The well-wishes from friends, family and associates are coming in by the dozens these days, and try as he might, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein simply can’t keep up.
“It’s not unlikely to see 100 texts on your phone or emails,” said Beilein, who suddenly finds himself at the helm of one of the hottest teams in the country.
But Beilein, 64, has been coaching long enough — 42 years — to know that winning at this level is difficult, and lows can be low. So in this sport, you have to cherish the good times.
And with his seventh-seeded Wolverines sitting at 26-11, winners of seven straight, that’s exactly what he’s doing ... while simultaneously pushing forward before their Sweet 16 showdown against No. 3 Oregon at 6:09 p.m. Thursday at Sprint Center.
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“It’s really good that the people you know ... can sort of identify with this team and appreciate what these young men have done,” Beilein explained.
But really, how could they not? March Madness is made for underdogs, after all, and just six weeks ago, the Wolverines sat firmly on the tournament bubble at 14-9 and 4-6 in the Big Ten.
What’s more, the Wolverines had just lost to archrivals Michigan State and Ohio State, with the latter being 70-66 home defeat to a Buckeye team that barely finished above .500 this year that annoyed Michigan’s upperclassmen to no end.
“To lose to Ohio State at home didn’t sit well with any of us,” senior wing Zak Irvin said. “I think that was the turning point of our season right there.”
Something, Irvin said, had to change. In both losses, they had been out-worked and out-hustled, which was embarrassing to a group that features four seniors and seven upperclassmen in its eight-man rotation.
And it was around that time, players say, that Michigan — long considered a finesse, three-point shooting group under John Beilein — started ramping up its intensity and focus on defense.
“Just playing with a different type of toughness,” senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. said. “I don’t think we lacked it, but I don’t think we played with the toughness that the great teams play with.”
After that Ohio State loss, players said, the Wolverines started doing a better job running players off the three-point line and forcing long twos. And since then, opponents have shot only 45.8 percent from the field against Michigan, compared to 50.7 percent in the 10 previous Big Ten games.
And while scoring has never been a problem for Michigan — Beilein is a highly-respected shooting guru and with a well-established system — the Wolverines even improved on that end of the court as well, raising their shooting percentage from 46.9 percent to 50.9 percent.
The emergence of Walton into a star certainly hasn’t hurt, either.
Following the losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, Walton understood that as a senior, Michigan’s deficiencies were a reflection of his leadership. He took it into his own hands to fix it, and said he started that process by pointing the finger in a team meeting ... directly at himself.
“I told them I knew I could give them more,” Walton said.
He wasn’t joking. Since then, Michigan has gone 12-2. And during that span, he’s averaged 17.6 points, 7.1 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game, a cumulative uptick from the 16.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 0.8 steals he was averaging in Big Ten games prior.
“Ever since the Michigan State game, the first time we played them, he’s been a different breed,” freshman point guard Xavier Simpson said. “He’s been more of a go-getter, instead of letting it come, he’s been on people more, which has been helping us.”
Now Michigan, powered by its senior alpha dog, is a team so hot that it somehow overcame a plane crash on the eve of their Big Ten Tournament opener to take four straight games and win the whole thing for the first time since 1998.
Little wonder the Wolverines beat Oklahoma State and Louisville in their first two NCAA Tournament games, and now face the Ducks for a chance to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2014.
“It’s been one heck of a run that we're on and we're playing really well right now,” Irvin said. “We just don't want it to end.”
And neither does their coach, whose phone and email continues to backload with well-wishers every passing minute.
“It's great, and at some point I'll answer them all,” Beilein said. “But it’s not going to be, right, until somebody tell us me you can't play anymore. And I hope it’s after a championship.”