No matter what happened today, few would have envisioned this Wolverines run just five weeks ago.
The plane incident and the wearing of the practice jerseys are inseparable parts of this team's lore, and rightly so. Today's Big Ten Tournament championship game, however, was not necessarily about resilience or moxie, but a Michigan team culminating a spree of splendid basketball -- one that began several weeks ago -- with one more top-notch showing.
This team isn't a plucky underdog getting by on grit, some luck and hot shooting. This team is just good.
In case any doubt remained as to the growth and quality of this team, Michigan did well to quash it with a convincing 71-56 win against the Badgers Sunday afternoon in Washington D.C., good for Michigan's fourth win in four days and its first Big Ten Tournament title since 1998, the tournament's inaugural year (a title that was later vacated).
Led by another shining performance from senior Derrick Walton (22 points, six rebounds, seven assists, two steals and just one turnover), Michigan led for 39 minutes, 42 seconds (the Badgers led briefly, 6-5, early in the game).
This won't go down as the best or most talented Michigan basketball team, but they did something even those stacked teams of a few years ago -- rosters with Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Trey Burke, Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan, and so on -- failed to do.
This one won the Big Ten Tournament. Four wins in four days -- a new banner will soon rise.
The shaky Michigan of January, one for which a tournament berth seemed a dubious proposition, was ushered out the door long ago. In that January apparition's stead, a reforged Walton, increasingly confident Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson, and Zak Irvin, once lost but then refound, led the way on the road to March.
Since Michigan's listless Feb. 4 home loss against Ohio State, they've been one of the best teams in the country, winning nine of 11 coming into today (with losses coming in overtime at Minnesota and on a last-second shot for the ages at Northwestern).
After defeating Illinois, top-seeded Purdue and Minnesota, only No. 2 seed Wisconsin -- against whom they split the regular-season series -- stood between the Wolverines and a conference tournament title.
For all of Irvin's well-documented struggles in late January and into February, the senior notched solid regular-season performances against the Badgers, scoring a combined 38 points on 15-for-28 shooting. He tallied a quick six points early today en route to nine first-half points, but fellow senior was the star of the first 20 minutes, putting up his first 12 points by making four of his first five three-point attempts.
Michigan extended its lead to 10 at 30-20 with five minutes left in the half. However, a 12-3 Wisconsin run, capped by a Bronson Koenig triple just before the buzzer, cut it to one at the break. Koenig, who did not play in the matchup at Crisler Center, tallied 13 first-half points on 5-for-7 shooting.
Michigan came out of the second half with a 6-0 run, with Wisconsin tallying its first points 5 minutes, 19 seconds into the half on a pair of Nigel Hayes free throws (the Badgers didn't convert their first field goal until more than eight minutes had elapsed in the half).
Almost two minutes later, Irvin extended Michigan's lead back to 10 with a strong and-1 take at the rim, putting him in double figures for each of Michigan's four tournament games.
With Wisconsin's offense scuffling, struggling with turnovers and, quite frankly, failing to convert some good looks, Michigan looked to keep its foot on the gas and avoid a fate similar to its regular-season collapse against Virginia Tech.
With just over eight minutes to play, a Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman triple hit the rim, bounced up approximately five feet, contemplated the meaning of life before swishing in and giving Michigan an 11-point lead -- it was just that kind of day. The Badgers quickly cut the deficit to six, however, with six minutes to play.
On the ensuing possession, Irvin again answered the call, this time curling around a screen for a catch-and-shoot at the arc over Jordan Hill to beat the shot clock and push the lead back to nine. Not long after, Duncan Robinson buried a triple from essentially the same spot on the same curl. After a stretch featuring several dribble-heavy possessions, Michigan was, as they say, "running its stuff" with precision.
And just to cement the fact that this was Michigan's day, a frantic loose ball situation after Wisconsin pressured on an inbound pass led to a Wilson outlet pass to Abdur-Rahkman for a breakaway dunk. Then it was Wilson's turn for a breakaway dunk, then Walton's for a breakaway layup.
Up 13 with 1:08 left, chants of "Let's Go Blue" rang out, presaging the celebration of Michigan's tournament title.
It's hard to believe that, after all of this, there's still basketball to be played. Michigan will learn its NCAA Tournament seeding later today (but indications are it might be a 6-seed).
Whatever happens, the last four days gave Michigan fans a ride they won't soon forget.
And with few teams playing better basketball than the Wolverines right now, another ride could be on its way.