One of my favorite fables my grandmother used to tell me was that of a man who hit himself repeatedly in the head with a hammer. When asked why he did this, he replied “because it feels so good when I stop!” To this day, I don’t know the moral of that story, or whether it even has one, but I feel like it perfectly encapsulates the experience of following this Michigan team’s road to the final four. At one point during Florida State’s failed comeback, I repeatedly bashed my own head against the wall of a booth at Good Time Charley’s. I felt pretty damn good about 10 minutes later.
With the exception of a sweet 16 explosion against Texas A&M, Michigan’s wins have been two and a half hours of tension and misery interrupted by frequent commercial breaks. I’ve watched every win from Michigan’s 2013 run at least five times. I’ll probably watch the Poole shot another thousand times, but aside from that, I don’t think I’ll ever want to relive any aspect of this tournament. The 2013 squad at its best was poetry in motion, a dizzying barrage of 3s, dunks, and ball movement that seemed alien to college basketball. The 2018 team is basically Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin with way more swagger.
A brash, diminutive point guard with no shooting stroke, an unassuming two-star from Pennsylvania, a D-III transfer, a Kentucky castoff nicknamed “turnover,” and a German center who once struggled to rebound, defend, or stay on the court form the core of a team on the precipice of greatness in an era dominated by one-and-dones. On its face, it seems farcical to describe any team from the University of Michigan in the cliché-ridden language we use to define a scrappy underdog. But, as they say, if the slipper fits, wear it. These Wolverines defend every possession like it’s their last. The bench is stocked with role players who have proven themselves invaluable in Michigan’s biggest wins of the season. The Achilles’ heel that would doom the team, a lack of a prototypical go-to scorer, has instead turned into its greatest strength, with five guys ready and willing to assume the mantle on any given night. With the help of a dedicated, visionary coaching staff and a humility rarely found in 65-year-old basketball lifers, John Beilein has cobbled together a team in the truest sense of the word, one in which everyone can maximize his individual potential while contributing to something far greater than the sum of its parts.
Like anyone immersed in Michigan fanhood, my mind can’t help but wander and wonder wistful what-could-have-beens about John Beilein’s many missed recruiting targets starring across the basketball universe. Like anyone well-versed in Michigan basketball, I should have known better than to wait-til-next-year a John Beilein team in November (or December, or January, or February). Amidst all our flights of fancy, Beilein has anchored the team he has with his usual down-to-earth, methodical approach. The on-court product hasn’t always been pretty, but the results sure are beautiful: two new banners in the Crisler rafters, with a chance to tack on the most hallowed of them all.