WASHINGTON — Here’s a quick survey from the Michigan locker room about Wolverines basketball history.
Q: “Do you know the last time Michigan won the Big Ten Tournament?”
“I think it was the first year they had the tournament,” senior Zak Irvin said.
“I will say no, but then I’ll surprise you and say it was the first time they had the tournament,” sophomore Moritz Wagner said. “I just guessed.”
“We talked about it,” redshirt sophomore D.J. Wilson said. “I think it was the first time. (Someone says 1998). 1998? Yeah, that was a long time ago.”
Q: OK, the other guys in here know that Michigan won the first Big Ten Tournament, but do you know what year that was?
“I have no idea,” senior Mark Donnal said.
Q: It was 1998. What were you up to in 1998?
“Wow,” Donnal said. “I was 3 years old, so I couldn’t tell you.”
Q: What would it mean to win this thing?
“It would mean a lot,” Donnal said. “Hearing that now, I think about all of the good Michigan teams there have been since 1998. To win this thing, it would mean a lot for these guys, especially given what we’ve been through this week.”
The Michigan basketball team has been through plenty this week, but the Wolverines now have an opportunity to log one of the great achievements in the program’s history. Michigan will play Sunday afternoon at the Verizon Center for the Big Ten Tournament championship after beating Minnesota in a semifinal matchup Saturday.
Michigan has not won this conference tournament in 19 years, and that one is not officially in the record book. The school had to vacate the title as part of NCAA sanctions levied against the program.
This is only the Wolverines’ second trip to the final in the last 19 years. The seniors on the roster remember the first time well.
“It would mean so much to win,” Irvin said. “Coming here my freshman year, we lost to Michigan State in the championship game. Now, going out as a senior, one of our goals was to win the Big Ten Tournament championship. The opportunity is right in front of our eyes.”
Conference tournaments are weird quirks in this sport. For the programs at the top, they are not as meaningful as they are for leagues that traditionally only get one NCAA tourney bid.
Players don’t go to Michigan or Minnesota — or anywhere in the Big Ten — to just win a conference tournament championship. Winning a regular-season title can matter a lot. Success in the NCAA Tournament matters most.
But for one week out of the year, winning this tournament becomes the No. 1 goal. And when a school hasn’t accomplished something in nearly two decades, it enhances the magnitude of the achievement.
All of the teams came here to win it, but for the ones that reach the weekend it truly becomes important.
“We said it after the game yesterday (against Purdue),” Donnal said. “We came this far. Why not us?”
This has already been a memorable week for Michigan’s team for a number of reasons. This team is talented enough to make a run to the Final Four, and that would cement this as one of the most successful years in school history. It’s also really hard to do that, and the odds would be very long.
But to win the conference tournament for only the second time (first, officially, sort of) and do so by winning four games in four days after being involved in a plane accident the day before the run started … that is the stuff of legends.
“Michigan always has that label as a football school,” Wagner said. “To win a championship would mean a lot. I don’t care about that (label) too much because I’m around the people in here and it’s so much to do this together. That’s what I care most about. It would mean a lot for this team.”