I loved John Belein. Up, down and sideways. Didn’t think it could get any better than that. I thought he was intelligent, classy, had high standards, and made real men out of those on his team. I had so much respect for the way he handled Austin Hatch, scholarship seniors that changed their minds and wanted to stay a fifth year, and the plane crash in 2018. Not to mention ALL THE WINNING. One of my favorite all-time memories is standing in an Applebees in Benton Harbor, Michigan in March of 2013 with Don, watching Trey Burke put I have NO IDEA how many on Kansas. (That game was totally and depressingly OVER, and we had put our coats on to leave and finish the drive to Chicago. 30 minutes later we were screaming and cheering, still wearing our jackets and standing behind our barstools.)
I was DEVESTATED when Belein left for the Cavs and thought my brief love affair with Michigan Basketball would go by the way of Jim Harbaugh…frustrating on its good days, half-mad on its worst. The recruiting process for Howard was too quick for my liking. I didn’t feel like we vetted the competition. I had bad taste in my mouth around alumni-become-coaches.
And yet. Here we are. 4th sweet sixteen appearance in as many tournaments. Totally different coach. Totally different team culture. Same AMAZING results. Similar philosophies, in a way: put the team first, trust that winning will follow.
Where DO they get their grit? When they are down 12, 14 points and LSU is shooting what feels like 90%, sinking every contested 3 they put up, how does Michigan not lose their cool and crumble? I swear to goodness I could tell by the expression on Dickinson’s and Smith’s and Brown’s faces in the first half that they were NOT going to lose that game. They just KNEW it. And brick by brick (or I suppose I should say floater by floater?) they built it back up and won that game. It was pure joy to watch.
Confidence in sports and life is something that fascinates me, because it truly is EVERYTHING. We’ve all known a million crazy-talented individuals that crumble the minute adversity comes their way. People who IMMEDIATELY start complaining about how hard and unfair things are when it gets tough, people who are sure that THEY aren’t the problem, but the system is.
Imagine where those boys would have gotten Monday night if their first thought in the second half was, “Crappy refs. Can’t outplay biased officiating.” Absolutely nowhere. When that is your thought process, you start from scratch with every game you play, instead of building on the skills and confidence you develop. Sometimes the rules don’t feel fair, but you play your heart out anyway. You cheer your teammates on from the bench, you keep that determination in your eye. You recognize that the calls will eventually start to go your way. Even if the outcome looks bleak for a moment. Even a long one.
Howard’s team probably won’t win the whole thing this year…although my flag is staying up until Michigan’s last basket sinks. Either way, I am totally impressed with the culture he is building. Totally different from Belein’s, but remarkably similar philosophies. Team first. Gritty.
So proud to call THIS team my basketball team, win OR lose. Michigan hustles harder, that’s for DAMN sure.