The Michigan basketball team’s season could end tomorrow in Dayton, Ohio, or it could head toward Brooklyn for a Friday night matchup against Notre Dame.
The Wolverines got the NCAA Tournament bid they were hoping for and their Wednesday night game against Tulsa is set, but everything else is uncertain.
The uncertainty even begins tomorrow. Playing in front of a Dayton crowd just a three-hour drive from Ann Arbor and an 11-hour drive from Tulsa, Michigan coach John Beilein was still hesitant to declare the matchup as a home-court advantage in the Wolverines’ rival state, for fear of local Ohio State fans that could quickly become Tulsa fans.
“I think everybody assumed, because we’re close by, we’re a Midwestern team, that people would gravitate to us,” Beilein said. “I do not expect that to happen. These are college basketball fans here that are coming to this game. Certainly we’ll have Michigan fans. And they’ll have Tulsa fans. They’re college basketball fans, but most of them reside in the state of Ohio.
“I do not think we’ll have a home advantage. And that’s okay.”
No stranger to road environments, Michigan did beat No. 10 Indiana in front of a Hoosier-heavy Indianapolis crowd Friday, but also got walloped by No. 13 Purdue the following day in the same arena.
Seats are filling up in Dayton — with tickets for Wednesday’s game going for twice as much as Tuesday’s games — but the Wolverines are focused on filling up the scoreboard instead, no matter who ends up in the stands.
“We really don’t know what to expect,” said junior forward Zak Irvin. “Hopefully they’re on our side. But you can definitely see it going the other way with us being in Ohio. But we’re used to road games. We have like a road warrior’s mentality right now.”
That warrior’s mentality is another uncertainty. With a surprise run to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, Michigan showed that it can fight fatigue and a lack of preparation to win games. It can beat top-tier teams in hostile environments, and play the way many expected it to before the season.
But the adrenaline has had three days to wear off. And to make a postseason run two weeks in a row with a team that has struggled to find consistency is a tall task. Fortunately for the Wolverines, they don’t have much choice at this point.
“We just have to prepare for it, (but we) just went through it the following week with three days, and three days of prep and three days of game,” said junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. . “So at this point we’re just fortunate that we get another opportunity to play. And we’ll take it in stride and do what we do best and prepare as best as possible.”
To prepare, Beilein said the top task is to understand how well the Golden Hurricane plays together. With four senior starters and seven seniors in the main rotation — and opposed to Michigan’s zero — Tulsa is the most experienced team in the country, while the Wolverines are one of the least.
Though it’s uncertain how that well play out on Wednesday, Michigan’s only two players to see tournament action in their careers have seen an increase in team cohesion down the stretch, and are confident it can carry over to postseason action.
“We’re here now and excuses kind of go out the window,” Walton said. “We kind of roll with what we have right now. So at this point, we just hope to band together as a collective unit and play as best as possible and click on as many cylinders as possible. And hopefully at the end of the day we’re successful
Added Irvin: “Since we’ve gone half the season, you know, Derrick and myself had to step up and kind of take that senior role. And I think that’s just brought us a stronger bond with our team. We just want to win for ourselves but for our seniors as well.”
It remains unclear when Michigan’s season will end, what fans will be in the stands and which Wolverines’ team will show up. But one thing was crystal clear to Beilein when fielding questions from the media Tuesday: Michigan is back in March Madness, its season has a new life.
“There’s a sense of release, of relief, rather, that you’re in, that you’re excited,” Beilein said. “Then next you go into, ‘Okay, this is — we’re just going to go and do everything we can to win one game at a time.’ There’s no tomorrow. I know that’s coach-speak, but there’s no tomorrow.
“So now you go out there and give it everything you have instead of dealing with the what-ifs. The what-if is if you win you advance, if you lose, you go home. And whatever happens, we just have done our absolutely best.”