KANSAS CITY - Oregon players couldn't help but become Michigan fans after the Wolverines were involved in a minor plane crash three weeks ago that shook up the players but also has partially propelled them into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
"We've all been cheering them on," UO junior forward Jordan Bell said today during media availability at the Sprint Center. "We understand that going through a thing like that can really bring a lot of heart and passion out of people, so we've just been rooting for them."
Bell also added an "up until now," while talking about No. 7 Michigan, which is undefeated since the plane incident and now finds itself up against No. 3 Oregon (31-5) at 4:09 p.m. on Thursday.
The story of the NCAA Tournament thus far revolves around Michigan (26-11) and its harrowing experience while on a plane taking the team to the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C. on Mar. 8. Facing high winds while attempting to take off from Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Mich., the pilots aborted takeoff but ended up skidding off of the runway and crashing into a field. Nobody was injured but the event left the team a bit shaken up, according to reports.
Michigan went on to win the Big Ten Tournament and upset No. 2 Louisville in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to earn a trip to the Midwest Regional semifinals. Because of its story, some have dubbed Michigan as a "team of destiny."
"I think definitely an experience like that would bring you that much closer together, realizing what is important in the grand scheme of things," Oregon junior guard Casey Benson said. "Definitely they have carried that since that happened into the postseason. They're playing at a high level with a lot of confidence, so we've got to match the intensity."
The Michigan admiration, however, only goes so far. UO junior forward Dillon Brooks said the Wolverines' story wouldn't impact Thursday's game.
"It's a great story and it's a great thing for that program," he said. "We all hear about it but it's just another team in front of us...I see a team in front of me. I know these guys see the same thing. They don't see no destiny. They don't see the crazy thing that happened to them. We just go out there and play our game and play hard. Those guys are talented guys and they play well together. They're playing well for each other and we have to crush that and not give them easy baskets."
The Wolverines were actually on a roll before the plane incident and have now won 12 of their last 14 games. They are led by senior guards Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin who attack the basket, shoot well from outside and don't turn over the ball very often. In fact, the Wolverines average just 9.2 turnovers per game. Oregon likes to be disruptive on defense in order to create bad shots and turnovers that lead to fast breaks. Accomplishing that through forced turnovers won't be easy against Michigan.
"Being active on defense is going to be key for us," UO sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey said. "We must have active hands. That's going to be key for us in getting deflections and getting steals. Speeding them up and getting them out of their tempo and what they want to run."
Where Oregon could have a huge advantage is in the rebounding department. Michigan averages just 29.2 rebounds per game compared to 36.5 for Oregon. Sophomore forward Moritz Wagner (6-foot-11) lit up Louisville for 26 points in the last round, but he gave the Wolverines just three rebounds. Wagner averages just 4.1 per game. The 6-10 D.J. Wilson leads the team at 5.3.
For these reasons, Brooks said that the Ducks could cause more of a matchup problem for Michigan inside than vice versa despite UO not having senior forward Chris Boucher (knee injury) and his 6.1 rebounds per game. Bell averages 8.3 and 6-10 junior Kavell Bigby-Williams can crash the boards when he isn't in foul trouble.
"Nobody in the Big Ten has a team like ours," Brooks said. "We're versatile, unselfish, a team that loves each other and plays for each other and I feel like we're going to give them a lot of fits...They've got a little size but I feel like me, Jordan and Kavell will hold our own. They've got to guard us. They've probably never guarded no one like Jordan, or like me, or like Velley."
Both teams are playing well. Both teams have earned the right to be here. Which team advances will come down to which team seizes the moment.
"They got hot at the right time and their playing with a lot of confidence, and we've got to match that confidence," Dorsey said.
Most of the country will probably be rooting for Michigan, given its backstory that Benson and Bell said caused them to root for the Wolverines. UO coach Dana Altman, however, said he hasn't had time to pull for anyone other than his own team.
"I do think it's a great story though and how coach (John) Beilein says they have bonded and it's made them much closer," Altman said. "That is a unique story."
It's one that only can continue at Oregon's expense.