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Rising to the occasion: Michigan looks to show the country who they are once again

Being underdogs for the first time in the NCAA Tournament, here is the Wolverines chance to show the country who they are again. Like what they’ve done all season when they’ve been doubted.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Loyola vs Michigan Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

During the run to the National Championship game, the Michigan basketball team has been criticized for “having an easy run.”

So far in the tournament, they’ve beat No. 14 seeded Montana, No. 6 Houston, No. 7 Texas A&M, No. 9 Florida State and most recently the Cinderella story No. 11 Loyola-Chicago.

Sure, they had an easier road by seeding compared to any team that made the Final Four. If it was all broken down by the numbers, it would be hard to argue that U-M hasn’t had to survive and advance in some cases as well.

Tonight at 9:20 p.m. on TBS — if the Wolverines pull off the win — they will leave little doubt to the nation that they are America’s NCAA Division I champion.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Loyola vs Michigan Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

No. 1 Villanova is without a doubt the best team U-M has played on paper in the tournament and to be quite frank, all year.

According to KenPom’s rankings, Nova has the best offense in the country for the fourth consecutive season. They rank first in the country in effective field goal percentage at 59.6 percent. They shoot 40 percent beyond the arc where they take nearly half of their shots. The Wildcats don’t have a starter who doesn’t average double figures in scoring.

They are much like a John Beilein dream team: they shoot the 3-pointer better than anyone else, are effective when necessary inside the arc and have the National Player of the Year in Jalen Brunson to feed them the ball.

Brunson averages 19.2 points per game while Mikal Bridges is right by his side at 17.6 per. They both shoot over 51 percent from the field and 41 percent from deep.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Villanova vs Kansas Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

U-M is the underdog, it’s understandable. They are playing the No. 1 seed that many picked to win the whole thing. The Wildcats are favored to win by 6.5 points.

Senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman summed up how the Wolverines feel about being an underdog.

“Feels like everything is back to normal,” he said to the press on Sunday.

He’s not wrong.

First the Wolverines were told they couldn’t beat Michigan State at the Breslin Center. Check. There were some bumps along the road, but overall U-M ended the season as one of America’s hottest teams.

Then, there was no way they could actually beat MSU for a second consecutive time. Check. Okay, but no way this team can beat Purdue who they lost to twice in the regular season to become back-to-back Big Ten Tournament Champions. Check.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Purdue vs Michigan Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Making it all the way to the National title game, is that actually possible for a team that wasn’t ranked to start the season?

Yeah, they checked that off the list too.

At some point, the seeding and rankings need to go out the window and into the open air. The Wolverines are playing for their second NCAA Championship in six years. You don’t make it this far if you’re not a great team, plain and simple. U-M has shown every reason for people to believe they are.

Jordan Poole, who made the game winning shot against Houston to keep the Wolverines season alive, said there was no turning point for when they believed this was possible.

“We definitely believed we could do this all year,” Poole said. “Of course there is going to be guys that say you won’t make it out of the Big Ten or whatever, but if you have a collective group of good guys you can do anything. That’s all that really matters.”

Will tonight be a blowout win? Probably not. Is this a game where the Wolverines will have to start strong and play that way to the finish? Most likely.

KenPom projects Villanova will win 74-68 and gives the Wolverines a 31 percent chance at an upset. Take that as you will, but it’s March.

They’ve come this far, it’s more than possible. Every time U-M has played a team “who is better than them” since January they’ve given them a fight and won most contests. The Wolverines haven’t lost a game since Feb. 6 and have now won 14 games in a row, 12 away from the Crisler Center.

So here they are again, not favored. That hasn’t been a familiar feeling for the Wolverines in awhile, but it never changed how they played even when it was the norm.

U-M didn’t come to San Antonio to be in second place. Like they have so many times this season, they know they are capable of beating anyone on any given night.

Throw the statistics and numbers out, win or lose this team is going to leave it all on the floor for a program defining victory. One more step, one more chance to show the country who they are, as if they haven’t already.