MICHIGAN COACH John Beilein begins his clandestine mission by peeking around the corner into the locker room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. He tucks his Super Soaker close to his side before sprinting to the middle of the room to fire away. His attempted ambush proves futile—the players douse him with bottles of water, eventually enveloping him in a soggy mosh pit of jumping, screaming and celebrating.
That scene was nearly unimaginable two months ago, when the Wolverines' record was 11--6 and 1--3 in the Big Ten. But their rapid-fire evolution from NIT candidate to Final Four threat is a testament to how much can be accomplished with a drastic shift in mind-set. Having survived a scary plane accident, Michigan—especially senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr.—has become adept at embracing the moment. Despite the giddy locker room, their 73--69 victory over No. 2 Louisville on Sunday to clinch a spot in the Sweet 16 felt more like an inevitability than an upset.
Before the Wolverines became the best story of this postseason, they lost at Illinois 85--69 on Jan. 12 and got called out as "white collar" by Illinois senior center Maverick Morgan. Soon after, Walton Jr. stormed into the office of Greg Harden. While Harden's title is executive associate athletic director, he's best known around Ann Arbor as the Whisperer. Harden knows what makes athletes tick—and Walton was ticked. "He was pissed to the highest level of pissivity," Harden says.
"This is totally unacceptable," Walton told Harden. "I'm going to call a team meeting." In a hotel room a few nights later before a home game with Nebraska, Walton vowed to shoot more, think less and become the dominant offensive player Michigan desperately needed. "John Beilein told him that he needed an alpha dog," Harden says. "The alpha surfaced and started biting folks in the ass."
The emergence of Walton & Co. can be considered the latest success story for Harden, who for 31 years has been a counselor and life coach to Michigan's athletes. When wide receiver Desmond Howard was a frustrated sophomore looking to transfer, Harden told him the coaches at another school would be "the same people in different school colors." Howard stuck around and won the Heisman Trophy in 1991. Tom Brady walked into Harden's office when he was buried on the depth chart after losing 25 pounds because of acute appendicitis. "He was miserable, negative and depressed," Harden says. While Harden couldn't help Brady win the starting job, he told him, "I can help you believe that no one is more qualified than you." Two years later Brady led Michigan to an Orange Bowl victory.
Harden helped guide Michael Phelps through a rebellious phase in the mid-2000s while the swimmer was working as a volunteer assistant swim coach under Bob Bowman. Harden wasn't afraid to tell Phelps, "'As good as you are, you still haven't given 100% for 100% of the time.'"
Telling stories in a dining room that doubles as his makeshift office in an Indianapolis hotel, the 67-year-old Harden gently smacks a reporter's leg to accentuate a point. He has won a national football title with Lloyd Carr, crossed paths with Jim Harbaugh as both a player and coach, and served as the administrator for the water polo, swimming and diving teams, despite barely being able to stay afloat. "He keeps it real with kids," Beilein says, "and they love that."
HARDEN HAD been working with Walton since he arrived from Chandler Park Academy in Harper Woods, Mich. His issues revolved around perfectionism and an inclination to defer rather than direct or dominate. If Walton missed a few shots, for instance, he would just stop shooting. That changed after the Illini loss: Since then he has averaged 18.3 points, a jump of 6.2.
Against the Cardinals, Walton shot 3 for 13 and scored just 10 points, his lowest output in a month. But with 29.4 seconds left, he lofted a righthanded layup over 6'7" forward Deng Adel high off the glass for a four-point lead. "It doesn't matter if I make them all," he says. "I'm going to make the big ones, I know that."
At least now he does. Walton credits Harden with encouraging him to look beyond the basketball court. "What type of man do you want to be remembered as?" Harden would ask. "[What's] your legacy, and how do you want to leave things and walk into new things?"
That talk of the big picture resonated even more on the eve of the Big Ten tournament, when high winds forced Michigan's team plane to abort its takeoff from Willow Run Airport. The plane, which was reportedly going 150 mph, slid off the runway and crashed through a fence, stopping just short of a ravine. (The FAA is still investigating the incident.) Walton got clipped in the knee by an emergency door and needed five stitches. When athletic director Warde Manuel heard about the accident, among his first calls was to Harden, who put a plan in place for mental health professionals from the athletic department and campus to meet with the players, band members, cheerleaders and the coaching staff. "Derrick was shook," Harden says. "He was in pain. He had stitches. He had some serious thinking to do about whether he wanted to get back on the plane."
The Wolverines forged ahead, deciding to fly into Washington, D.C., on the morning of the tournament, then dispatching Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin in four consecutive days. In lifting Michigan to its first Big Ten tournament title since 1998, Walton, the alpha dog personified, averaged 20.5 points and 6.3 assists and was named Most Outstanding Player. "The two best things that have happened to this team are the Illinois loss and the plane crash," Harden says. "You talk about an amazing transformation."
"Captain Walton," says assistant coach Jeff Meyer. "He wouldn't let the ship go down."
The way Walton is playing, his biggest problem won't be navigating the choppy waters of the tournament, but avoiding the jet stream from his coach's squirt gun.
"IT DOESN'T MATTER IF I MAKE THEM ALL," WALTON SAYS OF HIS INCREASED CONFIDENCE IN HIS SHOT. "I'M GOING TO MAKE THE BIG ONES, I KNOW THAT."
"HE KEEPS IT REAL WITH KIDS," BEILEIN (ABOVE, LEFT) SAYS OF THE MENTAL TRAINING HARDEN DOES WITH THE TEAM, "AND THEY LOVE THAT."