All season, the Michigan men’s basketball team has been playing with a chip on its shoulder. Coming into the season, the Wolverines were picked to finish 10th or last in the Big Ten. Most believed the only team they’d do better than was a struggling Iowa program.
While Iowa did finish second to last, Michigan finished the Big Ten slate tied for fourth. And when the Wolverines were named the No. 8 seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament, still there were doubters who didn’t believe in the team that had finished its season 9-9 in conference play after starting it 1-6.
“Guys had us losing by double digits to Tennessee and we had great success against them,” junior Stu Douglass said Saturday. “We don’t expect anybody to pick us against Duke but that’s what we love and that’s what motivates us to get a win.”
Several of the players said they embraced this role and that it may have been better to play this year without the heavy expectations, but that they’re hoping to be a team with a target on its back next year.
After the Wolverines’ impressive 75-45 victory — the largest margin of victory in any 8/9 game this year — they’re hoping to keep the ball rolling as they face top-seeded Duke on Sunday. As with the Tennessee game, Michigan isn’t favored to advance, but that’s not bothering any of the Wolverines.
“It just seems like everyone keeps expecting a different answer from us, like they’re surprised with where we’re at,” junior Zack Novak said. “But we’re not surprised. We have confidence in ourselves.”
BUILDING A LEGACY: Michigan coach John Beilein’s ability to turn around teams and programs is something he’s known for, but this may be one of his most impressive seasons yet.
With his second NCAA Tournament appearance in his three years at Michigan, Beilein has nearly cemented his name in the record books. Coaches across the country have called him the “wizard” of college basketball and gawked at his ability to take mediocre programs and turn them into near legacies.
“I think it’s a no-brainer to say that when they hired (Beilein) that they were going to be eventually a consistent NCAA participant,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s a good friend and I admire him. He’s a coach’s coach and he’s a program builder. These are all the kids that he’s recruited and they believe in what they’re doing.
“As good as they are individually, they’re better together, which is always a sign of a winning program.”
But it’s not just coaches around the country that have a deep admiration for Beilein.
“We believed in him when he said he was building a program,” sophomore Matt Vogrich said of the recruitment process with Beilein. “I knew he could do it. He’s taken teams to the Tournament … I just believed in him. He’s just a great coach.”
BEILEIN’S HISTORY WITH DUKE: In Beilein’s first Division I job as a head coach, he took Canisius to Cameron Indoor Stadium to play a weekday game against the Blue Devils. His team arrived and the famous Krzyzewskiville fan base was already set up outside of Cameron.
“I asked somebody, ‘You’re set up, camping out for the Canisius game?’ He said, ‘Heck no, we play Michigan this weekend.’
“And so how ironic is that now?”
While Canisuis went on to lose that game badly, it remains, in Beilein’s thoughts, a fond memory.
Although, the same can’t be said of Krzyzewski.
“I don’t remember,” Krzyzewski said of the matchup. “I don’t remember a lot of things. My wife complains about that a lot. I do remember birthdays, answers, grandkids’ stuff and all that.
“He’s not coaching Canisius … He’s coaching Michigan.”