Late-season momentum entering the NCAA tournament can be key to a long run in the postseason. But as Michigan wing Tim Hardaway Jr. said, "It's more about motivation and confidence and that adrenaline once you get in the tournament that really matters -- of building momentum there. We're an example of that."
And the Wolverines aren't the only ones.
Although Louisville, the lone No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four, has won 14 in a row, the other three teams competing in Atlanta this weekend posted mediocre -- at best -- records down the regular-season stretch.
Fourth-seeded Michigan stumbled in at 5-5, including a loss to Big Ten cellar-dweller Penn State and a 23-point defeat at Michigan State. Fourth-seeded Syracuse finished 5-7, including scoring 39 points in an embarrassment at Georgetown.
And No. 9 seed Wichita State's three-game losing streak in late January/early February -- the beginning of its 5-5 regular-season completion -- actually had coach Gregg Marshall worried that his team might not make the NCAA field at all.
These three teams didn't rebound to win their conference tournaments, yet here they are -- all with a chance to take home college basketball's ultimate trophy. And considering how each has played over the past two weekends, none would be that much of a surprise victor.
"After winning a game or two in the NCAA tournament, and when you get to the regionals, there's no longer a Cinderella factor, I don't believe," Marshall said.
Hopes at any Cinderella label were fading fast two months ago, though, when Marshall's Shockers lost their third straight game, this time at Southern Illinois, which finished near the bottom of the Missouri Valley Conference standings.
"I'm thinking, 'Oh, boy, we may have just shot our chances to get in the NCAA tournament right in the foot, we might have just blown it,'" Marshall said earlier this week, knowing his league wouldn't get as many bids as the major conferences. "I'm thinking that to myself, obviously not relaying that to the team."
What was relayed to the team in the days after that game, however, are words WSU players now credit for turning their attention and intensity -- and maybe their season -- around. Former Shocker and NBA forward Antoine Carr visited and gave the defense-minded squad this advice: "Play angry."
"I took it as: Don't be satisfied, play physical, know you can compete every day, and with anybody," guard Tekele Cotton said. "We took that message to heart, and I do think that's what has helped us get here."
Not only did the already-bruising team refocus at practice, but the return of a couple of injured players to a squad that lost its top five scorers from the previous season gave them more mean weapons, as well.
Forward Carl Hall, who had missed seven games in December and January with an injured thumb, returned to the starting lineup during that loss to Southern Illinois and steadily returned to aggressive form. Ron Baker, who sat out the final 21 games of the regular season with a foot injury, returned in time for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
They were healthy again, jelling again, adding depth and firepower that would be key during the NCAAs. And although the Shockers lost their final two regular-season games, and lost to Creighton in the MVC tourney final, "we never lost our confidence our belief that we could make a [postseason] run," Hall said.
An Orange perspective
The same can't be said for Syracuse, which never really was in danger of missing the NCAA tournament. However, the Orange struggled so badly down the stretch that coach Jim Boeheim, not very confident in his team's ability to make a deep postseason run, had a late-March family trip to Disney World planned, according to SI.com.
The low point occurred March 9, when Georgetown battered the Orange 61-39. It marked the fewest points scored by a Boeheim-coached team, was Syracuse's fourth loss in five games, and it was psyche-shaking.
"You can't say we didn't lose confidence," senior guard Brandon Triche admitted. "We were probably unsure of ourselves a little bit."
Boeheim had to be, too -- until the next practice, when he arrived a bit late, but was intrigued by what he saw.
"When I got down there they were playing 4-on-4 -- and playing hard," he said. "I watched them for a few minutes and it was really a good, real good thing. I thought our practices were really good after that."
It helped that Boeheim relayed the story of the 1985 Villanova team, which lost three straight in February of that season, got blown out by 23 in early March, failed win its league tournament -- then shocked everyone by beating Georgetown for the national championship.
The point: If they could do it, so can we.
And so far, they have, first using their sweltering, enveloping 2-3 defense to avenge two of their regular-season losses -- to Pitt and the Hoyas -- before falling to Louisville in the Big East tournament championship game. And then holding their first four NCAA tournament opponents to an average of 46 PPG.
They sure don't look shaken now.
"It's difficult when you lose four out of five games, but people go through that," Boeheim said. "I think most teams have a bad stretch sometime during the course of the year."
A positive response
It's how you respond to that stretch that matters, as Michigan's Hardaway will tell you. He knows from recent experience. After his team lost three of four in early February -- including an overtime disappointment at Wisconsin and a 23-point blowout at Michigan State -- the players rallied by welding mental chips to their shoulders.
Although the Wolverines had been ranked No. 1, they heard the doubters. They didn't like it. They felt like they had something to prove.
"I think those losses are what brought us back to reality -- [that] we're a very young team, we had a lot of work to do," Hardaway said. " We have a lot of guys [who] weren't used to losing, coming out of high school, and we had to learn how to respond."
Practices got tougher. Defense and rebounding became an emphasis.
There were still stumbles along the way, such as the perplexing double-digit defeat at the last-place Nittany Lions, the last-second letdown to Indiana in the regular-season finale and another defeat to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament.
In the short term, those losses hurt. Now, Hardaway says, he knows they helped. They were growing pains for a team -- which features a junior in Hardaway, a sophomore in Trey Burke and key freshmen in Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas -- that needed to mature. Just look to its late-game, double-digit rally against Kansas in the Sweet 16 as an example.
"For us to realize: this is reality, this is how it feels when you lose like this -- and in the postseason, there are no second chances -- that was good for us," he said. "We came into [the NCAA tournament] feeling like we were the underdogs, because everybody was doubting us. We wanted to show everybody we could still play at a very high level, that our season wasn't over."
And it still isn't.
Whether or not Michigan or its Final Four counterparts were feeling any momentum a month ago, the four teams have got their mojo back now.
Wichita State's depth has allowed different stars to emerge, and don't-call-me-Cinderella has led by double figures in all four of its tournament games. Syracuse's 2-3 zone has destroyed some pretty good offenses (as well as Boeheim's vacation plans). And McGary (33-for-45 from the field, 46 rebounds in NCAA play) is just one example of how much the Wolverines have grown up.
Louisville is the only team headed to Atlanta that hasn't lost since early February.
Not that it matters, now.
"There are four teams in that Final Four all capable of winning a national championship," said Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, whose team went through a three-loss streak of its own in mid-January. "They're all playing great."