Zak Irvin is one of the lucky ones who can fall asleep on airplanes. On March 8, surrounded by his University of Michigan teammates, coaches, their families, the pep band and cheerleaders, he zonked out before the plane that was about to take them to Washington, D.C. for the Big Ten tournament even began to taxi down the runway.
But Irvin’s slumber was interrupted that day. Trying to take off in high winds at Willow Run Airport, the pilot quickly determined he wasn’t going to be able to get the plane into the air, so he did the only thing he could — hit the brakes. Michigan assistant coach Billy Donlon won’t ever forget what happened next.
“If [the pilot] keeps going straight, we’re going to run into buildings,” Donlon said. “He had to make a hard left to get off the runaway. It wasn’t like we slid off the runway. He had to do it to avoid buildings.”
Only when the plane skidded into a fence did Irvin awaken to the horror that was unfolding.
“We took out a fence,” Irvin said. “That’s what I woke up to. I’m like, ‘what is going on right now?’ I heard people screaming. Was this real life or a movie? I felt like I was dreaming.”
“After what I’ve been through this season, I’m ready for anything.”
It wasn’t a dream, but it wasn’t a nightmare, either. Everyone on board scrambled to safety, and there were no serious injuries.
“I talked to some pilots afterwards,” Donlon said. “And a couple of them told me the majority of mishaps like that are all-or-nothing deals. Either everybody walks away, or nobody walks away. We were really lucky.”
Michigan coach John Beilein and athletic director Warde Manuel gave the Wolverines the option of getting back on a plane and playing in the Big Ten tournament or staying in Ann Arbor, but there was never a question about what they would do.
What happened next will be talked about as long as college basketball is played. Forced to compete in their practice gear because their uniforms were still packed on the damaged plane, and arriving at the Verizon Center just two hours before game time, the Wolverines, seeded No. 8 in the tournament, beat Illinois to advance to the quarterfinals. There, they took out No. 1 seed Purdue. In the semifinals, Michigan got past Minnesota, setting up a championship game matchup with Wisconsin. The Wolverines won, secured an automatic NCAA tournament bid and advanced all the way to the Sweet 16 before their run was ended by eventual Final Four participant Oregon.
Of course the national media breathlessly told the story of how Michigan, uncertain of an NCAA berth before its brush with tragedy, was propelled through March by its good fortune. But the truth was, the Wolverines were 6-2 in their previous eight games before the Big Ten tournament, and the only losses were in overtime at Minnesota and against Northwestern, when the Wildcats managed to score at the buzzer after a length-of-the-court pass with 1.7 seconds to play.
“Our guys had been playing well going into the Big Ten tournament,” Donlon said. “Even our losses, we could easily have won. Some people talked like the plane crash got us playing.”
One reason the Wolverines played so well down the stretch was the resurgence of Irvin, the 6-foot-6, 215-pound senior who had endured a prolonged shooting slump in the middle of the season. Once Irvin found his way out of the wilderness, he and Derrick Walton, Jr., the Big Ten tournament’s most outstanding player, led their team through its remarkable postseason run.
In four Big Ten tournament games, Irvin averaged 14.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists. In the NCAAs, he averaged 15.3, 4.3 and 2.6. All those bonus games Michigan played reminded NBA scouts that Irvin — who recently put together a solid performance at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament — could be a handy guy to have on a roster, capable of guarding multiple positions and even handling a few minutes at the point, a position he sometimes played at Hamilton Southeastern High School, where he was voted Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 2013.
Scouts might have learned something else about Irvin, something Beilein and his staff had always known. Irvin faced occasional adversity during his time at Michigan, like most players do. But not so many keep their wits about them as well as Irvin did as he plowed his way through the tough times.
“He had a year where, when we weren’t playing well, he was not confident in what he was doing,” Beilein said during the NCAA tournament. “He was unflappable through it all. All of a sudden now, if you check his stats, he’s shooting about 50 percent overall and from 3 during these last five games when it really counted. I had several questions about this. When do you turn to somebody else?
“I said I’m not turning to anybody else. We’ve got a team. Zak Irvin is in there and will take shots because he makes shots. We have a lot of confidence in him. I wouldn’t do that if he hadn’t shown extreme selfless leadership during the entire four years here.”
When Beilein says selfless, he speaks in part of Irvin’s willingness to defend any and everyone, even if it meant surrendering some of his own offense to get the job done. At various times throughout his career, Irvin found himself checking Purdue’s 6-foot-9, 250-pound Caleb Swanigan or Wisconsin’s 6-foot-8, 240-pound Nigel Hayes, catch-and-shoot types like Purdue’s Dakota Mathias, other big wings like Illinois’ 6-foot-6, 225-pound Malcolm Hill, and even point guards.
“When you look at what he did in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, his defense was as good as anyone in the country,” said Donlon, the former head coach at Wright State credited with helping Michigan ratchet up its defense after joining Beilein’s staff this season. “He proved he could guard different kinds of players with different kinds of strengths.
“Defense is a skill that translates to the next level. Zak’s got a big body, a great frame. He can really sit down and get low. He’s got the athleticism you need to defend. And he has a passion to be really good.”
Irvin’s got a passion to play, period. This season, he led the nation in total minutes (1,345). During his four years at Michigan, he won team awards for defense, rebounding, leadership, stamina and academic achievement. Irvin was one of those guys who truly would do anything to help his team win. Take the night, during his junior year, he was asked to guard Purdue’s Swanigan, a massive dude who earns his nickname Biggie.
“During the first media timeout, there’s still 16 minutes to go in the first half, I came out of the game and sat down,” Irvin said. “I looked over at [former assistant coach LaVall Jordan] and said, ‘it’s going to be a long day. But I’m gonna empty the tank.’ ”
Stories like that will endear Irvin to NBA executives. He spoke to eight different teams at Portsmouth. No doubt the well-spoken, intelligent Irvin was impressive.
Irvin is smart enough to know the deal. He’s not destined to be an NBA team’s No. 1 scoring option. Irvin speaks every day with his former high school teammate and fellow Indiana Mr. Basketball Gary Harris, who spent two years at Michigan State before entering the NBA Draft. Harris has passed on some good advice on how Irvin should handle the next couple of months.
“His big thing was just adopting an aggressive mentality,” Irvin said. “I’m not playing for my high school or university anymore; I’m playing for my job. Gary said it takes a different mindset as you go through workouts.
“After what I’ve been through this season, I’m ready for anything.”
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. You can email him here, follow him on Twitter and listen to the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Hour.
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