Behind closed doors, the locker room sounded like a cacophony of fresh hell, just waiting for the lid to pop. Michigan players jumped and clapped and howled, approximating the muffled roar of the crowd at a rock concert right before the curtain rises.
From a safe distance, a Wolverines official waiting in the hall outside leaned over and tried to make sense of America’s new darlings of March.
“I think we keep winning,” he said, half-jokingly, “because we don’t want to get back on the plane.”
This was at the Verizon Center, with the wounds from an aborted jet takeoff on March 8 outside of Ypsilanti, Mich., still fresh, the nightmare still pumping adrenaline through the Big Ten Tournament champions.
Washington, D.C., was a blur. A sugar buzz. A weekend in Vegas.
Sunday was something else.
Michigan 73, Louisville 69 was a testament of will, a torrent of confidence and self-belief, a line being drawn in the sand for the other 15 squads still kicking in the NCAA Tournament regionals to try to cross at their peril.
We’re not done.
Bring your planes, your Purdues, your Pitinos. We’re not done.
The Wolverines keep winning because they don’t know any other way now. Michigan’s only loss over the last three weeks came March 1 at Northwestern, on a Hail Mary that had a 1,000-to-1 chance at landing on the first try and a 10,000-to-1 shot of landing the same way a second time.
Beyond that speed bump, no team in the Big Ten — not Purdue, not Wisconsin, even as both deservedly march on to the Sweet 16 — has put everything together this month as impressively, as cohesively, as the Wolverines have. Since their aviation purgatory, they’ve won six consecutive win-or-go-home games on neutral courts. In the process, they’ve taken out KenPom.com’s No. 13 squad (the Boilermakers), No. 21 (Wisconsin), No. 23 (Oklahoma State) and now No. 9 (the Cardinals) over the span of roughly eight days.
Michigan is the team you don’t want to see waiting on the other side of the building this month, a calculus test on 3 hours’ sleep. Coach John Beilein’s Frankenstein monster stalks Bracketville with a starting lineup in which everyone thinks they’re a guard because everyone can shoot like one.
That includes 6-foot-11 German sophomore forward Moe Wagner, who dropped a personal-best 26 points on the 2 seed in the Midwest and converted 11 of 14 attempts from just about every conceivable angle on the floor: posting hard, popping from the arc, driving from the wing.
Michigan is the team you don’t want to see waiting on the other side of the building this month, a calculus test on 3 hours’ sleep.
The Wolverines (26-11) are 14-3 when the Berlin native nets 12 or more points, a snowball gathering momentum — and trees — as they roll down the mountainside.
Clog the lane, Michigan finds a hand — or four — that can crush you deep. Spread out and smother the perimeter, as Louisville coach Rick Pitino tried in Indianapolis, and forwards Wagner and D.J. Wilson (17 points, 3 blocks) have the confidence to crash the gaps.
Pitino told the world at halftime his plan was to wear out Derrick Walton Jr., and the senior point guard struggled early on to find space, let alone looks, between the waving arms of Cardinals guards Quentin Snider (3 assists) and Donovan Mitchell (19 points, 5 assists).
After a 26-point, 11-assist first round against Oklahoma State, the Detroit native didn’t score until 2 free throws at the 4:56 mark of the first half. Walton Jr. was held without a field goal until there was 2:33 left in the half, a 3-pointer that cut Louisville’s lead to 27-26.
But that didn’t stop him hammering at the rock until it gave. No. 10 opened the second half with a feed to Wagner down low, 1 of 6 assists on the day and a move that trimmed the Cardinals’ cushion to 6 and set the tone for the rest of the game.
They’re having the times of their lives now, not long after wondering how much longer those young lives had left. Mix that in with a pot that’s already simmering with height, shooters all over, a coach with Big Dance pedigree and a superlative point guard who doesn’t think he can miss, and you get a team flying to Kansas City on a wing and a prayer. And one mother of a roll.