March 18, 2009

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Clemson was once a bottom feeder in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a soft spot in the schedule for powerhouses like Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest to pad their win totals.

Michigan, once an NCAA staple, went into a spiral following a booster scandal that got coach Steve Fisher fired a dozen years ago.

The years of struggling finally behind them, the Tigers and Wolverines face off Thursday in the first round of the South Regional. No matter which team wins, the cycle of losing has been broken.

"You really can't put into words what a big step this has been," Michigan guard David Merritt said.

Clemson took it first.

The Tigers reached the NCAA tournament in 1997 and 1998, then went into a freefall, finishing no higher than seventh over the next nine years. Losses mounted, confidence waned, losing became not only accepted, but expected.

The mindset slowly began to change under coach Oliver Purnell.

Clemson won just 10 games during his first season in 2004, but gradually moved up the standings each year. The Tigers reached 19 wins in 2006, then jumped to 25 in 2007, just missing the NCAA tournament after a second-straight 7-9 conference run.

Clemson finally broke through last year, winning 24 games, finishing third in the ACC and second in the conference tournament to earn its first trip to the NCAA tournament in a decade.

Realizing they weren't always supposed to lose, the Tigers (23-8) opened this season with 16 straight wins, handed Duke its worst loss in 19 years, then overcame a shaky finishing stretch to get back into the NCAA tournament. Now, as the No. 7 seed in the South, they're ready for the next step.

"It really helps us to be comfortable in the top half of the ACC, to be comfortable in the NCAA tournament," Purnell said. "And I think when you're comfortable, great things can happen."

Michigan's slide was rooted in scandal.

Former coach Steve Fisher was fired on the eve of the 1997-98 season for his association with Ed Martin, a now-deceased booster.

Martin later told the federal government he lent $616,000 to ex-Wolverines Chris Webber, Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor and Louis Bullock in what the NCAA called the largest financial scandal in its history.

The Wolverines managed to hold it together for one season, reaching the NCAA tournament in coach Brian Ellerbe's first year after an improbable run through the Big Ten tournament, but went into a downward spiral after that.

Michigan had a winning Big 10 record once over the next 10 seasons, even switching coaches in favor of Tommy Amaker, and showed no signs of rebounding last year, losing a school-record 22 games in John Beilein's first season as coach.

This season, though, something clicked.

Beilein has a knack for building winners - he's one of seven coaches to take four different teams to the NCAA tournament - and he's gotten this team playing a close version of his ideal style.

Michigan (20-13) opened the season 13-3, beating ranked opponents UCLA and Duke, and added a late-season win over Big Ten tournament champion Purdue that helped the Wolverines reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years.

"I talk a lot about right up the road at Michigan State and at Wisconsin: those guys don't know what it's like not to go to the tournament," Beilein said. "That's the culture you're trying to establish and certainly you've just got to be persistent and stay with what you're doing."

The Tigers' year head start in the turnaround timetable could give them an edge over Michigan.

Last season, Clemson got caught up in the euphoria of being in the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade and fired off a dud in the first round, losing to No. 12 seed Villanova. Remembering the sting from that loss, the Tigers won't go into this year's tournament starry-eyed.

"A lot of our guys were caught in the moment of being there; we enjoyed the fact that we were there, rather than actually focusing on getting the win," Clemson guard Terrance Oglesby said. "We got caught up in a lot of the hoopla that surrounds the NCAA tournament and I think there's more of a central focus this year."

Beilein has changed pregame plans slightly in hopes of keeping his players focused.

He had his team fly into Kansas City a day early to deal with media obligations and planned to take the players to a restaurant for dinner Wednesday night instead of staying in the hotel. Beilein also will take his team to see the College Basketball Hall of Fame in the morning rather than going through a shootaround.

The goal is to keep the focus on the game, not everything that comes with it.

"Obviously, it's a big stage, but nothing has changed in terms of the game and stuff," Michigan guard C.J. Lee said. "Just do what we've always done."