When Head Coach John Beilein took over the Michigan basketball team in 2007, the program was in shambles and had not been to the NCAA Tournament in nine years.
Beilein slowly built them into not just a consistent tournament contender, but a team that competed for the Big Ten Championship as well. The culmination of his work came in 2013, when the Wolverines made it all the way to the National Championship game, losing a close one to Louisville. The next season, Michigan managed to make it back to the Elite Eight and won the Big Ten Title outright for the first time in 28 years.
This type of success normally brings with it a bump in recruiting and helps a program to sustain that type of success. This was not the case with the Wolverines. After the 2014 season, Beilein lost three of his starters to the NBA Draft and five players overall. The next season, injuries to then junior Caris Levert and sophomore Derrick Walton Jr. showed the lack of depth that Michigan had. The inexperience and lack of talent was too much for the team to overcome and the Wolverines missed the tournament just a year removed from back-to-back deep runs in March.
The 2015 season was supposed to be a rebounding one. Michigan brought back the entire group from 2014 and was fully healthy to start. The team had a year of experience and looked like a Big Ten contender. Early blowouts by Xavier, UConn and SMU showed the team had not taken that next step and had not returned to championship form.
Many questioned Beilein and blamed his lack of recruiting and talent development for the team’s struggles. It was clear something was wrong with the Wolverines. How did the program go from such a high — playing in the National Championship — to returning to mediocrity that struggled to make the tournament? The team did not have the same fight or put the same fear into opposing teams like the days of Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas. They looked afraid and played with little heart.
The lowest point of the season came on Feb. 2 in a home game against Indiana. Michigan had won four games in a row coming in and were only a game back from first place in the conference. It was the closest they would be all season as they were dismantled at home by 23 points and looked worse than ever before. This set the team into a tailspin they couldn’t recover from. A similar result occurred that Saturday when arch-rival Michigan State beat the Wolverines by 16 points.
Michigan ended the regular season losing six of its final nine games and lost what seemed like a must win to Iowa at home on senior night. The team appeared like it would miss the tournament for a second straight season — something that had never happened under Beilein. All of the experts said the Wolverines would have to win at least two games in the Big Ten Tournament to qualify. The first game against Northwestern was winnable, but Indiana stood in their way after that; the same team that crushed the little confidence they had during the regular season.
Michigan struggled with the Wildcats and needed a last second basket from junior forward Zak Irvin to win in overtime. The next day, however, something changed in the Wolverines. They played harder than the Hoosiers. They played tough. They played to win. They out-muscled and out-maneuvered the team that destroyed them at the Crisler Center a month prior. They looked like the team that used to play for one another and feared nothing.
The game was tied with just six seconds left. Walton had the ball for the Wolverines and looked to take the final shot. He brought the ball down the court and had one man in front of him, but decided to pass. Sophomore forward Kameron Chatman caught the ball in the far right corner and elevated. The Hoosier defender rushed out to guard him, but Chatman shook him off and got the shot over him. As time ticked to under a second, the hearts of Michigan fans, players and coaches stopped and the ball swished through the net as the final horn went off. The Wolverines had done it.
With one shot, the team seemingly erased all perception of the program’s demise and had saved its season. Chatman — who had disappointed his whole career — hit the biggest shot of his life and was a hero. Walton didn’t even know he was passing to Chatman. He claimed he thought he was passing to sophomore guard Aubrey Dawkins, a more likely three-point target.
Chatman’s shot summed up just what the game meant to Michigan: not about making the tournament, but changing the dark image surrounding the team and surrounding the young fans that wanted to give up hope. Critics doubted the Wolverines and claimed the program had resulted back to the days before Beilein got there. They thought the team was finished and had nothing left in the tank, but Michigan found a way to get it done like in 2013-14.
As long as Beilein is Michigan’s coach, they aren’t going backwards. They may never get back to the National Championship, but they won’t go back to being bottom dwellers in the Big Ten either. The Wolverines didn’t let injuries and early departures hold them back and they won’t let the critics do so either. Whether the team wins or loses early in the tournament makes little difference. They already proved this isn’t the same old Michigan basketball team.