How Michigan became the feel-good story of the NCAA tournament

Wolverines don't want to see run end (0:36)

Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. explain how Michigan has been able to put together an extended winning streak. (0:36)

ANN ARBOR, Michigan -- On Feb. 5, Tom Brady fired a dart over the middle of the field with 2 minutes, 28 seconds left in Super Bowl LI. He watched Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford leap to the heavens to break up the pass. He saw his intended target, Julian Edelman, hunt the ball as it ricocheted off Alford's leg, teetered between Edelman's hands and hovered an inch above the turf. Time stopped. The ball froze. Then the referee signaled: complete.

In that moment, John Beilein says, the University of Michigan men's basketball team shifted course.

"That's what we're talking about," the Michigan coach texted his team in the minutes after Edelman hit the ground, ball safely tucked into his red gloves. Beilein's Wolverines sat at 4-6 in Big Ten play and 14-9 overall that Sunday. They'd been called "white collar" after a loss to Illinois, and they looked the part the night before when they lost to Ohio State, 70-66 on the scoreboard and 42-24 on the glass. Beilein, who has coached Michigan for a decade, knew he needed more from his team -- his players, his coaches, himself -- and saw the more he was after as Edelman came crashing down to earth.

"Everybody's got to reach for this thing that they don't think they can do," he says now. "And do it."


Here's one thing most Wolverines fans, armchair point guards and perhaps even the players themselves didn't think Michigan could do just six weeks ago: punch its third Sweet 16 ticket in five years. Here's another: Be that team. The one no other tournament team wants to face in March -- and, maybe, come April.

But, as Beilein implored, Michigan reached. The Wolverines took six of their final eight regular-season games, including victories over top-15 squads in Wisconsin and Purdue -- a newfound defensive assault besting the Badgers, and a scoring blitz courtesy of sophomore Moe Wagner toppling the Boilermakers. They captured the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C., riding Derrick Walton Jr. to four wins in four days. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, as a No. 7 seed, they edged past Oklahoma State on a barrage of 3-pointers. In the second round, they upset No. 2-seeded Louisville with a suddenly resurgent interior offense.

Now, with Oregon and a potential Elite Eight berth looming, Beilein looks back on that Super Bowl text message and pinpoints the exchange as the moment the tide began to shift for his Wolverines. He recalls the responses from his players: "I hear you, Coach;" "I got you, Coach;" "Go Blue, Coach."

Walton, Michigan's leader and senior point guard, read those texts and digested them, but his crystallizing moment -- the day that marked a before and after for him in this 2016-17 season -- came earlier. He shakes his head as he recalls the quote he saw via Twitter in the middle of January. "They are more of a white-collar team, traditionally," Illinois' Maverick Morgan said of the Wolverines, after dispatching them by 16 points on Jan. 11. That rankled Walton not merely because he found it disrespectful, but he also found it plain wrong. How many times had he heard Coach Beilein hollering in practice? Take your tuxedoes off and play! he'd scream, exhorting his players for more sweat, more sprints, more Crisler Center steps to climb.

Walton called a team meeting two days after that Illinois loss, and the night before they'd face Nebraska at home, to voice his disappointment in his own performance and the team's. "We're going to decide who we are," he insisted. A few days later, assistant coach Billy Donlon combusted before the team's rematch against Illinois on Jan. 21, writing two words in marker -- on the wall, not on the dry erase board where it could later be wiped clean -- "STREET FIGHT." "He wanted it to stick there," Walton says. And so it remains, two months later.

The Wolverines ran hot as the month closed, dropping Indiana by 30 points on Jan. 26; they then went ice-cold, falling to their two biggest conference rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State, in quick succession. But soon came Beilein's Super Bowl Sunday text, a collective purpose to revitalize the charge Walton had jump-started. And that collective purpose became a collective experience one month later on a runway in Ypsilanti, Michigan, at Willow Run Airport.


On March 8, the day the Wolverines were scheduled to leave for the Big Ten tournament, high winds rocked the state of Michigan. Gusts reached 60 mph. And despite the pilot slamming the brakes to abort takeoff, Michigan's plane slid off the runway, then barreled into a ditch. Luggage flew out of the overheads. One of the turbines smoked. All 109 passengers, including the entire Michigan team, evacuated through emergency chutes, with Beilein guiding the players down himself. And though no one suffered any major injuries, they were shaken. Beilein told his players they could forfeit, that any player who did not want to get on a plane the next day did not have to. Walton, who needed five stitches in his right leg to repair a gash from the accident, called his mother and told her exactly that.

"I don't want to go," he said. He talked to his mom. He talked to his teammates. Then he changed his mind. He boarded the plane and left for D.C., where he would average 20.5 points and 6.3 assists in his four Big Ten tournament games. Michigan, seeded at No. 8, upended Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin to take the title.

The Michigan players, in truth, are tired of reliving the ordeal. The experience was harrowing, yes. They saw the smoke that filled the plane. They smelled the fuel. Now they want to forget it -- or at least go on, changed by it.

After Michigan beat Louisville, Patrick Beilein, head coach at Le Moyne College, watched his father douse his players with a Super Soaker in the locker room and saw a freer man. Matt Shepard, Michigan's play-by-play announcer, says the same. "I've never seen him looser," he says. "I've never seen him give as much freedom to a team."


On Tuesday afternoon, two days before their Sweet 16 matchup with Oregon, Derrick Walton, Moe Wagner and Zak Irvin break dance. Then they point. Then they freeze, arms around one another, mugging. They stand, unmoving in a Crisler Center hallway, staring through the glass walls of the media room where John Beilein is fielding questions from a gaggle of reporters. Finally, they accomplish their mission: Beilein breaks, cracking a smile from the podium. He acknowledges the trio of players working to distract him.

Walton, Wagner, Irvin and the rest of the Wolverines will catch a flight later that evening to Kansas City, where they'll spend one last day preparing. In the meantime, they're having fun. And why wouldn't they? Since that fateful Super Bowl six weeks earlier, the Wolverines have lost only two games: The first, an overtime grind against Minnesota; the second, a buzzer-beater versus Northwestern that came courtesy of a full-court-pass and layup. They've won in the air. (Michigan drops 16 3-pointers against Oklahoma State!) They've won in the trenches. (Wagner with another layup against Louisville!) Even their defense, stagnant and ineffective for so much of this season, has tightened its reins.

Terry Mills -- T-Mills to these Wolverines -- played in Ann Arbor during Michigan's lone championship season in 1989 and is a close spectator of this current crew from his perch as radio analyst. He watches this team and sees it hitting the sweet spot: "Their confidence is at an all-time high," he says. "But they're calm. They're really calm."

When that calm, that confidence, that fun became possible -- whether it was after a Julian Edelman catch, or a slight from Illinois, or even an aborted flight to Washington -- is less vital than why it did.

The Wolverines are where they are now because they finally reached.