SAN ANTONIO — John Beilein passed the waves of maize and blue T-shirts on Saturday night at the Alamodome, clutching his wife, Kathleen, tight to his chest as he turned a carpeted corner into the Michigan locker room.
“People spend so much money,” the Wolverines coach said with a breathless chuckle and a reassuring smile. “To have to send them home, four-day minimum stay …”
We’re all going home now, coach.
Even though nobody wanted to. Not like this.
John Beilein’s core values:
+ Unity: put team first
+ Passion: be excited
+ Appreciation: be grateful
+ Integrity: be honest
+ Diligence: pursue excellence pic.twitter.com/9y5ER1a7Hx
— The Coaches' Journal (@TheCoachJournal) December 28, 2017
Michigan in March?
College basketball needed this.
Geez, college sports needed this.
The FBI has spent months knocking on doors. Handouts that used to happen under the table have been shoved into the light. The feds have already helped to pull the rug out from one blueblood in Rick Pitino, and Sean Miller at Arizona could well be the next domino to fall. The 2017-18 season opened under a cloud and stayed there, a campaign shaping up to be remembered as the Season When Everything Stunk.
Well. Almost everything.
“You talk about a high level of integrity, right?” Austin Hatch, a student assistant coach at Michigan, told reporters a few days before the 79-62 loss to Villanova on Monday night in the 2018 NCAA Tournament title game. “It’s one of our [values]. And maybe that’s the most important one, I don’t know.”
Unity. Passion. Appreciation. Diligence. Integrity. Hatch and Beilein have a special bond over that last one, and with one another.
In the summer of 2011, Hatch survived a plane crash for the second time in less than a decade, one that killed his father and left the teen in a coma for weeks with severe brain trauma. Nine days earlier, he’d been offered a basketball scholarship by Beilein. Hatch had to relearn to walk, to relearn to talk. He’d never be the same person again, let alone the same player.
Beilein honored the scholarship anyway.
“To put it in the context of Coach Beilein, I think integrity is following through on our commitments and doing whatever we said we would do, even if our circumstances changed,” Hatch explained.
“He didn’t have to honor my scholarship. The NCAA would have understood. I mean, it’s a unique situation. He recruited [me] to be a basketball player, and I can’t play basketball anymore. But he said, ‘When you make a promise to someone and offer them a scholarship, you’re going to honor that.’
“He really hasn’t treated me any different because I can’t play. Now, obviously, he has higher expectations of guys who can play on the court … he treats Zavier Simpson different than me. He treats Ibi Watson different, and Austin Davis and Jon Teske and Muhammad-Ali [Abdur-Rahkman] differently because of their jobs — they’re playing. But he doesn’t have a lower standard for me. He doesn’t have the same standard — they’re different standards; they’re not lower.”
One standard. One bar. Unity. Passion. Appreciation. Diligence. Integrity.
— Matt Boyer (@Boyer_Matt) March 20, 2011
And while a little context won’t change the scoreboard, or soothe the pain, it helps. Of 19 Associated Press Top 25 polls taken since November, Villanova — your 2018 NCAA Tournament champion — was ranked among the top 10 in all of them. The Wildcats opened at No. 6. They spent eight different weeks at No. 1.
Of those same 19 polls, Michigan landed among the top 10 in only two — the last two, both taken after the Wolverines stormed Manhattan with four victories in four days to win the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden. They debuted in the receiving-votes crowd. In the Nov. 27 and Dec. 4 polls, Michigan received no votes at all.
“It wasn’t until we beat Michigan State at Michigan State, then we were ranked for the first time, and I think it was in the 20s,” athletic director Warde Manuel recalled, and correctly — the Wolverines won at East Lansing on Jan. 13 and made their AP poll debut two days later, at No. 25.
“So, nobody really saw in this team what this team saw in themselves. So, that’s what makes it really special.”
And it always will be. No matter how much Monday stings the nostrils.
Before the Saturday semifinal matchup with Loyola-Chicago, Manuel strode into the Michigan locker room and lifted a page straight from the Jim Harbaugh playbook, reminding the Wolverines players: “Who’s got it better than us?”
Villanova coach Jay Wright does, technically. But now’s not the time to wallow in pedantry. Or pity.
‘Nobody really saw in this team what this team saw in themselves. So, that’s what makes it really special.’
— Michigan AD Warde Manuel on the Wolverines’ magic March
It always was going to take something special, really special, to spoil Beilein’s party. For the first time in more than a month, after 14 wins in a row, the Wolverines (33-8) met a roster more quirky and gifted than their own, a beast they couldn’t slowly suffocate with daggers and guts. The irresistible force hitting the immovable object in the right place — and at the wrong freaking time.
The Wildcats hadn’t been just beating good teams; they were atomizing them. Villanova (36-4) had a Bill Self defense playing chase-the-shooter — and losing — in the semis, raining a whopping 18 3-pointers on Kansas. What was expected to be a clash of titans, the battle of No. 1 seeds, instead became a laugher from start to finish: The Wildcats zipped to a 22-4 lead and rolled downhill from there during a 95-79 victory.
Villanova entered the title game favored by a touchdown for a reason: The Wildcats’ previous four performances in this NCAA tourney prior to Monday were clinical, consistent and cold-blooded. They’d beaten the No. 57 KenPom.com team (Alabama) by 23 points; the No. 12 team (West Virginia) by 12; the No. 11 team (Texas Tech) by 12; and the No. 9 team (Kansas) by 16.
Average opponent rank: 22.3. Average margin of victory: 15.8 points.
Michigan, by contrast, took out the No. 18 team (Houston) by 1; the No. 29 team (Texas A&M) by 27; the No. 27 team (Florida State) by 4; and the No. 31 team (Loyola) by 12.
Average opponent rank: 26.3. Average margin of victory: 11 points.
The Wolverines came to the party with one Moe Wagner. The Wildcats, with 6-foot-9 junior Eric Paschall and 6-9 freshman Omari Spellman, countered with two — stretch 4s who instinctively know how to defend the paint, then race their backsides down to the other end of the court and spot up from beyond the arc.
The 6-11 Wagner entered Monday night with 20 blocks and 62 3-point baskets on his ledger in 2017-18; Paschall and Spellman had combined for 82 swats and 100 3-point makes. Hail hath no fury like a Wildcat scorned.
And if the guy at the tavern grumbles this week that Beilein can’t win the big one, tap him on the shoulder and point to the trophy case, to the pair of Big Ten tourney championship and regular-season title statues staring back.
You may never forget Monday, but you’ll forgive it. A decade from now, given enough time, enough space, you’ll remember the journey. You’ll remember Wagner’s tongue and Simpson’s tenacity in New York. You’ll remember Jordan Poole’s prayer in Wichita. You’ll remember Abdur-Rahkman and Charles Matthews and Duncan Robinson and the night in Los Angeles when they couldn’t freaking miss.
You’ll remember the confetti, the tears and the screams, the victors and the spoils. The shining moments when college hoops recaptured its soul for a few hours, the nights Beilein planted a flag atop his last mountaintop, valiant and blue.
You’ll remember that it was worth every damn penny. You’ll remember the ride, even if the train pulled the brakes a stop too soon, and you’ll shake your head with wonder. Pain is temporary. The smiles are forever.