In early February, the Michigan Wolverines were 14-9, including 4-6 in the Big Ten, and were in no way an NCAA Tournament team. Fast-forward six weeks, and Michigan is in the Sweet 16 for the third time in five years.
No. 7 Michigan (26-11) plays No. 3 Oregon (31-5) Thursday at 7:09 p.m. ET.
“It’s been a season where they’ve really changed in mid-stream,” CBS, TNT and Westwood One college basketball broadcaster Kevin Harlan said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “They were halfway through the season, halfway through the Big Ten schedule, and they weren’t defending. They weren’t playing with urgency. They have two seniors who are the leaders, and there was not the leadership quality that I think Jon Beilein wanted to see. And the light went on, and they all of a sudden became this gritty, defensive-minded, play-for-one-another, full-speed-ahead type team, and they basically flipped their record in the second half of the Big Ten season and became a team that was just peaking at the right time – and we’re continuing to see it right now.”
The Wolverines are 12-2 over their last 14 games, with the only losses coming at Minnesota in overtime and at Northwestern at the buzzer. They’re also 6-0 since surviving a plane crash March 8.
“The person who’s been transformed the most is John Beilein,” Harlan said. “I don’t know if it’s (being) appreciative when you’ve faced a situation in life that had some pretty traumatic consequences if a couple things had not gone right, (but) the plane episode bonded the team (and) I think in some way it kind of rearranged the priorities for their coach. I think when he did that, the pressure was off the team. We had already seen the transformation midseason on, and then when John began to relent a little bit and loosen up and have more fun, they’ve jumped on it. They’re loose, they’re confident. They’re right now (thinking), ‘We shouldn’t be in the Sweet 16, but why not us? Let’s go out and have fun.’ We saw it at practice (Wednesday). That’s how they are.”
Michigan won the Big Ten Championship – beating Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin in four days – before surviving No. 10 Oklahoma State and No. 2 Louisville by a combined five points to reach the Sweet 16. Senior guards Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin combined for 42 points and 14 assists against Oklahoma State, while sophomore forward Moritz Wagner scored 26 points against Louisville in the Round of 32.
“They’ve got every base covered,” Harlan said. “They’ve got a point guard who can create and score and distribute. They’ve got wings. They’ve got outside shooters. They’ve got a bit of an inside presence. They’ve got a bench that’s developed and now beginning to produce. So Michigan comes in really with not a superstar, but with a nice collection of talent, senior leadership and effective guard play. I think that makes them dangerous.”