WASHINGTON — Michigan came into the Big Ten men's basketball tournament as one of the league's hottest teams, winning six of its previous eight games and finishing the regular season with a 26-point victory at Nebraska to put itself on the good side of the NCAA tournament bubble.
If a potentially life-changing event, such as the one the Wolverines experienced Wednesday when their team plane aborted takeoff in Ann Arbor and skidded off the runway, couldn't slow down Michigan in their first game at the Verizon Center on Thursday, what chance did Illinois have?
The answer was none. Playing in practice uniforms because their three sets of regular uniforms were locked away on the plane that is now part of a federal safety investigation, the Wolverines jumped out to a fast start and never were threatened in a 75-55 second-round win.
The victory, which put No. 8 seed Michigan (21-11) into Friday's quarterfinal against top-seed Purdue and made John Beilein the winningest coach in school history with his 210th victory, was still an afterthought compared with what the Wolverines endured.
"It just gives you a different perspective," said senior guard Derrick Walton Jr., who led Michigan with 19 points and five assists. "The game of basketball is near and dear to me, but life itself is very important and I was able to step back and look at a lot of things differently."
Said senior forward Zak Irvin, who finished with 18 points and seven rebounds: "I definitely think it brought us closer. I'm glad everyone is okay. I just think the hardest part for everyone was getting back on the airplane. I think once we landed, everyone was ready to get back to normal and play basketball."
The Wolverines scored the game's first two baskets en route to taking leads of 15-4 and 31-11 with 7:23 left in the first half. Trailing 40-29 at halftime, Illinois (18-14) cut its deficit to eight early in the second half before Michigan quickly stretched its lead back to double-digits.
Walton thought that playing in practice uniforms helped relax the Wolverines from the start. "Absolutely, we felt like we were back in our sanctuary," Walton said. "We've been through a lot emotionally, mentally. Getting back to playing basketball was the most normal thing for us."
Not that the Wolverines have completely moved on from the terrifying incident.
It began when the pilot of their charter flight was forced to abort takeoff because of dangerous winds. The plane headed toward woods at the small airfield near campus before skidding into a ditch.
"We were on the runway for a little while," recalled senior forward Duncan Robinson. "And then we started to take off, I remember thinking, 'Usually we're in the air by now.' We weren't, and then I kind of felt the breaks cut on. It was definitely a unique situation, but we were just fortunate and blessed to walk out okay."
Robinson said that Beilein was "right in the thick of things" in helping people off the plane. When everyone was out of harm's way, Beilein pulled his players together "for a moment to be thankful," Robinson said.
Beilein, who had his players talk to counselors Wednesday night, said that some of the trepidation of taking the early-morning flight Thursday was eased because the Detroit Pistons had given Michigan use of its plane — "it was a little bit of, 'Wow, this is a pretty cool way to travel,' " the coach said.
"I think the two most difficult parts were the takeoff and the landing," added Beilein, who became emotional when talking about seeing his daughter before the game. "I trust my faith a lot in those situations."
The bus ride from the airport wasn't stress-free, either. It took the team around 90 minutes to get from Reagan National Airport to the Verizon Center — a distance of about five miles — because of morning rush hour. The start of the game was delayed 20 minutes.
Beilein joked that the quick turnaround might have helped the way the team played.
"I didn't get to coach as much before the game," said Beilein, who passed Johnny Orr as Michigan's all-time leader in wins. "There wasn't as much film-watching and this stuff. The kids really played connected. They were so connected.
"I said, 'We just need to make one shot and we'll be fine.' It seemed like a whole new season for our guys. Practice uniforms, the whole deal. It was as unique an experience as anyone can ever have."
Given how much Beilein doesn't like to stray from routines that work, and considering that the Jordan-brand uniforms the team first started wearing this season are still part of the investigation, it seems likely that the Wolverines will be wearing their nameless pinnies Friday.
"We haven't heard whether our luggage is out yet, so maybe," Robinson said. "We might just ride it and play with them the rest of the tournament. Who knows?"
Said Beilein: "I don't think we'll have a choice…I don't know if we'll get them for tomorrow. We have washers and driers in Washington, D.C. We'll just get it done."