ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Long before the final seconds of the 2017-18 college basketball season ticked away at the Alamodome, it became clear that Michigan was certainly not the best team in the country.
It was the second-best team.
I'll admit, as Donte DiVencenzo pulled a 2013 Luke Hancock and drilled three after three off the Villanova bench, pushing the lead to 10, 15, even 20 points, I caught myself wondering, "Does Michigan deserve to be here?"
The thought didn't last long. Of course Michigan deserved to be in the national championship game. It doesn't matter that the road to the final four didn't go through the top seeds in the West Region.
Why? Because even if North Carolina, Xavier or Gonzaga stood in their way, John Beilein, Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and heck, maybe even Jordan Poole, would have found a way to beat them. We'll never know that for sure, of course, but this team earned the benefit of the doubt.
If the Wolverines didn't deserve to play on Monday night, then who did? Virginia, the first No. 1 ever to fall to a No. 16 seed? UNC, which lost by 20 points in the first weekend? Kansas, which, regardless of the final score, put up even less of a fight than Michigan did against the champs?
Michigan didn't battle through a pack of blue bloods to get to San Antonio, but while all the other favorites dropped like flies, Michigan took care of business and found ways to win, even without getting into an offensive rhythm for five of six tournament games.
Even Villanova Coach Jay Wright said Michigan deserved to be there. The Wolverines didn't lose for nearly two months before a 3-23 shooting performance from beyond the arc doomed them on Monday.
Not convinced? Consider the entire winning streak. Michigan didn't beat No. 2 seed UNC in Los Angeles, but it did knock off eventual No. 2 seed Purdue a few weeks earlier for a Big Ten Tournament title. Michigan avoided Gonzaga in the Elite Eight, but beat an even better team, Michigan State, earlier in March during the Big Ten semifinals.
Beating Montana, Houston, Texas A&M, Florida State and Loyola-Chicago might not sound championship-level impressive, but beating Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan State, Purdue, Montana, Houston, Texas A&M, Florida State and Loyola-Chicago in a row sounds pretty good.
When Michigan took a 21-14 lead on Villanova, it felt like fool's gold -- not because the Wolverines didn't deserve to be there, but because the Wildcats were clearly the best team in the tournament, and they would not be denied.
In college basketball, the best teams don't always make it to the Final Four. The single elimination format makes sure of that. But while Virginia, Xavier, Cincinnati, North Carolina, Michigan State, Tennessee and many others were losing to teams seeded worse than fifth, Michigan survived five tests from the same caliber of team.
That's why the Wolverines made it to San Antonio, survived until Monday and ultimately finished where they belonged:
One spot below the best team in the country.