They’ve returned home.
At 4 p.m., the Michigan men’s basketball team was back where it all began — on the floor in Crisler Arena, seated and facing a section of students, alumni and fans.
The players entered the stadium through the stands, greeting the cheering fans along the way. Then they took their seats on the floor, in 24 Michigan-themed folding chairs — chairs that faced the media, the fans and the sole banner hanging above the section: the 1989 NCAA National Championship banner.
Michigan coach John Beilein addressed the crowd first, thanking the coaching staff, players and fans for their support throughout the season. The crowd’s cheers couldn’t compete with the ruckus in the arena at tipoff the night before, but the cheering was there.
After Beilein’s speech, Michigan assistant coach LaVall Jordan addressed the crowd and team, his eyes glancing up to the rafters above in between his praise for the team and their season.
“This arena will look so much nicer with another banner up there,” Jordan said.
Each player took turns introducing themselves, sharing their thoughts on the team’s tournament journey.
“It was a great journey, and Team 96 — I wouldn’t trade you guys for the world,” junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said.
“I would have loved to win the game last night, but I couldn’t be more proud of these guys sitting next to me,” freshman guard Nik Stauskas said.
“We had a goal of putting Michigan basketball back on the map,” freshman forward Glenn Robinson III said, acknowledging a goal accomplished with this season.
The comments highlighted successes, not failures.
“Unfortunately we didn’t get the win yesterday, but we got a lot to be proud of,” sophomore guard Trey Burke said.
Dressed in their Adidas attire — with “WE ON” and “Leave It All On The Floor” painted across their shirts — the players seemed somber and ready to be back. Burke laughed and smiled with senior guard Eso Akunne as the other players spoke, and freshman guard Spike Albrecht was the target of jokes.
“I’ll try to be quick so you guys can hear from the legend, Spike Albrecht,” senior guard Matt Vogrich said.
After Albrecht addressed the crowd — receiving a standing ovation from the team after introducing himself — Beilein had one last request: for the team’s captain, senior guard Josh Bartelstein, to lead the team and the crowd in “Hail to the Victors” with the help of Burke, Akunne and Hardaway.
“I think these guys are champions in so many ways,” Beilein said.
Everyone sang, everyone clapped and everyone went through the motions. But after the song was over — one of the last times Team 96 will sing the fight song in Crisler in front of a crowd — they moved toward the exit while the crowd cheered on. They were ready to go.
“It’s good; it’s nice. We’ve been gone a long time, but we’re all happy to be back,” Albrecht said after the event.
The freshmen looked back on the entire journey rather than the very end.
“We had some incredible games: I mean, our game against Kansas, Trey hitting that shot, our win over Syracuse,” Albrecht said. “There were a lot of highpoints in that tournament, and we fell a little bit short, but it didn’t take away from the success of the entire season.”
For Hardaway, coming back to Crisler was an emotional experience.
“It means the world just to see our fans out there, and it’s very, very emotional when they’re here, cheering for you even after a loss, so, I mean, it takes a lot of toughness just to see that,” Hardaway said. “We’re very emotional right now.”
And while the NBA rumors swirl around his career, Hardaway said he isn’t thinking about the draft.
“I’m just reflecting on the season, talking to a lot of people and everyone’s talking about the NBA, but I’m not really focused on that right now,” he said. “I’m focused on this season, what happened and what this team can get better at.”
McGary cited the freedom to go to class and relax as what he’s looking forward to, and Beilein agreed.
“It’s been four straight weekends on the road, and I think we all need a sense of normalcy,” Beilein said. “Believe it or not, they want to go back to catch up with classes, and we all have exams and we have a lot that’s going on, but I’m really proud with the way they conducted themselves.”
Though the players turned a blind eye to the media throughout the tournament — McGary was unaware of an article on Buzzfeed suggesting he is a wizard — Beilein called out Albrecht’s tweet to model Kate Upton during the event.
“Spike is so big right now that Kate Upton asked him out for a date and he said he’s too busy,” Beilein said.
The team is back in Ann Arbor, but when the media asked if Michigan basketball was back, mixed reviews came from McGary and Hardaway.
“I think so. We got back to the national stage, and it got us back on top,” McGary said.
“Honestly, we got a lot of work to do, but it’s definitely moving in the right direction,” Hardaway added.
Albrecht pointed out that the team meets again tomorrow.
“It was a long season — we had a lot to be proud of — but we have a meeting tomorrow with Coach Beilein and the other coaches, and they’re going to tell us where we go from here,” he said.
University alum Jameel Syed, a resident of Auburn Hills, Mich., was the first to enter Crisler at 2 p.m. for the event with his 11-year-old son, Jibril, who was decked in a maize “Burke” jersey. He took work off early and pulled Jibril out of school for what he considered a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the team together. Syed, who grew up in Ann Arbor, said he has watched Michigan athletics his whole life. But in Team 96, he found something special.
“I had to come out here today because this is the last time this group is ever going to be assembled, and it’s a very special group of people,” Syed said. “And I was born and raised here, so I’ve seen a lot of people come and a lot of people go, and I haven’t seen this.”
Syed planned to be at Crisler for the team’s homecoming win or lose.
“There were so many lessons here from a life perspective, let alone athletics,” Syed said. “I think everybody appreciates the fact that every single one of those people — the starters, the people off the bench — had something to contribute, and they fought so hard. And sometimes it turns out this way — that you don’t win — but honestly, there’s so many lessons to learn from that, and the biggest one is: Michigan is back.”