Michigan basketball is coming into the 2017 NCAA March Madness tournament absolutely on fire. With the exception of the OT win against Purdue, the Wolverines blew away the competition in the Big 10 Tournament. After a rough patch in early January, the team has become sneaky dangerous to anyone they might run into on a basketball court. They began to turn the corner in January after a team meeting brought on by an embarrassing 85-69 loss at Illinois. But it’s something that happened between the end of the regular season and the start of the conference tournament in Washington, D.C. that really shaped this team.
On Wednesday March 8, as the team was taking off from Willow Run Airport in Michigan, the airplane was forced to abort takeoff due to high winds. The plane skidded for the length of four football fields and stopped just short of a ravine. No one was seriously injured but the team was shaken up to the point that they almost decided to forfeit their matchup against Illinois in round one of the conference tournament. They had come scarily close to death and no one would blame them for sitting out the tourney. It’s just a game after all, and they might have chosen to be with their families after a near death experience. Or maybe they would be just too horrified at the idea of getting on another plane so soon.
The team had a meeting and everyone was allowed to speak. Some people were apprehensive about boarding a plane after the incident but they put it to a group vote and let the majority decide. Instead of hiding from the reality of what had happened, they made the choice to face it head on. And in turn, they lit a fire within themselves. They let their flirtation with death galvanize them as a team. Now they are one of the hottest squads going into March Madness and no one should want to face them.
The Wolverines owned the Big 10 tournament. They played great basketball and everyone was getting in on the action. A month ago they were being talked about as a bubble team and now people are talking like they should have been ranked even higher than their 7-seed for the tourney. Should they win their first round game against Oklahoma State (which I think they will) they could be looking at a rematch of the 2013 NCAA title game against Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals. Michigan’s perimeter scoring vs Louisville’s staunch defense could make for another Pitino/Beilein classic. And if Michigan can somehow pull that win out then the sky is the limit for them.
This team is peaking at the right time. They have a new found appreciation for life and they are going to use that to make the most of this tourney run. If they should come out in round one playing with the type of fire that they showed in the Big 10 tournament then watch out because they might just be the team of destiny in this year’s March Madness.