INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan was called a “traditionally white-collar team” by an opposing Big Ten center earlier this season. They’ve also been called the “team of destiny” since a plane crash sparked a run to the Big Ten tournament title.
Label the Wolverines however you want.
But after No. 7 seed Michigan rallied to beat No. 2 seed Louisville, 73-69, during Sunday’s second-round matchup in the Midwest Region, there is only one way to refer to this Wolverine team: really damn good.
Michigan won its seventh consecutive game on Sunday despite senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. finally coming back down to Earth. After averaging 21.0 points, 8.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds over his last six games, Walton struggled to a 3-for-13 shooting day and only 10 points. Thankfully for Walton and Michigan, his Wolverine teammates picked up the slack as sophomore Moe Wagner had the game of his life with 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting. D.J. Wilson also chipped in 17 points, knocking down some key late free throws while also playing steady defense on the interior.
Beating a No. 2 seed like Louisville without Walton playing like the All-Big Ten caliber player that he was this season shows just how strong and balanced head coach John Beilein’s team is at this point in the season. Michigan only knocked down six three-pointers and was out-rebounded by double-digits but they still found a way to beat one of the ACC’s best teams.
Forget the “team of destiny” talk that was attached to Michigan after the scary incident involving the team plane right before the Wolverines won the Big Ten Tournament.
With an elite floor leader in Walton, veteran wing shooters and a mix of talented and versatile big men, Michigan believes it can continue to win games and make a run in this tournament despite the prevailing, “the Big Ten is down” sentiments.
“We always believed in ourselves, not only from a shooting respect, but also on the defensive end and in the paint as well,” Wagner said. “So, yeah, I’m very happy. I just said that to Coach B, we only shot six threes today and we won. So it’s awesome. We played gritty basketball, and I think we can be proud of that.”
Walton and Zak Irvin are the senior leaders for this Wolverine team but they also have some of the nation’s most versatile big men in Wilson and Wagner.
With Wilson, Wagner and senior Duncan Robinson all being able to play on the interior while also stretching the floor from three-point range, it makes Beilein’s floor-spacing on offense that much more dangerous. When you also factor in how much ground Wilson covers on the defensive end and you can see why the Wolverines have won five straight games against teams who played in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
“There are just so many different guys who can step up on any given night,” Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington said. “We have a group that is ready to play on any night.”
Besides Michigan having a strong core group of players who fit well together on the floor, this team has also been described as being incredibly close throughout the course of the season. Michigan’s incident involving the team plane only enhanced this team’s unique chemistry.
The message of family was hammered home once again before Sunday’s game against Louisville when Michigan assistant coach Billy Donlon opted to motivate the Wolverines in a new way.
After Michigan’s first-round win over Oklahoma State on Friday, Donlon saw a picture of his dad and sister hugging in the stands in a photo taken by David Jablonski of the Dayton Daily News.
Donlon was so touched by his family’s reaction in the photo that he and the Michigan managers spent time this weekend gathering family photos from team parents to hang around the locker room.
“A lot of the talks that we give just come to you,” Donlon said. “[The photo] was my dad and sister… You don’t need any words to describe that. I saw [the photo] and it just hit me like, ‘You guys realize the impact you have on your family’s lives?’
“And the message was just really simple: this is another opportunity to impact the lives of each other and our families. Give a little extra for them.”
Donlon carried the photo of his dad and his sister in his pocket while other family photos of players and coaches were all over the Michigan locker room. There was also a photo of a snarling pitbull mix — which Michigan calls “Toother” — a reminder of when Illinois center Maverick Morgan implied that the Wolverines were soft earlier this season.
When the Wolverines found themselves down by eight points at halftime to Louisville on Sunday, the family photos were there for one more extra slice of motivation to help them get over the second-half hump.
Michigan was finally able to make its move in the second half as Beilein was especially pleased with how the Wolverines didn’t press to get it all back right after halftime.
“A team that isn’t as experienced, that might not have the poise we have, would come back and try to win it all right away,” Beilein said. “We won every four-minute period until we got ahead in the game. And just by playing in those little increments made a big difference.”
After Michigan’s second-half comeback, most of those family photos found their way on the locker-room floor. Beilein sprayed his team with a Super Soaker to change up the team’s new “water celebration” trend and many of the photos fell victim to the euphoric celebration.
Not many people expected Michigan to make it to the Sweet 16 based on how they looked earlier this season. But the Wolverines have bonded together on and off the floor and look like one of the most dangerous teams left in the field.
“We’re just having so much fun right now,” Irvin said. “None of us want this to end.”