NCAA Tournament 2018: Is Michigan a basketball school with a football problem?

LOS ANGELES — So long as the ghosts of Yost and Bo stalk Main Street, she’ll never be Chapel Hill. While there are banners to touch and Slippery Rock scores to announce, she’ll never be Lawrence. Or, Heaven forbid, Bloomington.

Ann Arbor, bless her, is a football town.

Michigan swing man Ibi Watson was congratulated by Wolverines football players Monday. (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

And yet, since 2012, Michigan has:

  • Watched its men’s basketball team reach four Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights, win two Big Ten regular-season titles and snatch two league conference tourney crowns.
  • Seen its football team lose at least five games in four different seasons, including this last autumn, and post a 1-4 record in bowl games.

Take the stripes off the helmet, and you’d wonder if we were talking about UCLA here.

“Yeah, I remember some of us were talking,” Wolverines swing man Ibi Watson told Land of 10 Wednesday at Staples Center, where Michigan (30-7) will take on Texas A&M (22-12) in the first of two West Regional semifinals Thursday night.

“[When] the football team didn’t end the season as well as they wanted to and didn’t have its greatest season, our whole team was pretty much talking about, ‘I think it’s our time to kind of turn up and try to make it a basketball school as well.’

“Because football gets a lot of love around Michigan, so we wanted to try and equal that [love] if we could. And hopefully, we can keep moving on.”

We’re not here to join the peanut gallery and take turns throwing stones at Jim Harbaugh. Watson and his teammates aren’t interested in kicking a horse while it’s down, either.

But the whole success-since-2012 thing does serve to underscore a point. While FBI investigators are sniffing around the sport, while No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are falling like milk bottles on a midway, while a rising tide of reform looms, Michigan basketball keeps charging on, holding its head above the water, carrying the flag up Mount Bracketville.

Since November 2016, the Wolverines have faced Michigan State and Ohio State seven times and won four of those meetings. It’s not just that Michigan under coach John Beilein is sneaky good, one of those under-the-radar elites at a place where under-the-radar doesn’t really seem fathomable.

Rather, if you’re one of the Wolverines faithful who’s had to take it upside the head from every Ohio State and Michigan State fan in your area code at the end of every autumn, hoops has been a breath of fresh air, sweet relief.

‘[When] the football team didn’t end the season as well as they wanted to … our whole team was pretty much talking about, ‘I think it’s our time to kind of turn up and try to make it a basketball school as well.’

— Michigan G/F Ibi Watson on picking up the flag for Wolverines fans

“Oh, I hear,” Michigan forward Isaiah Livers noted. “You see a lot of things on social media. And we walk around and we hear, ‘Thank you’ all the time.

“I don’t know if has to do with football. But I know the football [team] right now, they’re working their tails off. Coach Harbaugh is preparing a great season for them, and I can’t wait to watch.”

Underrated coach, underrated roster, underrated recruits, consistent results. It’s not a perfect parallel to say Beilein is to Big Ten hoops these days what Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio is to football, but … it ain’t that far off, either.

Game recognizes game, kids.

“When we got to class [Monday], all the football players in one of my classes — a lot of them are in there,” Watson recalled. “And they all congratulated us and they were really excited for us. So it’s great to have that type of connection [from] that team, too.”

The Big House still has the real estate, the ghosts, the legacy and the gravitas. She’ll never be confused with Westwood. But the trophy case don’t lie. And there’s more than enough room on this bandwagon for everybody.

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