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ANN ARBOR — For the Michigan Wolverines, “Beat Ohio” is about to take on an entirely different meaning. The Wolverines are the No. 4 seed in the Midwest Regional and will take on the Ohio Bobcats of the Mid-American Conference on Friday in Nashville.
Michigan football coach Brady Hoke has a habit of referring to Ohio State only by the name “Ohio” — and Wolverines fans have caught on recently, chanting “Beat Ohio” in reference to their hated rival.
Now Michigan will actually face Ohio.
“We’re playing Ohio University now,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “It’s a great university down in Athens, Ohio.”
Michigan is 3-0 against Ohio but hasn’t faced the school since 1971. The teams met in the NCAA tournament in 1964, with Michigan winning 69-57 to advance to the Final Four.
Ohio (27-7) won the MAC tournament this season, beating Akron 64-63 in the final. The Bobcats lost by only five points at Louisville in November. D.J. Cooper, their 5-foot-11 guard, is their leading scorer at 14.6 points per game.
Michigan will counter with its own 5-foot-11 guard, Trey Burke, who has been terrific throughout his freshman season but went 1-of-11 from the field and had eight turnovers in Michigan’s 77-55 loss to Ohio State in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament Saturday.
This is the highest seed for the Wolverines in the NCAA tournament since they were a No. 3 in 1998.
“To be a four seed, that’s huge. That’s one of the top 16 teams in the country,” senior Zack Novak said. “I think it just speaks to the type of season that we had, and I like the position that we’re in.”
Michigan made the NCAA tournament last season too, routing Tennessee in its first game before losing 73-71 to Duke. The Wolverines lost point guard Darius Morris to the NBA, but Burke stepped in and the team improved, winning a share of the school’s first Big Ten regular-season title since 1986. This is Michigan’s third NCAA tournament appearance in four years.
“I think when you’re going through it as a player — having gone through a time when you don’t see your name get up there — you don’t care where you’re at,” Novak said. “You just want to see ‘MICHIGAN’ flash up on the board.”
As overmatched as Michigan looked against the Buckeyes, the Wolverines have bounced back after every defeat this season. In fact, they haven’t lost two games in a row since a six-game skid in January, 2011.
The goal is no longer simply to reach the tournament, but to make a run. The Michigan-Ohio winner will take on one of three teams in the next round — No. 5 seed Temple, No. 12 seeds California or South Florida.
Michigan hasn’t been to the round of 16 since reaching the national quarterfinals in 1994.
“It would be very good for us — for our team and our program,” guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., said. “Coming off a disappointing loss [Saturday] against Ohio, I think this team has a very great sense of urgency.”
That would be the other Ohio, not the one Michigan is about to play.
As the Wolverines prepare for a postseason matchup straight out of Abbott & Costello’s playbook, Beilein says his approach won’t change even though Michigan’s seed is higher than it was the last two times he took the Wolverines to the tournament. In 2009 and 2011, Michigan’s at-large hopes were in doubt until the pairings were announced.
This year the Wolverines were a shoe-in — but there was still plenty to be excited about.
“You just don’t get over the moment when you see your name up there, and then the suspense of who you’re going to play, and then who you’d play if you’re fortunate enough to advance,” Beilein said. “Our kids are all thrilled.”