March 14, 2016
Surprise: Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines
to join Izzo’s Spartans in NCAA tourney
By KEITH GAVE
Considered March Madness wallflowers just a few days ago, the Michigan Wolverines earned themselves a date to the dance with a surprising showing in the Big Ten tournament. But other than that rather debatable invitation, the NCAA tournament committee didn’t show the conference much love.
Second-ranked Michigan State (29-5), on everyone’s top line as a No. 1 seed even before the Spartans beat Purdue to win their second straight conference tournament championship, inexplicably slipped to a No. 2 seed an hour or so later when the brackets were announced Sunday.
The committed preferred Virginia as a No. 1 seed after it finished second to North Carolina in both the ACC regular season and post-season tournament. When he was asked about whether his team deserved a No. 1 seed in the 68-team NCAA Tournament bracket, Spartans coach Tom Izzo said bluntly, “I don’t care.”
Maybe because he knows what a lot of other pundits believe as well: Michigan State is so good and playing so well now that the razor-thin margin between a first and second seeds just doesn’t matter. Certainly it doesn’t seem to matter to a lot of the experts who are still picking the Spartans to be the last team standing when the tournament concludes in three weeks.
Also to the surprise of many, Indiana, the Big Ten’s regular-season champ, wound up a No. 5 seed along with Maryland and Purdue. All deserved better. And Iowa, which beat Michigan State twice in the Big Ten season, might be the best No. 7 seed in the tournament. Wisconsin, last season’s national runner-up, also sits on the No. 7 line thanks to an impressive second-half rebound under new coach Greg Gard.
But it was Michigan (22-12) getting into the tournament that surprised everyone. Give coach John Beilein credit for that.
In college basketball circles, Izzo takes up most of the oxygen in this state, and he deserves it, considering his team has made the NCAA tournament 19 straight years and is a frequent participant in the tournament’s Final Four.
But Beilein’s ninth season on the bench at Michigan might be one his best, all things considered. Certainly anyone pointing the finger at him for what they feel is a disappointing season doesn’t have a firm grasp on reality.
Consider that Beilein’s two best players this season, Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert, missed most of the season with injuries. Consider, too, that since Dec. 30 the Wolverines have had a senior on the floor once. Finally, consider that that this undermanned team had no reason to be on the same floor with Indiana, especially after needing overtime to beat Northwestern the day before, yet somehow found a way to beat the Big Ten champ in what was, essentially, a home game for the Hoosiers in Indianapolis.
His players made some great plays in the closing seconds, but this was upset was orchestrated by magnificent coaching. The Wolverines were trailing by three with 47 seconds left when Duncan Robinson – who had missed his five previous attempts from three-point range – finally hit one to tie the score at 69.
After Indiana lost the ball on a turnover, Beilein called a time out with 20 seconds to go to design a play. And make a curious substitution. He inserted Kameron Chatman, a light-scoring sophomore who had made just 26 of 63 shots all season, including 7-27 on three-point attempts.
Chatman had played barely seven minutes until then, and he stood all alone in the corner as the seconds ticked down. He was wide open for a pass from Derrick Walton Jr. With Michigan’s season on the line, Chatman took the ball and hesitated just a second before casually drilling a 23-foot jump shot as time expired. Nice move, Coach.
That was the shot that put Michigan in the tournament, even though the tired Wolverines were beaten soundly by Purdue in the tournament semifinals. Earlier in the season, Indiana beat Michigan 80-67 – and it wasn’t as close as that final score indicates.
Tournament committee director Joe Castiglione explained that Michigan’s tough Big Ten schedule, capped by the win over Indiana, was good enough for the Wolverines to get a bid. Curiously, he also said Virginia’s overall strength of schedule and its performance in the ACC was the deciding factor that dropped Michigan State to the No. 2 line.
So Michigan earned a No. 11 seed in the East Region and will face Tulsa in the First Four play-in game in Dayton on Wednesday. The winner travels to Brooklyn to face No. 6 seed Notre Dame in the Round of 64 on Friday.
While Michigan State got robbed of a No. 1 seed, the Spartans get to stay closer to home in the Midwest Region, the weakest of the four. The Spartans play Middle Tennessee (24-9) in the opening round Friday. In the second round, they would play the winner of Dayton and Syracuse.
For the record, Michigan State boasts a 63-28 record in the NCAA Tournament with nine Final Four appearances, including last year. The Spartans won it all in 1979 and 2000, and this team represents one of the best chances Izzo has had in the last 16 years to earn his second national title.
I like their chances. I also like most of those under-rated Big Ten teams in the early rounds.
So print your brackets, fill them out and enjoy the best sporting event of the entire year – this side of the Stanley Cup tournament.