ANN ARBOR — In a photo sent out Monday on Sports Illustrated’s Twitter feed, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein stood in front of a whiteboard before the Wolverines’ NCAA tournament opener against South Dakota State and examined eight sentences written in blue ink.
Written at the top:
“This is the Good Stuff. This is why we are ‘MICHIGAN.’ ”
In the seven weeks before the NCAA tournament, that may not have been the case. A 19-1 start put Michigan at No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll at the end of January, but the Wolverines went 6-6 in their final 12 games — including a 75-52 drubbing Feb. 12 at Michigan State and an 84-78 loss Feb. 27 at Penn State.
Pundits, skeptics, and common fans wondered: Did the Wolverines have what it takes to make a legitimate tournament run?
After convincing wins against South Dakota State and Virginia Commonwealth in last week’s opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, Michigan is on a resurgence of sorts. Not just as a team, but as a program.
The No. 4-seeded Wolverines are preparing for the program’s first appearance in the Sweet 16 in 19 years, and they face No. 1 Kansas in a South regional game at 7:37 p.m. Friday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“It would be hard for me to say it’s just a game,” Michigan guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., said Sunday on ESPN Radio. “It’s so much bigger because it’s the NCAA tournament you’re playing in, and you’re one of 16 teams left in the NCAA tournament that have a shot at winning it all.
“Even if you’re playing with confidence, you have to throw all that stuff out the window and play for your brothers, your teammates, and your fan base. That’s what we’re doing right now.”
Michigan (28-7) is one of four Big Ten teams to make up the remaining tournament field, joining Ohio State, Indiana, and Michigan State. Simple math reveals the conference has a 1-in-4 chance of winning the national title.
On numerous occasions during the course of the season, the Wolverines found themselves down early before rebounding and pulling out wins, sometimes out of thin air.
Even after the Big Ten tournament, Beilein told reporters that in preparation for the NCAA tournament, the Wolverines had to focus on defensive growth and maintain consistency through the course of a game — instead of relying on a strong first half to compensate for a dismal second half, or vice versa.
“We’ll fix it the best we can,” the coach said before the tournament began. “We have been trying all year long. There’s a process that we all have to go through to get better at it and hopefully we can shore up enough to continue playing for a long time.”
In the days leading up to the Sweet 16, which kicks off Thursday with East and West regional games in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, a few experts have offered their takes on what could be in store for Michigan’s short-term future.
Like the whiteboard in front of Beilein said, it might be considered good stuff.
Nate Silver, the New York Times’ statistics and probability guru, grades Michigan’s chances of winning the national title at 3.8 percent. He gives Kansas a 4.5 percent chance.
Louisville is Silver’s favorite, at 32.4 percent. But Silver also wrote that Michigan “should be thought of as the equivalent of a strong No. 2 seed right now.”
Ken Pomeroy, a Utah-based meteorologist who uses statistical analysis to determine potential outcomes of college basketball on his Web site, KenPom.com, picked Michigan as a one-point favorite (69-68) against Kansas and gives the Wolverines a 51 percent chance of winning Friday.
CBSSports.com’s quartet of college basketball analysts — Jeff Goodman, Gary Parrish, Matt Norlander, and Jeff Borzello — unanimously picked the Wolverines to beat Kansas. So did Sports Illustrated columnist Andy Staples, who labeled Thursday’s tilt as the regional’s “intriguing matchup.”
But after the Wolverines survived a rocky late-season stretch, making it through that first weekend of the NCAA tournament became the biggest challenge. Now, it’s onto the next step — and maybe more of the good stuff.
“There wasn’t this scientific game plan to get things done,” Beilein said. “They reacted and played against pressure like they worked so hard to be able to do. At the University of Michigan, we want to be champions. And we’re trying for Big Ten championships.
“And when you get to the NCAA tournament, you’re trying to do the exact same thing.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.