The only word that comes to mind when trying to explain the last decade of Michigan basketball is agony. There was a good mix of flat out awful seasons mixed with those where we came just so close. I think Michigan basketball of late can be summed up neatly with the words of Heywood Broun:
The tragedy of life is not that a man loses, but that he almost wins.
The entire athletic department has been in a bit of a tailspin recently. Rich Rodriguez and John Beilein’s debut seasons at Michigan did not go well by anyone’s count. Beilein went 10-22 and Rodriguez 3-9 and both seasons were called some of “the worst ever” by fans and media alike. Throw in a losing streak to Ohio State, a win for Michigan State at Michigan Stadium, and the end of a bowl streak that many figured would go on forever and you are left with a frustrated fan base.
No current students have even experienced a November win over Ohio State. These angered fans have needed something to grasp but every one of them would have told you that there is no way that the basketball team would be the one to provide it.
The basketball team was expected to struggle again. Ekpe Udoh had transferred and the incoming class consisted of a bunch of guys who were overlooked by recruiting services and frankly other high-major programs. Optimistic fans thought that a .500 season would be possible thanks to John Beilein’s coaching ability in itself but anything more would be a long shot at best.
These fourteen kids had a different idea. Somehow a roster that looked like it belonged at the Island of Misfit Toys turned themselves into an NCAA tournament team. They overachieved in every sense of the word and finally gave Michigan fans something to cheer about — Michigan basketball is relevant again.
The first glimmer of hope came back at Madison Square Garden when Michigan managed to knock off UCLA — DeShawn Sims’ dunk off a backdoor pass from Anthony Wright is definitely one of the top 5 moments of the year. Most people, myself included, thought that the upset was more likely a sign of what was to come down the road. But Michigan parlayed that win into something to hang their hat on — from that day on they believed in the system and themselves.
The home win over Duke was Bill Martin’s watershed moment and it was definitely one of Michigan’s best performances of the year. Talk of a realistic shot at the NCAA tournament was thrown around, but the heartbreak of the last 11 years caused many Michigan fans to be reluctant to count their chickens before they hatched.
The Duke win was monumental but in the end I am more in awe of the way this team stuck together in the toughest of times. The pair of 20-point comeback overtime wins against Savannah State and Indiana really stand out to me. No team is going to play their best every night out over the course of a 30+ game season but good teams figure out a way to win. This team also responded with their best performances when their backs were against the wall.
The final shining moment of the regular season to me was the road win against Minnesota. It is so hard to win on the road against good teams in the Big Ten and Michigan has been absolutely terrible on the road for years. But with their season on the line and facing a double digit deficit in the second half Michigan came together and left Minneapolis with a victory.
The common denominator in every one of Michigan’s big wins was heart and toughness, something that Daniel Horton recently said was missing on Michigan teams of the past that just missed the NCAA tournament. Beilein constantly stresses team chemistry and its importance is clear when you watch the way this team plays and the way he coaches. Talent can only get you so far, when you’re down double digits on the road with 17,000 fans pitted against you, the only thing that can hold you together is team chemistry and heart.
Michigan fans aren’t stupid, they noticed this team’s heart over the course of the year. This team is almost impossible not to like. There are no police reports, academic issues, or embarrassing stories to worry about. Instead there are stories about Anthony Wright giving a young fan tickets to the Big Ten tournament, a pair of walk-ons who have become team captains and the root of Michigan’s resurgence, and a pair of kids in Detroit who managed to hold off outside pressure (more than most would probably believe) and attend the University of Michigan.
The few thousand Michigan fans that made it to Kansas City last weekend realized just how magical this season had been. The pair of games in Kansas City were the reward for everyone involved in the program from top to bottom: coaches, players, managers, administrators, and of course the fans. As a fan there was no way that I could miss Michigan running out of the tunnel in the NCAA tournament. The emotions at Crisler Arena on Selection Sunday and in Kansas City on Thursday were more than just the joy of victory — it was pride, relief, and happiness but mostly a validation of the suffering of the last decade.
This definitely isn’t the final goal but there is no doubt that this season was a successful one — when was the last time that you could say that about a Michigan basketball season? This year is a statement and a building block for a program that is headed in the right direction.
The loss of CJ Lee, Dave Merritt, and Jevohn Shepherd will hurt but this team returns a vast majority of its scoring and rebounding. The near future looks exciting; Michigan returns most of their contributors and brings in a few quality recruits. It is no doubt just as important for recruiting — John Beilein can go into a 17 year olds living room and show him film from last year’s NCAA tournament win — no more “leaps of faith” are necessary.
There is no denying the fact that this program is in great hands and that finally, Michigan fans have something to cheer about.