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An Unlikely Cinderella

University of Michigan fans
photo courtesy A Healthier Michigan

I like to watch televised sports, but I have never exactly been mad for March Madness.

I have not even made it to mildly agitated, actually. I grew up on baseball and branched into other pro sports, but it takes a personal connection or other special circumstance to get me excited about college basketball. Besides, I have made clear my patent distaste for the NCAA and its cartel-like treatment of college athletes.

Still, every once in a while a Cinderella team comes along whose story – usually of unlikely triumph against adversity – is just too compelling to ignore, even for me. When it comes to the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, this is usually a story of a small school knocking off some of the national powerhouses before, almost inevitably, falling just a little short of the title. Davidson College made it to the Elite Eight in 2008 behind the shooting of a sophomore by the name of Stephen Curry – who now is pretty widely regarded as the best shooter in the NBA. Unquestionable underdog Davidson knocked off Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin that year before losing to eventual champion Kansas.

Two years later, tiny Butler made it all the way to the national championship game before losing – just barely – to powerful Duke, 61-59. Even more improbably, Butler was back in the national title game the very next year but lost again, this time to Connecticut, 53-41.

The big flagship state universities in the nation’s midsection virtually never qualify for this Cinderella team narrative. Given their resources and deep sports traditions, these teams are always expected to come out on top, and more often than not, they do.

The University of Michigan Wolverines epitomize this perhaps more than any other organization. My wife got her MBA at Michigan, and as a rule I root for the schools that have ties to my family. So I’m happy enough when Michigan does well, but I am not emotionally invested. The program regularly makes the NCAA tournament and often delivers a strong performance. Rooting for Michigan is like rooting for the New York Yankees or the New England Patriots. Or maybe like rooting for Microsoft. If total world domination is your goal, who celebrates with you when you achieve it?

But since March 8, I have been rooting hard for the Wolverines. If you haven’t – and you aren’t on an athletic scholarship from another school – you should ask your cardiologist to check for excessive levels of granite in your ventricles.

Two weeks ago, 109 passengers boarded a charter plane in Michigan bound for Washington, D.C. in advance of the team’s matchup against Illinois in this year’s conference tournament. Heavy winds, however, caused a heart-stopping accident; the pilot aborted takeoff and the plane slid off the runway and through a fence, stopping just short of a nearby ravine. When the plane came to a halt, crew members (with the help of coach John Beilein) got the players, band members, cheerleaders and supporters off the aircraft and away to safety.

Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt; one player sustained a cut that required stitches, but beyond that a few bumps and bruises were the extent of the physical injuries. The team and other passengers were held at the regional airport in Ypsilanti, Michigan, for the next three hours as investigators interviewed them and made sure everyone was unharmed. While team leadership discussed busing the players overnight in order to avoid the stress of flying again so soon, ultimately, the players decided they’d fly early the next morning. Flying on the day of a game is rare, but the Wolverines were determined not to miss the next day’s midday tipoff.

So there they were the following day, less than half an hour past the scheduled noon start time and less than four hours after landing in Washington. The team played in practice jerseys and shorts, since their game uniforms remained in the aircraft’s cargo hold. The pep band played with borrowed instruments for the same reason. Despite it all, Michigan beat Illinois that day, 75-55.

The Wolverines went on to defeat Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin to take the conference title in the confusingly named Big Ten. (Its fluctuating number of members currently stands at 14.) Each of those three teams had finished ahead of Michigan in the conference’s regular season standings.

This is how Michigan ensured it would earn a place in the NCAA tournament at all this year. A loss to Illinois might very well have ended the Wolverines’ season. Instead, they were seeded seventh among the 16 teams in the Midwest bracket.

Michigan opened the NCAA tournament by eking out a 92-91 victory against Oklahoma State. The Wolverines went on to upset powerful Louisville, 73-69. This set up tomorrow night’s game in Kansas City against the number-three seed, Oregon. Things don’t get any easier if Michigan survives that test; winning would mean facing either top-seeded Kansas or Purdue, the very Big Ten rival that Michigan knocked out of the conference tournament by coming from behind and winning in overtime.

Every year, even the most casual college basketball fans like me hope for something magical to happen amid March Madness: a story that we just can’t help watching, a tale with a hoped-for happily ever after.

In that sense, Michigan has already won. There are 109 players, coaches and supporters alive today because Michigan has been on an incredible lucky streak that began with a takeoff roll on a windy Midwest runway. To see where it ends, stay tuned.

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