(Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports)
It has been a long ride for the 2015-16 Michigan basketball team, one with many highs but an unexpected number of lows. John Beilein’s team fought through injuries, shooting slumps and far too many defensive lapses to ultimately land right where it wanted to be: The NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines certainly didn’t take the traditional route to the Dance. Up until the moment the official bracket leaked on Twitter, it looked like Michigan’s odds of playing in the tournament were only slightly better than 50-50.
Most importantly, Michigan is one of 66 teams that still have a non-zero chance to win it all. But before we turn our attention fully to the NCAA Tournament, let’s take a look back at the top moments that landed the Wolverines in this position.
|10. Caris LeVert, Spike Albrecht honored on Senior Night
Okay, so Senior Night wasn’t exactly what Michigan envisioned at the beginning of the season. For one, neither LeVert nor Albrecht scored a single point for the Wolverines in 2016 due to injury. The seniors didn’t play on Senior Night, instead watching their teammates get trounced by an Iowa team that arrived on a four-game losing streak.
But it wouldn’t seem right leaving Senior Night completely out of the top 10. Michigan hasn’t had a truly meaningful Senior Night since Zack Novak and Stu Douglass said their goodbyes, and LeVert and Spike at least gave Beilein two great seasons.
Spike also held up his framed jersey the wrong way when saluting the crowd, a cherry on top of an endlessly entertaining college career.
LeVert and Albrecht were added to the Fresh Five as afterthoughts, joining Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas in a loaded recruiting class. But Albrecht turned into a solid backup point guard in his freshman year and exploded for 17 points in the school’s biggest game in over a decade. LeVert, on the other hand, became the team’s best all-around player for an Elite 8 run and will continue his career in the NBA.
The last two years have been frustrating, but Michigan still got more than it could have hoped for out of the two lightly-recruited guards. Good luck, fellas.
|9. John Beilein wears a ChadTough T-shirt during game
Since Beilein took over as the top dog in Ann Arbor nearly 10 years ago, he’s stuck to his two-trick wardrobe combinations: Shirt and tie — or polo — and dressy pants. But he made an exception on Feb. 13, sauntering out of the Blavin Tunnel with his maize ChadTough Foundation T-shirt.
It was the final push for Beilein to win the Coaches Charity Challenge and raise $100,000 for the ChadTough Foundation, an announcement that came the very morning Michigan was named to the NCAA Tournament field.
Beilein has since reverted to his business casual ways, but the T-shirt game did happen, coach. We have pictures.
|8. Mark Donnal drops 26 points (yes, twenty-six) at Illinois
6, 6, 0, 0, 7, 4, 0, 2, 0, 0, 11, 0, 7
If I asked you to pick the outlier in the group of numbers above, you respond with something like, “Well, 11 sure is quite a bit higher than the rest of those numbers.”
You would be correct. Mark Donnal had quite an explosion against Northern Kentucky, scoring 11 points and grabbing two rebounds. It was by far his best performance in Michigan’s first 13 games of the season.
Then on Dec. 30 Donnal embarrassed Illinois’ weak defensive front court and made 11 of 15 field goal attempts for 26 points. He also grabbed nine rebounds and blocked three shots.
Oh yeah, and he didn’t even start. Ricky Doyle did.
There was not a full moon on Dec. 30, 2015. I checked. And it wasn’t Donnal’s birthday, either. He was born in May. The only explanation for his stat line is that college basketball is amazing and pretty much anything can happen any time two teams hit the court.
For Michigan, Donnal’s outburst halted the revolving door at center and cemented the sophomore as the team’s starter. Doyle and Donnal went back and forth a bit during the first half of the year, but at the turn of the calendar, it was Donnal all the way for Beilein.
|7. MAAR gets new life, and runs with it
At the beginning of the season, one had to wonder if Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman would be in the Maize and Blue for much longer. He was planted firmly behind Derrick Walton, Albrecht and LeVert in the guard rotation and even lost some minutes to the Duncan Robinson-Aubrey Dawkins duo early.
With such a loaded group of guards and Xavier Simpson set to join the team for 2016-17, it looked like MAAR’s minutes would take a massive hit, despite his excellent contributions down the stretch in 2015.
But then a hobbled Albrecht called it a career and LeVert went down with the secretest injury in Michigan history and the door of opportunity swung open for Abdur-Rahkman.
It didn’t take long for MAAR to lock up the fifth starting spot. In his second game filling in for LeVert in the back court, Abdur-Rahkman scored 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting in West Lafayette and almost single-handedly kept Michigan alive for 30 minutes against a heavily-favored Purdue team. He scored from beyond the arc, he scored from the free throw line, and most importantly, he scored off the dribble, giving Michigan a legitimate attacking threat in the paint.
Here we are, two months later, and he’s still the team’s best offensive player off the dribble. Instead of watching from the (albeit extremely comfortable-looking) folding chairs on the sideline, Abdul-Rahkman could be an integral part of the NCAA Tournament.
|6. Caris LeVert makes his return! Well, sort of
It seems cruelly ironic to look back on LeVert’s return to the court and think, “That was actually the beginning of the end.”
After game after game after game (11, to be exact) of LeVert being ruled out following ‘game-time decisions,’ he actually participated in warmups on Feb. 13 and caused quite a buzz in Ann Arbor.
The team as a whole wasn’t giving fans much to be excited about. After losing back-to-back home games by half a hundred and nearly blowing a huge lead to winless Minnesota, the Wolverines returned to a less-than-optimistic crowd at the Crisler Center to battle an enormous Purdue team that won the previous meeting by 17 points.
I remember looking around before tipoff and wondering how the stands could be so empty with a top 20 team in the building. Sure, the ChadTough T-shirts generated a bit of excitement in the Maize Rage, but the overall feeling of the fanbase was one of defeat.
Then Caris jogged out of the tunnel and joined the layup lines. You’d think he shot himself out of a cannon and landed at midcourt after a perfect flip by the cheer that ran through the crowd.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but for the first time since halftime of the Indiana debacle, fans around Crisler perked up.
When the game started, LeVert was on the bench, when Beilein pointed at him and he ripped off his warmup, the crowd really did erupt. He took only shot — a shot-clock hurried jumper near the elbow — and didn’t score in the game, but his return energized the fans and the team.
Nobody knew that would be the last time they’d see Caris LeVert play in a Michigan uniform. At that time, it was just great to see the team’s leader in nearly every major category back with the ball in his hands.
|5. Zak Irvin’s elbow jumper saves Michigan in overtime
The No. 1 moment on this list will get most of the credit for sending the Wolverines to the NCAA Tournament, but that might not have even happened if not for Zak Irvin’s dagger with three seconds left in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
After clawing and scratching their way to overtime, Michigan managed to earn itself a chance to take the last shot in a tie game. Beilein called on the team’s streakiest player, Irvin, to take a contested jumper off the dribble.
It worked. Irvin pulled up just beyond the right elbow and nailed the go-ahead jumper. Northwestern got another crack at a last-second prayer (two cracks, actually), but in the end, it was Irvin’s shot that sealed the deal and kept Michigan’s bleak NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
|4. Wolverines return to the NCAA Tournament
When Michigan failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in 2015, it was a disappointing, but understandable pill to swallow.
LeVert, Walton and Albrecht were all injured. Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman were leading the team as unknown freshmen and Beilein had just lost a small army of players to the NBA draft.
But in a year when the Wolverines began ranked in the Top 25, with players like Walton and Robinson added to the rotation, missing the 2016 tournament would have been a much bigger blow for the program to swallow. Sure, LeVert and Albrecht missed the most meaningful half of the season, but for a program that was trending toward elite in 2014, two straight absences in March Madness seemed unacceptable.
Luckily, those concerns were squashed for good Sunday. Contrary to what many of the ‘bracketology experts’ predicted, Michigan got into the Big Dance. The big wins were there, the bad losses were not, and the Wolverines got what they deserved: An outside chance to make some noise.
Some might argue that Michigan’s season won’t be a success unless it gets past the First Four. To you I say, “Rubbish!” The First Four isn’t a 16 versus 16 play-in game like it used to be. Plenty of teams have made runs after winning in Dayton, including a Tennessee team that nearly knocked Michigan out of the Sweet 16 in 2014.
When Michigan was flirting with another tournament-less season, the program seemed to be trending sharply downwards. But now that Beilein has his players back on the national stage, it’s a step in the right direction.
|3. Michigan uses 11-0 run in final 3 minutes to beat Purdue
As we make our way through the top three moments of the season, keep in mind that Michigan needed EVERY single one of its four top 30 wins to get into the NCAA Tournament. Even with those wins, and no bad losses, Michigan just barely slipped into the Field of 68.
Perhaps the most unlikely of those three victories came against a team that presents the worst matchup problems for Michigan in the Big Ten. Purdue came into Ann Arbor with its top three players flourishing near the rim.
A.J. Hammons (7 feet tall) led the charge and fellow center Isaac Haas (7-foot-2) and dynamic freshman Caleb Swanigan (6-foot-9) weren’t far behind. The trio posed the greatest inside threat in the conference and figured to dominate a Michigan team that tries to make due inside with a pair of 6-foot-9 forwards.
For most of the game, Purdue was like a high school senior holding the charging freshman back with a hand on his forehead. Michigan would close to within five points, and Purdue would push back, keeping the game from getting within a possession.
It wasn’t until the final 2:45 of the game, when Irvin nailed a triple on the left wing, that Michigan really sent the building into a frenzy. Then Walton made a fast-break layup. Then Irvin hit another shot, and Michigan was in front.
Four Walton free throws later, Michigan polished off an improbable win with an 11-0 run to close out the game. With such a tough week in the rearview mirror, and an even more brutal stretch ahead, it was a win the program sorely needed.
|2. Michigan upsets No. 3 Maryland
Remember when Maryland was one of the best teams in the country?
At one point, the Terps were 15-1 and ranked in the top five in both major polls. Melo Trimble and Diamond Stone were looking like one of the best duos in the country and Michigan hadn’t stayed within 14 points of a ranked team all season.
Needless to say, it looked like it would be a rout.
Instead, Michigan completely shut down Trimble and Irvin was the star of the show. He scored 22 points on 8-14 shooting and Walton added a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) as Michigan led for almost the entire first 30 minutes.
Maryland erased a couple of 10-point deficits in the second half and tied the game at 54 with 7:37 left. Michigan called timeout, but two possessions later, the Terps took a one-point lead on the heels of Stone’s and-one layup.
The Wolverines wouldn’t be denied that night, and buckets from Donnal, Robinson and Walton stretched the lead back out to five. An Irvin three-pointer with 3:08 left all but sealed the deal.
With Dickie V screaming “That’s a big time three, baby!” Michigan rode to its first ranked win of the season.
|1. “It’s good! At the buzzer! Meeeeechigan wins!”
You don’t have to go back very far to find Michigan’s top moment of the season. With everything — An NCAA Tournament bid, a chance to advance in the conference tournament and a win over the Big Ten champions — on the line, Kam Chatman found the ball in his hands with the clock racing toward zeroes.
Some members on the team reportedly thought it was Aubrey Dawkins standing in the corner with the ball. I bet they were surprised when the shot went up with his left hand.
Chatman buried the contested corner triple, sending the bench into a frenzy and vaulting the Wolverines into the NCAA Tournament. It came after Michigan trailed by five with two minutes left. It came after MAAR fouled out of the game, allowing Chatman to check in.
It came after almost everyone had buried the Wolverines, who were forgotten on the wrong side of the bubble.
Michigan went 19 minutes without a three-pointer in the second half, but Robinson and Chatman hit two of the biggest triples of the season in that final minute. That’s why Michigan is playing tonight. That’s why they made the Dance.
Almost every big play Michigan makes going forward will be worthy of this list, as everything is magnified in the NCAA Tournament. But with 34 games in the books, and more ups and downs than most tournament teams experience in a season, Michigan has already given fans a year to remember.