Ann Arbor — If John Beilein knew the answer, he’d probably say so.
On second thought, if Beilein knew why Michigan has been one of the most successful postseasons teams in recent years he’d probably want to keep it to himself.
The Wolverines have posted a 15-2 record in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments the past two seasons, which includes back-to-back conference tournament titles, a Sweet 16 appearance and a trip to the national title game.
It’s an impressive mark the Wolverines will look to build upon — first as a No. 3 seed aiming to three-peat at the United Center in Chicago this weekend and as a probable No. 2 or 3 seed when the Big Dance starts next week — and one Beilein can’t easily explain.
“Everybody asks what's the secret to our success the last two years,” Beilein said Wednesday. “I have no idea.”
That’s because the hot streaks and deep runs were ignited in different ways.
Two seasons ago, the Wolverines were a desperate team trying to scratch and claw their way off the bubble when they boarded a charter flight for the Big Ten tournament. But due to circumstances outside their control, they went through a harrowing plane mishap and responded with a postseason ride that captivated the nation.
That was followed by a Michigan team that kicked into another gear and hit its stride at the right time to run through a broken bracket all the way to the final Monday of the college basketball season.
“A plane crash helped just to loosen everybody up a little bit and go in and play with nothing to lose,” Beilein said. “But last year, I have no explanation for that. That was an incredible performance. I can't tell you why.”
Still, when the calendar flips to March, nobody seems to find the magic to maximize his team’s potential quite like Beilein.
And what Beilein can say, is it helps to have a few bounces — and a buzzer-beating 3-pointer like last season — go your way.
“Luck is a really big ingredient to have right now,” Beilein said. “Sometimes the ref has to be ready to make a foul call and on us it's not really a foul call. Remember the Iowa game last year we had a lot of young guys in the game and we hung on there and won it luckily, but we were in foul trouble the entire game. That has a little bit to do with it.
“When you go into that arena the first time, it's important for those guys to be comfortable at the beginning and the coaches are extremely comfortable at that time and they're not on edge. We have to portray a ‘yes face’ that we're going to do this. I don't care what tournament game there is, whether it's a one vs. eight game, it is going to be great basketball, and whoever plays well in those last 10 minutes probably wins the game.”
According to junior center Jon Teske, there have been common keys to the recent March riches: staying connected and digging deep.
That means fighting through fatigue when the third and fourth day of Big Ten tournament hits and leaning on the defense to get easy baskets when tired legs might be leaving shots short.
But there’s also more to surviving and advancing than just the 40 minutes on the court. Just as crucial is the mental fortitude to quickly move on and not get overwhelmed while preparing for the next opponent in a short window.
“Obviously as you get into day two, day three guys are going to be tired on both sides of the ball,” Teske said. “The mental part of it and how much you’re locked in during walkthrough in the morning, in film, I think that's what Coach B prides himself on and our teams. The quick turnarounds of watching film in the morning, going through walkthroughs and being focused, and everyone being focused and being on top it later in the day as we play. Really I think that's what typically has helped us the last couple years.”
Yet, the deeper a team makes it in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments doesn’t necessarily mean the day-to-day grind gets any easier to handle from a mental standpoint.
"For me it's not hard, but I know for some guys it is hard to concentrate. Your mind wanders off, especially younger guys,” Teske said. “I know my freshman year I would catch myself. But now I'm playing more obviously, so you always got to keep the young guys in check. Ask them if they need help with anything, if they see anything, if they're having trouble with something.”
Of course, it helps to have Beilein’s 40 years of experience, a formula that was worked and a coaching staff that does “more prep before games than anybody.”
For example, Beilein said if Michigan wins Friday’s quarterfinal matchup against Iowa, the team will get back to the hotel around midnight and his staff will be up all night watching film “like crazy” on the next opponent.
By the time Beilein wakes up at 6 a.m. the next morning, he’ll already have the scouting report under his door. From there, Beilein will schedule a meeting at 10 a.m. to talk things over with the staff, go over the game plan with the players a couple hours later and do everything to have everyone as prepared as possible.
“It's intriguing. It's a puzzle you're trying to put together,” Beilein said. “It's what we do all year long and it's no different than that.
“All we can do is all we can do. We say it all the time, and all you can do is enough. We just say this is what we're going to do this hour, this hour, this hour, and pretty soon you play again. Then you win and you do it again and you do it again.”
And, possibly, again deep into March.
Big Ten tournament
No. 13 Nebraska 68, No. 12 Rutgers 61
No. 11 Illinois 74, No. 14 Northwestern 69
No. 8 Ohio State 79, No. 9 Indiana, 75
Nebraska 69, No. 5 Maryland 16
No. 7 Minnesota 77, No. 10 Penn State 72 OT
No. 6 Iowa 83, Illinois 62
No. 1 Michigan State vs. Ohio State, 12:30 (BTN)
No. 4 Wisconsin vs. Nebraska, 3 (BTN)
No. 2 Purdue vs. Minnesota, 7 (BTN)
No. 3 Michigan vs. Iowa, 9:30 (BTN)
Michigan State-Ohio State winner vs. Wisconsin-Nebraska winner, 1 (CBS)
Purdue-Minnesota winner vs. Michigan-Iowa winner, 3:30 (CBS)
Championship, 3:30 (CBS)