INDIANAPOLIS — It is a story impossible to resist for anyone following the NCAA Tournament: Team plane skids off runway, team gets on another plane the next day, team plays in practice jerseys, team wins conference tournament.
But Michigan coach John Beilein wanted to make sure Thursday that everyone fully understood the magnitude of what occurred. When a reporter said “skidded off the runway” in asking a question, Beilein felt the need to clarify the record.
“It wasn’t just skidding off the runway,” he said during a news conference in advance of Friday’s first-round game against Oklahoma State. “It was full-going, 150 miles an hour, we can’t stop . . . Thank goodness the plane didn’t flip.”
That is why it is no surprise that No. 7 seed Michigan (24-11) is a sentimental favorite over the No. 10 seed Cowboys (20-12) outside the borders of Oklahoma.
The Wolverines’ emotional whiplash of a week began March 8, when their plane out of Willow Run Airport near Ypsilanti, Michigan, bound for the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, overshot the runway before takeoff and crashed into a fence. There were no serious injuries among the players, band members, cheerleaders and staff, but many were shaken.
The team decided to carry on, taking off the next morning and landing two hours before tipoff. Michigan, wearing its practice jerseys, beat Illinois, 75-55, then won three more, capped by Sunday’s 71-56 rout of Wisconsin.
Beilein rejected the notion that winning the Big Ten title was a big surprise. But given the backdrop, well, yes, it was.
“What made it Cinderella was the circumstances,” he said.
“I just think the hardest part for our team was just getting back on the plane,” Zak Irvin said. “Once we landed back in D.C., we felt, ‘Why can’t we just go out and win this all? Why can’t this be one of the greatest stories ever told?’ We just wanted to win and play well for our brothers.”
Said Derrick Walton Jr.: “Getting back on the plane was definitely tough. Once we got on the plane and landed, we were able to focus on basketball.”
Irvin said the team already was a close-knit group before the incident, but “if possible, I think that brought us closer, especially going through something like that.’’
It was not lost on Beilein that Michigan’s first NCAA opponent lost two players and six other members of its basketball community in a plane crash in Colorado in 2001.
“I thought about that,” he said, then referenced fatal college sports plane crashes from 1977 and 1970. “I thought about Evansville. I thought about Marshall. You think about all those tragedies . . . We’re just blessed.”
Beilein said he is thankful that the pilot hit the brakes and avoided having the plane leave the ground. “If he gets it up a little bit, now we got a whole different deal,” he said.
The players said the goal this week is to put last week’s life-and-death drama behind them.
“I believe God is good,” Walton said. “We avoided something that could have been tragic . . . It happened for a reason. The way we responded, I was very proud of it. It’s one of those memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Oh, and by the way, Michigan is scheduled to bus from Ann Arbor to Indianapolis for Friday’s game.
Baylor vs. New Mexico St.
12:40 p.m., truTV
SMU vs. USC
3:10 p.m., truTV
Duke vs. Troy
7:20 p.m., TBS
South Carolina vs. Marquette
9:50 p.m., TBS
Arkansas vs. Seton Hall
1:30 p.m., TNT
North Carolina vs. Texas Southern
4 p.m., TNT
Dayton vs. Wichita St.
7:10 p.m., Ch. 2
Cincinnati vs. Kansas St.
7:27 p.m., truTV
Kentucky vs. N. Kentucky
9:40 p.m., Ch. 2
UCLA vs. Kent St.
9:57 p.m., truTV
Michigan vs. Oklahoma St.
12:15 p.m., Ch. 2
Oregon vs. Iona
2 p.m., TBS
Louisville vs. Jacksonville St.
2:45 p.m., Ch. 2
Creighton vs. Rhode Island
4:30 p.m., TBS
Kansas vs. UC Davis
6:50 p.m., TNT
Miami vs. Michigan St.
9:20 p.m., TNT