Michigan has done a lot winning recently, and the Wolverines don’t plan to stop now.
Not pegged as Final Four favorites like conference mates Michigan State and Wisconsin were before this year’s Big Dance started, it’s somewhat strange to see people — fans and experts alike — sleeping on Michigan.
After all, this is the team that came a win short of a national championship last season. And despite losing a chunk of that roster’s star power to the NBA and one particularly costly back injury, it’s a team that followed that postseason run up with a Big Ten regular-season championship and a trip to the Big Ten Tournament title game this season.
And after a pair of dominant performances in the first two games of this year’s tournament, it’s a Sweet Sixteen matchup with a double-digit seed that could put the Wolverines a win away from back-to-back Final Four appearances.
This team might be young — Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III seem elder statesmen as sophomores — but it’s still experienced on college basketball’s biggest stage, which is right where Michigan finds itself again.
“I think if you look at our team, we're very young. And I think that between last year's tournament run and this year's non‑conference schedule and Big Ten run, I think it's really helped our team to mature quickly, and we play mostly freshmen and sophomores, with the exception of me and Jon Horford, only upperclassmen on the team,” Michigan big man Jordan Morgan said during a Thursday press conference. “It's prepared us for some of the situations we faced, close games, being down. I don't know how many times we've come back from being down and winning games. But those situations don't necessarily faze us as much as you would expect it to faze a young team.”
Take Stauskas, who earned Big Ten Player of the Year honors with this year’s breakout season. He wasn't one of Michigan's most-featured players during last year’s title-game run, but he was there and he learned from a couple poor performances late in the tournament. Now, he’s one of the country’s biggest offensive threats. Just in his second year, he’s got the experience required to get the Wolverines back to the title game.
“You know, not only losing the championship game, but just the fact that I didn't play well personally those two games, it motivated me going into the summer, just gave me a little bit extra motivation to work harder on the court and in the weight room,” Stauskas said. “So all throughout that summer I kind of had a bad taste in my mouth just from those last two games and it kept me going.”
Friday brings a Sweet Sixteen matchup against 11-seed Tennessee. The Volunteers were one of the last teams into the field of 68, but don’t let that fool you too much. Tennessee has played its best basketball of the season in the last month, winning its final three regular-season games by an average of almost 30 points, barely losing to nation-best Florida in the SEC Tournament and now on a three-game NCAA tournament winning streak.
Though Michigan is playing pretty well, too. The Wolverines beat Wofford by 17 then defeated Texas by 14. This after they proved themselves the best team in one of the nation’s best conferences, going 8-3 against the other five Big Ten teams that ended up in the NCAA tournament.
But perhaps most importantly, two-seed Michigan has been here before.
“Here's what I've seen, just speaking from experience of being in this, is that there's so many new things that come into your life, things like this, that can be not only distracting, but maybe just a little awesome for young men to be involved with. And you just talked with Jordan Morgan and Glenn Robinson. They have done this before,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said. “So I think that that part allows them to just focus on the game. This is not something that they're dreading, all the media attention. They've been through it. They survived it. And now they just go play basketball. I think that helps a lot.”
A Michigan win means an Elite Eight matchup with the winner of the much-hyped Friday-night battle between Louisville and Kentucky. It would also mean a shot at a second straight Final Four berth.
This time next week, we might all be wondering why we were sleeping on Michigan.