Here’s what John Beilein, Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin had to say on the podium before Michigan’s open practice on Thursday afternoon.
MODERATOR: We’ll take an opening statement from Coach Beilein.
COACH BEILEIN: We’re thrilled to be in Indianapolis, in the heart of the Big Ten. We have a lot of fans in this area in the NCAA tournament. Two men sitting next to me for four years have been great representatives of our university. They’re playing as well as anybody can play, and we want to keep playing for a long time.
Oklahoma State, however, is a terrific team that has had a tremendous season, outstanding talent, outstanding coach. They’ll be standing in our way. It’s going to be a great game tomorrow. I wish both teams the best.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks, Coach. Now we’ll take questions for the players.
Q. For both players, after the emotional ride you guys had in the Big Ten tournament, how do you kind of reset, move on to this and not kind of have a letdown after that?
ZAK IRVIN: I think we’ve been on quite a wave over the past week. I know it was a great accomplishment for us to be able to win the Big Ten tournament championship and being able to go home, get a couple of days of rest I think was key for us. I think now we’re back, ready to go.
DERRICK WALTON, JR.: Just like he said, just reiterating to the guys that we still got some things we want to take care of, reset our minds and our focus. Just feels great to get back out and be back in a place like this with great fans. The excitement is going to be surreal.
Q. This is for both Derrick and Zak. Can you take us back to last week and the decision to actually continue to play and fly to Washington, D.C., rather than forfeit the rest of the tournament?
ZAK IRVIN: Definitely was tough for all of us, but I just think the hardest part for our team was just getting back on the plane. Once we landed back in D.C., we felt like why can’t we just go out and win this all. Why can’t this be one of the greatest stories ever told. That was just our mindset throughout the whole tournament. We just wanted to win and play well for our brothers. It was a brotherhood for us.
DERRICK WALTON, JR.: Just like he said, get back on the plane was definitely tough. Once we got on the plane and landed, we were able to focus our minds on basketball and pretty much lock in for those four, five days and do exactly what we went down there and wanted to do.
Q. Zak, what’s it mean for you to be able to come back home and finish your run here? You’re familiar with, you had that great shot to beat IU here in the Big Ten tournament last year.
ZAK IRVIN: It’s nice to be back. I’m excited. It’s always nice to play in your hometown, especially with how we’re playing right now. We’re trying to take it one game at a time. Like I said, it’s nice to be back here.
Q. Just talk about what the reaction was like on campus when you got back and just kind of what this past week before you came here was like?
DERRICK WALTON, JR.: No, not exactly. We haven’t — we’ve been locked in the gym and just locked into each other. We really haven’t been — not really able to interact with any of our students or our fans. But I’m pretty sure they were excited. They always show us great support on social media outlets so they made sure to let us know they were proud of us.
ZAK IRVIN: Outside of class, we haven’t seen many people, but they’re proud of us and are just rooting us on.
Q. Derrick, how much do you know about Juwan Evans? Have you been able to watch him from your film study? Are you guys very comparable as players?
DERRICK WALTON, JR.: Personally, I do a lot of film study personally on my own. I have a good friend at Iowa State, Monte Morris, so I get to chat with him about point guard match-ups. I think he plays a lot like Chris Paul. He’s good at changing speeds. I think he’s a good player.
Q. What did Monte tell you?
DERRICK WALTON, JR.: I think I’m going to keep that between us two.
Q. Derrick and Zak, you guys weren’t projected to win the Big Ten tournament. So then once you did win that, how much did that change your expectations of what you can accomplish in this tournament?
DERRICK WALTON, JR.: I think what’s so special about our team is not about what we’re seeded as. We always focus on how we play and how we execute things. We feel like if we do things to our best ability, we can pretty much accomplish anything.
So going out and winning the Big Ten tournament was a big accomplishment. But like I said, it doesn’t end there for us. We have bigger sights on things. Overall, we’re more so excited that we’re finally able to implement things that Coach has been preaching the entire year.
ZAK IRVIN: For us, we try to tune out the outside noise and play for each other. Winning the Big Ten tournament championship was a big goal of ours. We’re not done yet. We want to be playing our best basketball in March and April. We’re doing that now.
Q. For both players, from the outside looking in, you just see a line last week that says, the Michigan plane skidded off the runway and there was no serious injuries.
I don’t know if you guys want to revisit that or not. From guys who were on the inside, do you think that — you know, was there a real fright in your minds and hearts? Do you think that had any affect on bringing you guys together and what happened in Washington?
ZAK IRVIN: We’re just trying to really move past that. We’re already a close-knit group. If possible, I think that brought us closer, especially going through something like that, so we just wanted to come out there and play for each other. Like I said, the hardest part for us was getting back on the plane. Once we landed in D.C., we wanted to go out there and play the game that we love.
DERRICK WALTON, JR.: I say it all the time, I believe God is good. We avoided something that could have been tragic. Something happened in our life and brought us a lot closer. Like I said, we were there for a reason. It happened for a reason. The way we responded, I was very proud of it. It’s one of those memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks, guys. We’ll continue with Coach Beilein.
Q. John, when you got to Michigan, they’d had a long drought from the NCAA tournament. In your second year, you got there and you won a game. How important was it not just to get there, but to win and reestablish the winning culture at Michigan?
COACH BEILEIN: That was the goal. It wasn’t just to get there and say, okay, we did it. It was to — Michigan has had periods that they were a fixture in this tournament over time, and that was the whole thing. You look at the best teams in our league over the last 30 years, they have the — Wisconsins, the Michigan States have been in every year. They’re just there every year. That’s where we always felt Michigan belongs, to be in that crowd.
So this is seven out of nine. We’re moving in the right direction. We’ve got a little bit injuries and some early pro attrition got in the way for one year. But we feel real good about that we can try to stay at the top in the Big Ten.
Now, the Big Ten has changed drastically since I got there. There’s 14 teams. There’s a ton of great coaches. It is going to be hard for anybody to maintain what Wisconsin, Michigan State have really been able to do for the last two decades. Those are the two — the Indiana, the Purdues, ourselves, we’ve been predominantly there, but not like those two teams have been there.
So I think those days may be over for everybody. We’ll wait and see. But our goal is to be like that. Every year, we’re in there. Some years, you’re really good. Some years, you’re just happy to get in. But that’s the type of mindset we want to have.
The whole goal at Michigan is to win championships. And if you compete for a Big Ten championships, you’re going to compete for national championships. No matter what anybody tells you, our league, year in and year out, can play with anybody in the country.
Q. Coach, when you come out of a long conference season and you’re familiar with your opponents and you come into this, is there a danger of overloading players with too much granular information or what is your approach?
COACH BEILEIN: It’s a balance. You have to have that. You have to be prepared for a team that is going to be unique to you. At the same time, you can’t make yourself unique to yourself by trying to out-trick them.
So they will, in two days, try to — and we will do the same, try to guard Oklahoma State. They’ll be trying to run their stuff against our — the schemes in our defense.
But, again, it’s usually — I think most coaches will say this, and I don’t know if I’ll say this tomorrow or not. It’s a breath of fresh air to get outside your conference because at least you’re not — I mean, Coach Painter,
Coach Izzo, Coach Mata. It’s been ten years. It’s like up to 25 games against each other over those ten years.
You’re pretty used to each other, and you might try some trickery here and there.
Now it’s a whole different thing. The game’s opened up. I think the game may be called a little differently as well during the NCAA tournament. We probably get back to some of the norms they wanted to set early in the year. So should be a lot of fun to play.
Q. John, we know what changed emotionally last week. What changed on the court to where you guys were able to go through that, win that tournament and now reset the expectations here in the NCAA tournament?
COACH BEILEIN: First of all, we were playing good basketball the whole month of February. It wasn’t, I hear, 8 seed. We were tied for 5th. It was a tiebreaker. We were a game out of second and third. It wasn’t a crazy story that all of a sudden an 8 is a 1. We’d already beaten Purdue once. And Wisconsin, we ended up beating them once. So it wasn’t like a Cinderella story.
What made it Cinderella was the circumstance. It wasn’t just skidding off the runway. It was full going, 150 miles an hour, we can’t stop. And our kids got — thank goodness the plane didn’t flip. All kinds of things could have happened once we got off the plane and looked.
There’s that one thing. There’s that one shot in the game. There’s that one play in the game that can change a season. Couple that with what happened on last Wednesday, and I think it was what just a little bit extra that we needed.
We had just gone to Nebraska, that’s had really good success at their place and away, and it was a 30-point game. So we were really playing well down the stretch.
Q. John, you had the near scare, the near tragedy on the airplane. You’re playing a program that went through a tragedy like that. 2001.
COACH BEILEIN: Exactly.
Q. Did you think about the Oklahoma State plane crash at any point during this last few days, even before you drew them?
COACH BEILEIN: I mentioned it, but only to my family about, you know, I tried not to think about what could have happened, particularly if the plane would have got up in the air. I don’t think it makes it, just obviously didn’t have enough force to get up in the air. But if it gets up a little bit, now we got a whole different deal.
So thank goodness the pilot put on the brakes. I thought about that. I thought about Evansville. I thought about Marshall. You think about all those tragedies that have happened in sports that really there’s a lot of — we’re just blessed. We’re just blessed that it never got to that point.
But I’ve known Eddie Sutton for a long time. I really thought about that, how a coach goes through that.
Q. John, get your reaction to Indiana firing Tom Crean today.
COACH BEILEIN: It’s an unfortunate part of your business that so many of your friends, so many guys you coach against every day, that there’s a change in direction at the schools.
So I don’t know a lot about it. All I know is Tom’s a heck of a coach. We had some — he’s won some championships there, right. But I think we all understand, given the way we are — the way we are compensated, it’s a part of the business and we better be ready to roll with it if it happens to us or to others.
Q. Coach, now that you’ve had a chance to watch Jawun Evans a couple times on film, how similar is he with Derrick on the court or even the intangible parts of being a point guard?
COACH BEILEIN: We’re really big into we have Darius Morris, Trey Burke, Derrick Walton. We’ve been blessed with point guards. We’ve examined that. What he’s done with assist numbers, his lack of turnovers is incredible and his speed of the game. I compare him a lot to a kid that gave us fits. Nate Mason from Minnesota is a really eye level point guard that can shoot it in. That’s not all he does.
He’s getting the ball in the basket, and he’s got a great assist/turnover ratio. This young man is special. I recruited both Monte and Derrick. There’s no wrong choice there. And that league has some great guards in it. And he’s two — those two are really two of the finest, but really a challenge for us because he’s so talented.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks, John.