All that was lacking were the torches and pitch forks.
After suffering back-to-back losses in late February, Michigan was 14-8 and appeared to be going nowhere. Not playing well and squarely on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, the Wolverines looked, for all intents and purposes, to be headed for a third consecutive disappointing season. And with little help on the way in terms of top-flight recruits, the natives were starting to grow restless. Calls for coach John Beilein's head grew louder and louder from an increasingly disgruntled fan base.
This is not to suggest that Beilein's job was ever in jeopardy or that his seat was even remotely hot. Unlike the fickle fan base, the university's administration never wavered with respect to Beilein. Simply put, Beilein will coach at Michigan for as long as he chooses to do so. Yet, as the season was hitting its home stretch, and with the Wolverines appearing to be on the outside of the NCAA tournament looking in, many were calling for a change at the top.
Fast forward just two months, however, and you'd be hard pressed to hear even the faintest echoes of such cries. In Michigan's best stretch of basketball since its Final Four run four years ago, the Wolverines finished the season strong, winning 12 of their final 15 games, with eight of those victories coming against tournament teams. The Wolverines went on to capture the Big Ten tournament (defeating the number one, two and four seeds in the process) and advance to the Sweet Sixteen, coming a mere defensive rebound away from an Elite Eight appearance.
But what happened in that two-month period? How could a team that looked so bad, finish the season playing so well?
Michigan came into the 2016-17 season with intentions of putting a pair of disappointing seasons behind it, hoping that the senior duo of Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin could lead the Wolverines to better things in the pair's swan song season in Ann Arbor. And with much of the prior season's roster returning, such optimism wasn't unwarranted. Yet despite breakout seasons from Moritz Wagner and DJ Wilson, Michigan stumbled out of the gate. The Wolverines all-too-often had trouble scoring in key moments, seemed to have little interest in playing defense and even less interest in rebounding. In short, Michigan was playing, for lack of a better term, Michigan basketball. At least the kind of basketball it had played far too often over the past couple of years.
If there was a turning point in Michigan's season, it was a January loss to Illinois, after which Illini center Maverick Morgan called Michigan a "white collar" team. Many Wolverines bristled at the slight, but none more than Walton. While the team continued to flounder, Walton raised his game, seemingly intent on closing out his career playing his best basketball (something he certainly accomplished). Walton didn't lead as much as carry Michigan, putting together a stretch of basketball as impressive as anything seen in Ann Arbor since Trey Burke's All-American season. Walton played brilliantly over the second half of the season, leading the Wolverines in points, assists and often seeming like their best bet to secure a key rebound. In the process, he became the only Wolverine to record 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists in his career. But it was more than just gaudy statistics, Walton displayed the ability to take over games. Often resembling a one-man team, Walton carried the Wolverines for long stretches of time.
But despite Walton's inspired play, the Wolverines still struggled. Walton wasn't getting enough help, at least not enough consistent help, and after those back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, Michigan's season appeared to be circling the drain.
But instead of throwing in the towel, Michigan found resolve, and more specifically, a defensive intensity that had been lacking to that point. Michigan responded by beating Michigan State, completing a season sweep of Indiana, knocking off then-first place Wisconsin and ultimately handing regular season conference champion Purdue its worst loss of the season to that point. Suddenly, Michigan was playing like a different team.
Walton continued his strong play, but now had help. Many Wolverines upped their games, but none more so than Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. And while Irvin was still struggling offensively, he often set the tone on defense. And it was Michigan's improved defense, as much as anything, that spurred the Wolverine revival, one that extended into the post-season.
Many theories were offered to explain the Wolverines' impressive tourney runs, most of which involving the team's plane crashing on take-off on the eve of the Big Ten tournament. But the simple truth is that over the final month of the season, Michigan was playing as well as any team in the Big Ten, and doing things it hadn't done all season. The Wolverines were doing a better job of holding their own on the boards, and even more importantly, were picking up their defense, particularly on the perimeter, where it sometimes seemed non-existent earlier in the season.
All of this led Michigan to two successful, if not entirely expected, tournament runs. One resulting in a Big Ten tournament championship and the other a berth in the Sweet Sixteen. But with better play came greater expectations and ultimately greater disappointment. After getting past Louisville in a second-round slug-fest, Michigan put itself in a position to beat Oregon and advance to the Elite Eight, but for a disastrous final two minutes, ultimately coming a point short. That Oregon advanced to the Final Four and played eventual National Champion North Carolina evenly only increased the disappointment and the "what-ifs."
But as the saying goes, all but one team ends its season with a loss, so if Michigan's season was ultimately disappointing, it was far from unsuccessful. And in a season of retribution, one might say, with seniors Walton and Irvin leading the way, Michigan played its most exciting stretch of basketball since its NCAA tourney run five years ago and won its first conference tournament championship in nearly 20 years. And in the process, Walton and Irvin, they of 260-plus combined starts for Michigan, authored a new top line in their respective, and collective, Michigan legacies. That of Big Ten champions. And in the process, vindicated their coach.