LOS ANGELES — There was only one strand left to snip when Moritz Wagner looked toward his head coach.
More than five months ago, John Beilein started a journey that was as fascinating as it was nerve-racking. He has had teams loaded with NBA talent. Teams filled with senior leaders. Teams that fought through injuries and teams that played over their heads. Great teams, good teams, mediocre teams.
And then there’s this team.
Beilein stood near the 3-point line watching his 2017-18 Michigan club, donned head to toe in Final Four gear, cut down the nets at the Staples Center with only a smile. Wagner looked over to him and asked if he wanted that last piece of the net. He told him to go get it.
“Are you sure?” Wagner asked.
“I don’t know what to feel right now,” Beilein said. “This has been some run.”
Michigan is back in the Final Four and, true to form, Beilein’s latest version of Wolverines proved once again why they’re the rarest group he has had during a hard-fought 58-54 win over Florida State to capture the West Region championship, and a date with Loyola-Chicago in the Final Four next Saturday in San Antonio.
Two days after lighting up the scoreboard with 99 points, Michigan pivoted and showed why it has been extremely uncomfortable to play against, and why it’s now two wins away from the program’s second national championship.
The Wolverines hounded a Florida State team that averaged more than 80 points to 16-for-51 shooting, with four field goals through the first 18 minutes of the second half. The win was Michigan’s 13th straight, 11 of which have come away from home.
Most of Beilein’s teams in Ann Arbor earned their reputation on the offensive end. This team’s backbone was defense with enough offensive balance to compete and beat just about any type of roster that gets thrown its way.
“Everyone on this team has a great relationship with each other,” Michigan point guard Xavier Simpson said. “It’s like a brotherhood we’ve built. That separates us (from others).
“We don’t have small cliques here. We’re a team.”
A team that surprised many to be sure, but also a team that set the program record with its 32nd win of the season. A team that brought in two new assistant coaches this offseason in guard specialist De’Andre Haynes and defensive wizard Luke Yaklich.
At the opposite end of the floor, after the players had taken their piece of the net, Yaklich — a former history teacher who was the head coach at Joliet West High School when Michigan made its last Final Four in 2013 — climbed to the top of the ladder and looked at the rim.
He closed his eyes. Took a huge breath and officially snipped his ticket to San Antonio.
“I think you caught me in a moment of reflection,” he said afterward. “To be with this program and this culture around great kids and great people (is amazing).”
Michigan’s last Final Four team was expected to make a run. That team was ranked inside the top five when the year began. It had the consensus national player of the year in Trey Burke and six eventual NBA draft picks.
No one knew what to make of this team when the season began. Beilein told reporters it would be an interesting “journey” last November. Cautiously optimistic was probably the best way to describe it.
This team is simply known as the eighth club in Michigan history to reach a Final Four.
“John is the stability of what we’ve been doing in basketball for the last decade,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said. “We didn’t have this kind of success consistently until John came here. We had lost it there for (a while). But he brought it back.
“For me, I couldn’t ask for a better person and better people (to be in this program).”
For this team, it has always been someone different.
Simpson powered them through the Big Ten tournament.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was the steady hand guiding the group all season.
Wagner was the centerpiece of everything Michigan does offensively.
On Saturday, it was Charles Matthews, a talented 6-foot-6 sophomore who had seemed to lose his way offensively in late February only to rejuvenate himself throughout March.
He finished Saturday’s game with 17 points and eight rebounds, before being named the West Region’s most outstanding player.
“Coach B just told us that seeing us jump up and down here with our teammates, that’s what it’s all about,” Matthews said. “It’s not about who gets this stat or that stat.
“But winning for each other.”
The last time Beilein went to the Final Four, it was a cathartic experience of sorts. Michigan’s program had finally reached college basketball’s peak again after spending years in a post-scandal world. For Beilein, it was his first Final Four as a coach.
This one’s different.
Michigan was in its third Elite Eight in the past six years Saturday, and will play in its second Final Four in that span. Beilein will hang two more banners this year (along with the Big Ten tournament) and has now gathered six under Beilein.
Michigan basketball is back. The Wolverines aren’t a surprise story this year, as they’ll be favored to play Monday night in San Antonio with a chance to win their first national title since 1989.
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