Survive and advance, they say. The University of Michigan got a head start on the rest of the NCAA basketball tournament field last Wednesday when the team's plane skidded off a runway in heavy winds without anyone being seriously injured.
Approximately 100 hours and four surprising wins in the Big Ten conference tournament after their near disaster at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Michigan, the Wolverines landed a No. 7 seed (Midwest region) in the NCAAs.
The Wolverines are clearly the tournament’s most intriguing entry—no squad will score more second-choice points—but hardly the only one in the 68-team field that was announced Sunday. Northwestern, which hosted the inaugural Final Four in 1939, earned its first invite to March Madness after a 77-year wait. Villanova, the defending national champion, earned the No. 1 overall seed. And the two hottest teams are Vermont and Princeton, who have won 21 and 19 consecutive games, respectively, and are the only two to go undefeated in conference play this season.
Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina and Gonzaga earned the four No. 1 seeds. The first three schools have combined to win 10 national titles, while the Zags (32-1), the top seed in the West, have yet to advance to their first Final Four. The Boise State of college hoops, Gonzaga was ranked No. 1 for four weeks this winter and won its first 29 games before a home loss to BYU, which did not make the tournament. The West offers the least resistance of any region to the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona, but second-seeded Arizona, whom the Zags defeated in Los Angeles on December 3, will be favored if the two meet again.
Besides the top-seeded Tar Heels, the South region features UCLA and Kentucky, whose 11 and eight national championships, respectively, are the most of anyone. The third-seeded Bruins led the nation in scoring (90.4 points per game) and ended Kentucky’s 42-game home winning streak back in December. North Carolina, which has won five national titles, lost last April’s national championship game on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins.
No region appears better set up to see a final between its top two seeds than the East, where Villanova and Duke hold those spots. The past two national champions, respectively, the Wildcats and Blue Devils are in the minds of many the two most balanced and mature hoofers in the Big Dance. Villanova returns three starters from last year’s team that cut down the nets in Houston, while Duke won four games in as many days to win the ACC conference championship this past weekend. These two could meet two weekends from now at Madison Square Garden, which would be the biggest thing to happen there since Charles Oakley was tossed last month.
Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, would play its Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Kansas City, about 40 miles east of its Lawrence campus, should the Jayhawks advance past the first weekend. On the other hand, Bill Self’s talented team lost in the first round of the Big 12 tournament last week in that same venue, the Sprint Center. Louisville, the 2013 national champions, are the No. 2 seed here but Self and the Jayhawks will keep a wary eye out for Big 12 counterpart Iowa State, a five-seed that ended KU’s 51-game home win streak at Phog Allen Fieldhouse earlier this winter. Also, this is Michigan’s region.
So many schools are happy to be in this 68-team field, but the Wolverines are just happy to be after last Wednesday’s near-tragedy. As the team’s plane roared down the runway in Ypsilanti, heavy crosswinds impeded its course. The charter jet skidded off the runway, through a fence and across an access road before coming to rest in a ditch. “It felt like [the pilot] pulled up to take off, and I don’t think he could pull up all the way, and we just kept going,” senior guard Andrew Dakich told the Detroit News. “We’re like, ‘When is this going to stop?’ We just heard two bumps, and then we’re still gliding and just waiting for it to stop.”
No one was seriously injured and the Wolverines returned to Ann Arbor, where they mulled forfeiting their first-round game against Illinois the following day. After spending the night near their own campus, Michigan voted to play, although every player was given the option to remain home. None took it.
Shortly after noon on Thursday, the Wolverines, having landed only two hours earlier and clad in practice jerseys as their game uniforms remained in the fuselage of the plane, performed a nonstop pummeling of Illinois, 75-55. In the next three days, Michigan, seeded eighth in its conference tourney, defeated three NCAA tournament-bound teams—Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin—to win its conference tournament. "What I told them is, `You're going to come back 20 years from now, and that trophy is going to sit there, and you're going to tell your grandkids about those five days and what happened,” Wolverine coach John Beilein said Sunday, after the Wolverines shocked Wisconsin, 71-56, in the championship game. “You'll love it forever.”
Both Beilein, who became the school’s all-time leader in wins (210; now 213) only after sliding down an inflatable exit ramp last Wednesday, and his players possess a greater understanding than most that it is all one shining moment. Every day. And that the road to the Final Four usually begins with a runway.
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