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Michigan basketball made the national championship without 5-star talent by ‘chopping wood’

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The motto for Michigan’s surprise run to the national championship game came from some summertime reading.

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

SAN ANTONIO — It started with a book. As Michigan players were first gathering to begin the season, new assistant coach Luke Yaklich handed out some reading material. “Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great,” released by author Joshua Medcalf in 2015, was his choice.

The book chronicles a boy’s life long goal of becoming a samurai warrior, with his greatest challenge being “defeating the man in the mirror”. The words have stuck with Michigan all the way to the national championship game.

The Wolverines found themselves down 10 to Loyola-Chicago at the Final Four with under 14 minutes left. Michigan’s offense had shot just 29 percent in the first half, tied down by 2-of-13 shooting from three-point range. What did Michigan have to do to stake its furious comeback?

“Keep chopping wood,” point guard Zavier Simpson said after the game. “Take it one possession at a time.”

Simpson is a man of few words with a microphone in front of him, but it feels like there’s wisdom in his brevity. Michigan’s 69-57 victory puts the program in the national title game for the second time in six years. But unlike the 2013 team which featured an overwhelming amount of talent, these Wolverines win with gritty defense, tough shot-making and by never taking a possession off.

Michigan has now won 14 games in a row. It’s lost only once since the calendar flipped to February. It’s won on a buzzer-beater against Houston, a blowout against Texas A&M and a comeback vs. Loyola. It’s starting to feel like this team is unkillable, if only because it should have been killed so many times before.

“Of course we got worried,” Simpson said. “Who wouldn’t get worried down 10 in the second half of the national semis? Who wouldn’t get worried?

“You can’t look at the scoreboard, you just have to take one possession at a time. Chop wood.”

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Loyola vs Michigan Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan started its run with a bench-heavy unit that had barely played together all season. Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman was the lone starter on the floor as the push was being made, and he didn’t even need to score.

Jaaron Simmons hit a three. Duncan Robinson hit a three. Jordan Poole slashed to the basket for a pair of layups. Jon Teske cleaned the glass. By the time star Moritz Wagner returned to the court to drain another three, the game was tied with seven minutes left.

This was Michigan at its finest: flexible and creative coaching adjustments from John Beilein seen through by a group of reserves never scared of the moment. Loyola, so good defensively throughout its incredible tournament run, had no idea what hit them.

It all felt so fitting for a Michigan team that keeps winning despite a notable lack of star power. Beilein once made an NBA first round pick out of a two-star recruit in Caris LeVert. Trey Burke wasn’t a top-100 recruit in the 2011 RSCI, but won the Wooden Award as a sophomore.

This feels like Beilein’s greatest coaching job yet, again doing more with less and riding it all the way to the national championship game.

Michigan was the only school really recruiting Wagner, who checked in at No. 119 in the class of 2015 rankings. Beilein flew to Germany to make his pitch and came back with a player who will go down in program lore forever after hanging 24 points and 15 rebounds on the Ramblers to key the victory.

Abdur-Rahkman was looking at offers from Bucknell, Delaware and Drexel before Michigan came calling a year earlier. He was No. 434 in his recruiting class. Robinson was a DIII transfer. Simpson was ranked No. 67 in his class, but Michigan only turned to him after Tyus Battle decommitted and it lost out on Cassius Winston to Michigan State.

There are only two top-100 recruits on this roster. Poole, who was ranked No. 99 in last year’s class, and Charles Matthews, who transferred from Kentucky after barely getting on the court as a freshman.

This is Beilein recruiting for his system instead of recruiting for talent. It’s why Michigan was ranked below Minnesota and Northwestern in the preseason Big Ten poll, picked to finish fifth in the conference. It’s why the Wolverines — always known as an offensive juggernaut under Beilein — have had to remake themselves as defensive stoppers this season.

No one would have expected Michigan to have the No. 3 defense in college basketball when it’s never finished better than No. 37 under Beilein. No one would have expected Michigan to be playing for a national championship on Monday, either.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Loyola vs Michigan Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan is in the title game because Matthews, who struggled throughout February, has found his groove in March. He was electric on Saturday, slicing through the Ramblers for 17 points and playing lockdown defense, too.

It’s in the title game because Wagner has turned into a true star, a stretch big man agile enough to hit you with a behind-the-back crossover and tough enough to hold his own in the post.

It’s in the title game because Simpson is a menace on defense, because Robinson can’t be left open on the perimeter for a second, because Poole never gets stage fright.

There were many more talented teams than Michigan this season, but all of them other than Villanova are currently sitting at home. Michigan has found the best version of itself by chipping away at its problems piece by piece. Now it’s on the verge of something great.

“It’s about chopping wood,” Simpson said, again. “Just making sure we did the small things so we’d get the opportunity to get the big thing.”

Michigan will get the opportunity for that big thing on Monday. There’s only one swing left.