ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It was a team unlike any John Beilein had coached at Michigan.
The Wolverines spent most of the NCAA Tournament out of sync offensively, misfiring from 3-point range and relying on a tenacious defense to keep their season going. That formula — so much different from the way Beilein’s teams had won in the past — took Michigan all the way to the national title game before Monday night’s loss to Villanova.
“They kept growing and growing, and that’s all that coaches can ask for,” Beilein said.
Michigan’s Final Four run this season capped a two-year transformation in Beilein’s program. The veteran coach made a conscious effort to improve his team’s defensive deficiencies, and the result was the Wolverines’ second appearance in the title game in six years — and a sense that Michigan will remain a threat in the Big Ten as long as Beilein is there.
That wasn’t a sure thing, even after the Wolverines reached the Final Four in 2013 and won a conference title the following year. Michigan missed the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and barely made it in 2016. Then Beilein hired Billy Donlon as an assistant, turning over defensive responsibilities to him. The Wolverines made the Sweet 16 last season, then Donlon left to take a job at Northwestern, and Luke Yaklich was brought in to replace him.
This season, Michigan lacked the stellar outside shooting that had been the foundation of so much of Beilein’s success. The Wolverines never totally clicked offensively, but their defense was solid for most of the season and kept getting better.
In the NCAA Tournament, Michigan shot 29 percent from 3-point range, with only a blowout win over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 standing out as an impressive offensive showing. The Wolverines scrapped their way through, however, until Villanova was simply too much at the end .
“We’ll always remember this run, this team,” guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said. “We’re 33-8 and nobody expected us to be here. And we’re just always going to remember each other and being part of this team.”
Before Michigan’s NCAA Tournament run, the Wolverines won the Big Ten Tournament for the second year in a row. Big man Moe Wagner was a focal point, and seniors Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson made significant contributions. Michigan had lost star point guard Derrick Walton from the previous season. Lima Senior graduate Xavier Simpson replaced him and led the team in a completely different way, setting the tone on defense.
“We were losing to North Florida in the second half of the first game of the year,” Beilein said. “I’m proud of the way they grew, and they allowed our coaches to coach”
Michigan loses Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson, but the Wolverines could return four of their starters from the title game. All eyes will be on Wagner and Charles Matthews, either of whom could leave early for the pros.
Isaiah Livers was in that starting lineup, and fellow freshman Jordan Poole made the winning shot in a memorable NCAA Tournament game against Houston that put Michigan in the Sweet 16. Their progress could be crucial in helping the Wolverines replace whoever they end up losing.
Michigan could easily be a top-10 team to start next season, but before the Wolverines deal with expectations like that, they can look back with pride on what they accomplished in 2017-18.
“I think they loved each other, they were connected, and they proved they’re a team that is growing in talent could win a lot of games by teamwork, by playing together, having great unity, great appreciation for the game, and really playing with great passion, too,” Beilein said. “They love the game, and they love each other.”