By Eric Thomas
Vegas says Louisville will win by four. It’s familiar territory for this young Michigan team; they’ve been the underdog since late in the regular season. Many people looked at South Dakota State as a possible Cinderella story; Shaka Smart’s VCU was going to roll over the maize and blue. Then Kansas was the impossible opponent, then the Gators were going knock them out. National media carried on about the Syracuse zone like they were 1985 Bears and gave Michigan little chance, a seeming foregone conclusion that Michigan’s offensive firepower would be smothered under a blanket of stifling defense.
Michigan wasn’t always the underdog. Through the early months of the regular season, the Wolverines looked like they could be built for a deep run in the tournament. The schedule was helpful, they faced tomato soup cans for the first two months of the season. They hung 100 points on Slippery Rock, 88 on CMU, 94 on Northwestern, 95 on Iowa. They looked unstoppable at times but many said the same thing: They haven’t played anyone yet.
The first stiff competition came in Columbus on January 13th, when the Buckeyes brought them the season’s first loss. It was only a preview, because the last two months of the season were far less kind. They lost to Indiana and Wisconsin before they went into the Breslin Center, where MSU dismantled them. The twenty point margin in the final score doesn’t really give an accurate impression of what a beating occurred on prime time national television. The game wasn’t close and sent even the most ardent Wolverine supporters into the corner to lick their wounds.
Then they lost to Penn State, a team that didn’t have a win in the Big Ten yet.
When the season is later examined, there will be some debate about where the season reached its low point, either in East Lansing or Happy Valley. You might also point to the heartbreaking loss at home to Indiana. Either way, they were all horribly humbling humiliations for a team that was once ranked number one in the nation. They looked lost and John Beilein looked ill equipped to help them find their way. Some people said that Beilein could be on the hot seat.
The Big Ten tournament didn’t offer any hope either, they were bounced by Wisconsin. Everything, especially when they drew South Dakota State in the first round of the tourney, looked like a repeat of last year when they were bounced in the first round by Ohio. Those who were still rooting for the Wolverines, and there were very few at that point, braced for the worst case scenario.
Michigan spent an entire month getting in their own way. They lost in especially embarrassing fashion many times. They absolutely limped into the tournament, not looking at all like the team who beat up on all those aforementioned soup cans early in the season. They looked like the same team who took all those dumb shots last year, throwing prayers from the three-line.
Then in the first round of the tournament, Mitch McGary woke up. They moved the ball better than they ever had during the season, they showed patience to wait for the open look. Burke was suddenly just as likely to send a pass to the low post; they looked like they could play physical near the basket. They certainly picked a good time to exercise all their earlier problems on the post.
Vegas is taking Louisville. Blue finds themselves in a very familiar position, maybe the best one for them. For the first two months, Michigan looked at as the dominant team in the most dominant conference. Then February happened. They’ve been climbing out of the pit since then. In almost every game of the tournament, they’ve been the underdog.
It sounds like they may have the Cardinals right where they want them.