By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Ever since Sean Higgins’ putback with just two seconds left on the clock buried Illinois 83-81 in the 1989 Final Four, I haven’t had any love for the University of Michigan.
But yet, here I am this week, rooting for the University of Michigan.
How’d that happen?
Well, in a fascinating twist of fandom, this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament has turned the rooting interests for many Midwestern hoops followers on its head as Big Ten pride has outweighed school pride.
And, in many cases, biases.
Tom Izzo knows what I’m talking about.
Throughout March, Michigan State’s coach said that he was supporting all Big Ten teams in the NCAA Tournament. And on Tuesday, the Detroit Free Press reported that Izzo was still singing the same tune, even with archrival Michigan the only conference team remaining and just two victories away from winning a national championship.
“I do have great respect for John (Beilein) and the job he’s done,” Izzo explained. “You know, I’ll stick by my stance that nobody pulls for their rival. Mike (Krzyzewski) doesn’t pull for Carolina, and Roy (Williams) doesn’t pull for Duke. I’m not sure, but Urban Meyer’s probably not pulling for Michigan’s swim team to win, the way that thing is and everything.
“I have stood by that. I’m pulling for our conference, number one.”
Even when that conference’s only one is Michigan.
Baptized by the Flyin’ Illini’s heartbreaking national semifinal loss to the Wolverines 24 years ago, my distaste for Michigan only grew during high school (with the Fab Five) and college (with the likes of Robert “Tractor” Traylor, Louis Bullock and Maceo Baston). These days, I bristle at the sound of Michigan’s fight song, wouldn’t be caught dead wearing maize, and have discovered that the mere mention of some Illini losses to the Wolverines can put me in a foul mood.
But, interestingly, I haven’t found myself feeling that way at all about this current Michigan basketball team. In fact, when filling out my tourney bracket last month, I cast my Ann Arbor biases aside and actually picked Michigan to win the whole thing, beating Louisville.
The desire to be right is certainly part of the reason why I’m rooting for the Wolverines this weekend in Atlanta, but it’s not at all the only one.
When it comes to this team, I find Trey Burke to be a joy to watch and the best player in the nation. John Beilein doesn’t rub me the wrong way as a coach. And, really, neither does the rest of the roster from the rugged Mitch McGary to Glenn Robinson’s and Tim Hardaway’s athletic offspring to the sweet-shooting freshman Nik Stauskas.
Turns out, I actually kind of like these guys.
And, really, the same went for most of the Big Ten this season. I perhaps went a bit overboard in picking five conference teams to reach the Elite Eight this year, and three to make the Final Four. But as the Sweet 16 emerged – without Illinois, my alma mater, included – I actually found myself hoping for an all-Big Ten Final Four. I was disappointed that it didn’t happen, although I can’t say that seeing Tom Crean and Indiana fall short disappointed me.
My high marks for the Big Ten spoke volumes about my respect for the strength of the conference this season, but it also said a great deal about my current respect for most of its teams – Michigan, included.
“There’s a difference between a dislike for your rival and no respect,” Izzo also said this week. “Am I gonna carry the Michigan banner? Probably not … But am I pulling for the Big Ten and do I think they’ve accomplished a lot? Yeah, I do, and that’s the way I’ll probably leave it. I have respect, and I think what they’ve done and the way they’ve won a couple of those games, it’s been good.”
It has been good. And could potentially be great for the reputation of the Big Ten, which hasn’t won a national championship since Izzo’s Spartans did 13 long years ago. This season has been the league’s best in ages, and the conference deserves to cap it off with a championship.
So, yes, here I am rooting for Michigan, of all teams, to finally do it.
Just this once, I’ll even go so far as to say, “Go Blue.”
Although I may need to wash my mouth out with orange afterward.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.