The Wolverine

May 2021 Issue

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 17 of 67

18 THE WOLVERINE MAY 2021 BY CHRIS BALAS W hen Michigan senior for- ward Isaiah Livers went down with a foot injury just before the Big Ten semifinal with Ohio State, an injury that would require surgery and a six-month healing period, national pundits were quick to jump off the Wolverines bandwagon. Though U-M still earned the fourth NCAA Tourna- ment No. 1 seed with a 20-4 record after bowing out against the Buck- eyes in a game that came down to the wire, head coach Juwan Howard's team was the popular pick to be the first No. 1 seed eliminated, and many predicted it would come before the second weekend. Texas Southern, a play-in game winner over Mount St. Mary's, wasn't expected to be a problem, but LSU — with its talented and future NBA backcourt — was a popular selection to knock the Wolverines out in the second round. When that didn't hap- pen, Leonard Hamilton's Florida State squad was given the green light as the most-likely upset winner in the Sweet 16. The short-handed Wolverines must have missed the memo. They were well aware, though, that many weren't giving them much of a shot to go very far, and they used it as fuel … just as a familiar face predicted they might. "The 'positive' of losing Isaiah is it will put the chip on those guys' shoulders that people are doubting the rest of their team," former Michi- gan coach John Beilein, now a Big Ten Network analyst, said. "Instead of go- ing in as No. 1 seed and 'we're better than everybody and we're going to go through these first couple rounds,' they'll be playing for their lives be- cause they know people are maybe not giving them the respect that they deserve right now. "Call it adversity losing to Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State … that adversity will probably help them right now. They were playing really well, are really well coached and I'm looking for them to be in this thing for a while." Illinois added some fuel to the fire by contacting the Big Ten office not once, not twice, but three times in asking for a share of the confer- ence regular-season title. Due to the unpredictability of COVID-19 and its potential effect on games, league brass announced before the season that winning percentage would de- termine the champion, and U-M fin- ished 14-3 (82.4 percent) to Illinois' 16-4 (80.0). But the visitors' 76-53 win March 2 in Ann Arbor — the teams' sole meeting — only made the Illini drumbeat louder. It came to a head when the short-handed Wolverines fell at Michigan State March 7 minus Eli Brooks (ankle) after celebrating a clinched title days earlier with a blowout of the Spartans. Illinois came back to win at Ohio State, 73-68, in its final regular-sea- son game and asked again for a piece of the championship. "We should not have had to advo- cate for ourselves — this is the right outcome for the Big Ten and one that it should have proactively sought," Illinois director of athletics Josh Whitman wrote in what he called an open letter to the fan base. "But nonetheless, we were left to fight our own battle, and despite our advo- cacy, I learned late yesterday that our efforts were unsuccessful. Michigan will remain outright champions. "To be clear, we have not endeav- ored to take anything away from Michigan. They have compiled an exceptional season and deserve the championship they have already had the pleasure of celebrating." He announced his regret to his team heading into the postseason, and he also issued a challenge. "To the team, I offer my sincer- est apology. You deserve better," he said. "Regrettably, we have only one recourse at this juncture. Win. And keep winning." CARRYING THE TORCH Brad Underwood's Illinois team played with its own chip in the Big Ten Tournament, earning its coveted banner with a win over the Buckeyes. With Livers sidelined and U-M limp- ing into the NCAA Tournament, most picked the Illini to go the furthest of any conference team. Of dozens of experts The Athletic tabbed to make Final Four predic- tions, only two projected the Wolver- ines to make it out of their region. Illi- nois, on the other hand, was a popular pick to make the title game. That got the Wolverines' atten- JUST SHORT Michigan's Outstanding Season Ends In The Elite Eight

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