KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Thanks, Michigan. It was fun while it lasted.
So who’s going to be the lovable underdog in the NCAA Tournament now?
Take your pick: Xavier or South Carolina.
The Musketeers are a No. 11 seed after losing their starting point guard to a knee injury in late January and finishing seventh in the Big East. They stomped No. 3 Florida State by 25 points to make the Sweet 16 and are in a regional final for the third time since 2004 after a stunning 73-71 win over No. 2 Arizona on Thursday night.
The Gamecocks might merit a little more love than Xavier, even though they’re seeded four rungs higher as a No. 7. Unlike Xavier, which has been there, done that when it comes to the Sweet 16, the Gamecocks are in new territory.
They not only won their first game in the NCAAs since 1973 when they beat Marquette last week, they knocked out love-’em-or-hate-’em Duke in the round of 32 for their first win over the Blue Devils since 1970. They take aim at Baylor on Friday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Michigan, that all-sports powerhouse from the Big Ten, doesn’t usually endear itself to anybody but its own fans. In some corners (Ohio, for example) the Wolverines are the team everyone loves to hate, no matter the sport.
For the last two weeks, though, college basketball fans kind of fell for the Wolverinesif not the team, then its story.
The script: Plane skids off runway as the bubble-team Wolverines try to fly to the Big Ten Tournament in Washington. Team hitches ride on Detroit Pistons’ plane, arriving a couple hours before game time. Wearing practice uniforms because game unis are still on the other plane, Wolverines beat Illinois to begin four wins-in-four days run that ends with conference tournament championship. Dispatches Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAAs and No. 2 Louisville in the round of 32 .
The fun ended when team leader Derrick Walton Jr.’s long jump shot bounced off the rim just before the buzzer in a 69-68 loss to Oregon in the Midwest Regional on Thursday night.
“We felt confident. We’ve been able to stick them out recently,” senior Duncan Robinson said. “The ball didn’t really bounce our way down the stretch. That’s part of the game. Sometimes you’ve got to will your way to victory, and clearly we didn’t do that tonight.”
Michigan was sloppy in the first half, committing an uncharacteristic seven turnovers after giving the ball away a combined 10 times in its first two tournament games. The Wolverines cleaned things up in the second half, coughing up the ball just once, and were still in position to win at the end.
“It’s the tightest bunch I’ve been around in all my years of playing basketball. Just a very selfless group,” Walton said. “I had the joy of being a part of it and being one of the leaders. I wish we could have more games to play together because I think a couple minutes throughout the game we didn’t show the type of team we were becoming.”
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said fatigue was not a factor even though the Wolverines played seven games in 15 days.
“You’re pretty much in tournament mode,” he said. “We had a lot of motivation going into the games. Everybody’s tired at this point. Everybody’s even. You just try to ride that emotion and that motivation.”
If nothing else, the Wolverines made lifelong memories.
“That,” senior Duncan Robinson said, “is what college athletics and sports in general are all about.”