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What they knew all along: How Michigan built a championship team

Without much belief early on in the season from outsiders, how this Michigan team has separated itself to make a run that was in them all along.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Michigan vs Florida State Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Mortiz Wagner stood on the edge of the tunnel entering the Breslin Center nearly an hour after the game had ended. Surrounded by reporters, he couldn’t wipe the smile of his face the entire time he was being interviewed.

Until one question near the end.

A reporter asked the German native about how much the win over a top-five team on the road validates this Michigan group.

“It might validate something for you (reporters), but if we lose or win we are the same team,” Wagner said. “You have to be tough to beat team’s like this, but if we play within ourselves we know we can beat anybody in the country.”

More than two months later, his team is set for San Antonio, TX to play on college basketball’s biggest stage. The Final Four.

Entering that game against Michigan State on Jan. 13, the Wolverines were unranked. They were looking for a signature win to make the NCAA Tournament after a rocky start.

There were more bumps in the road along the way. An embarrassment at Nebraska. A loss to arguably one of America’s biggest disappointments in Northwestern. They weren’t perfect.

Since that loss to the Wildcats on Feb. 6, the Wolverines haven’t lost a game. They’ve won 13 straight, 11 of them away from Ann Arbor.

That “toughness” Wagner pointed to after the MSU game, is exactly what made this team Big Ten Tournament Champions. It’s what won them the West Region of the Big Dance. It’s the identity for this team that no one could figure out until that win over the Spartans in January.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Michigan vs Florida State Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

There comes a point where reality begins to surface. People didn’t always believe in this U-M team. Even when they finished the regular season strong, there was still doubt.

But if seeing is believing, this group has given anyone following this team every reason to believe they can win a national title in the coming days.

On the nights when the rim seems larger and the Wolverines can’t miss from beyond the arc, they will run their opponent out of the gym. Ask Texas A&M. If they can’t make a shot from the field for multiple stretches, they will suffocate you with a relentless defense. Ask Florida State.

On any given night, this U-M team — which has a program record 32 wins — will find a way to beat you. They’ve built a base from a different material than any Beilein team before — pure grit.

The head of this monster starts from a player who was playing 8.7 minutes a game in the 2016-17 season. A sophomore who lost his starting job to a freshman in the early weeks of this season.

Zavier Simpson, nicknamed pitbull, now plays 26.3 minutes per game and is making an argument to be the 2018-19 preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

But what’s even more impressive is the big buckets he’s came up with on offense. Yo-yoing his way down the lane, probing the defenders and hitting acrobatic shots in key moments.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Michigan vs Florida State Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

“You can’t be thinking about if someone is a foot taller than me, if he blocks it he blocks it,” Simpson said. “You will have a few bumps and you need to fight through it, but that’s how this game is. You have to be mentally tough.

“This group can do that. We stick together as a team, that’s what makes us special.”

It’s one thing to say you can play as a team and it’s one thing to do it. This Wolverine squad has done it and they’ve done it differently than any other team during the Beilein era.

So look back now to Jan. 13 when Wagner stood there surrounded by reporters after the team’s biggest win of the season at the time. He believed it then. He believed it when he returned for his junior season. He believed it back when he came to U-M after watching them make this same run in 2013.

The proof is in the pudding. This Michigan team can win it all, and they’ve given every sign as to why they can win in any different way.

There’s some NBA talent in Wagner, maybe Charles Matthews with some polishing. This isn’t the team with six future NBA players on it, yet. But it’s a team that has worked to get where they are and now is just two more days at the office from bringing back national championship hardware.

It’s hard to bet against them, after all, how far has that got anyone so far this season?