The sports world is dormant right now, and that’s brutal for all sports fans. What I am missing the most is the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament. Instead of March Madness, it is March Sadness this year. With nothing new to watch, I have been watching classic March Madness games, and I came up with the idea for this series called “The Runners-Up,” where I take a deeper look into the teams that came up just short.
This series will highlight some of the best teams in the last 20 years that made it to the National Championship game but lost. A different bounce here or there and these teams may have gone down in history, but instead they had to settle for the silver medal. This series serves to give some of those teams — which may have been forgotten — the recognition they deserve. I already have a few ideas in mind, but if anyone has any tournament runners-up they would like me to cover, shoot me an email. I hope you enjoy!
Well, the people have spoken — and by people I mean the eight people who voted on my Twitter poll. As requested, for my final entry in “The Runners-Up” series, I will be looking at the 2013 Michigan Wolverines, who rose from the middle of the pack in a stacked Big Ten all the way to the National Championship game. Of course, in that game, they lost to the sex-scandal-tainted Louisville Cardinals, who would later get this championship vacated.
But this story isn’t about Rick Pitino, Andre McGee and the immoral things they did that destroyed Louisville’s reputation and resulted in 123 forfeited wins and the loss of a National Championship. This is about the team they beat in 2013 to win that now-vacated title.
This Michigan team was probably the best that John Beilein ever had in his 12-year tenure as head coach. The team was loaded with NBA talent, with six different players on the roster going on to play in the NBA. In fact, four of those players (Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and Caris LeVert) continue to play key roles for their respective NBA teams in the 2019-20 season.
In 2013, Burke was the man for Michigan. He won multiple National College Player of the Year awards, he was a consensus first-team All-American and he was the Big Ten Player of the Year. Most importantly, though, he hit the shot of the year in the Sweet 16 against top-seeded Kansas.
Michigan began the season by going undefeated in non-conference play and winning its first 16 games overall. They stumbled a bit in Big Ten play, but that was understandable given the quality and depth of the conference that season — seven teams made the NCAA tournament and eight won 20-plus games.
The Wolverines finished the regular season at 25-6 overall and 12-6 in the Big Ten, good for fourth place in the conference. They lost in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament to Wisconsin and wound up as a four seed in the Big Dance.
Michigan was an especially young team that year. Three of the five starters were freshmen, and there was no impact senior on the team, but the young lineup managed to get hot at the right time. They beat South Dakota State and VCU by large margins in the first weekend before taking on Kansas in the Sweet 16.
The Wolverines struggled with the Jayhawks, who were ranked No. 3 in the country and were the top seed in the South region. Michigan trailed for basically the whole game and went down 14 with under seven minutes to play. Still down by 10 with 2:30 remaining, it was Burke who willed the team back, hitting big shot after big shot to keep Michigan alive.
The Wolverines found themself down by just three with time winding down in regulation, when Burke pulled up from about 30 feet away and drained one of the biggest shots of the decade in college basketball. Michigan would go on to win in overtime 87-85 behind 25 points from Mitch McGary and 23 points from Burke, all of them in the second half and overtime.
In the Elite Eight, Michigan beat Florida by 20 before surviving a tough Syracuse team in the Final Four, 61-56. The win put them in the championship for the first time since the Fab Five made it to back-to-back championship games in 1992 and 1993 (though both of these were later vacated due to illegal payments to players from a booster).
Unfortunately for them, this Michigan team suffered the same fate as those two teams and lost in the final. The championship was a thrilling back-and-forth game with multiple lead changes, but an amazing shooting performance by the eventual Most Outstanding Player Luke Hancock helped Louisville escape with a 82-76 victory. There was also that awful foul call on what should have been a clean block by Burke down the stretch, but who knows how big of an impact that really made. The refs influence every game and not always in a good way.
The loss moved Michigan’s record in National Championships to 1-5, and they would lose again five years later to Villanova to make it 1-6 all time.
This team was great and certainly is in the conversation as one of the best tournament runners-up in recent memory.
I want to thank everyone for joining me the last few weeks as I looked back at some of the best March Madness runners-up of the last 20 years. I hope you all enjoyed the series and were reminded of some good — and maybe not so good — memories along the way. Hopefully, next year we will be able to experience new memories in another terrific March Madness tournament.