To get back (to the tournament) is just unbelievable.”

Coach Bruce Pearl’s Tennessee team will present an interesting matchup for the Wolverines. The ninth-seeded Volunteers are talented and athletic, having beaten Villanova, Pittsburgh and Memphis this season — but they’re also enigmatic, as they fell to Charlotte and the College of Charleston.

And there’s an intriguing potential matchup in the third round with No. 1 seed Duke. But Sunday wasn’t about Michigan’s next game — it was about achieving something few, if any, thought was possible for this team at the beginning of the season.

It will go down as one of the best coaching jobs of Beilein’s career. And for the 58-year-old, there was nothing more gratifying than seeing the joyful reactions of his players.

“It’s just everything to a coach, to watch (that),” Beilein said. “You coach a lot of teams, 35 now I’ve probably coached … to watch them go through the excitement, it’s magical because they’ve worked so hard, and they’ve been focused all year long.

“To have part of their dreams come true, right in front of your eyes, is a wonderful thing.”

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