By Mike Williams | @MikeWritesSport
Sports Capital Journalism Program
SAN ANTONIO — Three years ago, the University of Michigan basketball team was watching the NCAA tournament at the end of a disappointing season. This weekend, fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson and senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman are poised to lead Michigan back to the national championship game for the first time since 2013.
The Wolverines, 32-7, have won 13 consecutive games, the second-longest winning streak in the nation. The growth that led to this Final Four trip began with the disappointment of 2015.
“It was a rough time,” Robinson said. “I sat out due to transfer, we had some guys on the team, but couldn’t be consistent.”
Although he had not been a highly sought-after prospect, Abdur-Rahkman played an average of 19 minutes a game as a freshman. “He was allowed to play through mistakes because we didn’t have anybody else,” said coach John Beilein.
Abdur-Rahkman averaged 4.5 points and 1.7 rebounds per game in that freshman season. His role continued to grow.
The 2015-2016 season saw the addition of forwards Moritz Wagner and Brent Hibbitts. Wagner was a four-star recruit from Germany at the time and has emerged as one of this year’s leaders. The Wolverines improved to 23-13 and entered the 2016 NCAA Tournament as a bubble team chosen to participate in the First Four.
“It was a year of progress,” said Robinson. “Zak (Irvin), Caris (LeVert), and Derrick (Walton Jr.) were big players for us. We were able to get back into the tournament.”
Hibbitts redshirted his freshman season but has been credited as being valuable during practice. “I was hurt that first year, but I was just trying to do what I could,” said Hibbitts. “We made the tournament on the bubble, but it was very nerve wrecking.”
Despite losing to Notre Dame in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, with Irvin, Walton Jr., Wagner and Robinson, Michigan had developed a good young core. “I can’t even say I played a huge part on the court,” said Hibbitts. “I just walked in and did what was asked.”
Early in the 2016-2017 season, Michigan faced some adversity. LeVert graduated and Ricky Doyle, Aubrey Dawkins, and Spike Albrecht transferred. There was also the loss of two assistant coaches hired as head coaches elsewhere: LaVall Jordan at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Bacari Alexander at the University of Detroit Mercy.
“I decided: You know what, I want to do this right, and I need to hire somebody that just — that’s all I want them to think about is defense,” Beilein said.
The solution was someone who had been the head coach at Wright State. “We did that with Billy Donlon,” Beilein said. “I thought it worked really well.”
When Donlon left for Northwestern after one season, Beilein took the same approach. “When I did it again it was a no-brainer,” he said. “But I had to find that guy. Dan (Muller) called me from Illinois State and told me about Luke (Yaklich).”
The 2016-17 team struggled to find consistency but got hot at the right time. Michigan won six of its last eight, including wins over ranked Wisconsin and Purdue. Michigan defeated both teams again to win the Big Ten Tournament and an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. As a seventh seed in the tournament, the Wolverines upset Louisville in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Michigan’s season ended with a loss to Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen.
Michigan entered the 2017-2018 season with a sense of hunger. “We felt like we could have done more last year,” said Wagner. Seniors Irvin and Walton Jr. had graduated, and it’s now up to Wagner, now a junior, plus Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson to lead the team as captains. Abdur-Rahkman averaged 12.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in 35 minutes. Wagner added 14.3 points and 6.9 rebounds in 27.3 minutes. “To see the growth of all of us has been great,” said Abdur-Rahkman. “We are in the best position we’ve been in since I came here and it’s humbling to be a part of it.”
Once again, Michigan is hot at the right time. The Wolverines won the Big Ten Tournament for the second year in a row and are now two wins away from winning a national championship, but that isn’t what drives coach Beilein. “The Big Ten Championship drives me,” said Beilein. “That’s what I think everybody in Michigan is — if you win a Big Ten Championship in any way, then you can win a national championship.”
The players have a different goal in mind. “Earlier in the year, we were talking about winning a national championship,” said freshman Jordan Poole. “Being able to actually be a game away and have an opportunity…to be so close. It’s unbelievable.”
The sense of purpose does not change, whether it’s a practice while on the bubble or two days away from the Final Four. “With coach (Beilein), preparation is always the same,” said Hibbitts. “Whether we play a team that ranked last or first, we treat every team with respect.”
No matter what happens this weekend in San Antonio, Beilein sees continued growth for his team in the future. “To see these kids — I see these freshmen right now — and the growth I’ve seen in six months is incredible,” he said. “I can’t imagine what they’re going to be like when they’re Muhammad, Mo and Duncan’s age, when they’re juniors and seniors.”